Saturday, January 11, 2014

Game Review - The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct (Xbox 360, 2013)

Disclaimer: I don't follow The Walking Dead franchise, so this review comes from the perspective of someone who has never read any of the comics and has only seen the first episode of the show.  I'll note ways I think the experience will differ for fans of the series, but this review will primarily judge the game on its own merits.

Drawing from the massive success of the tv series, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct gives players a chance to experience the first stage of the zombie apocalypse from a first-person perspective.  While it has some exciting ideas, it's mostly a bland action game with hints of untapped potential.  Here's what you can expect:

Survival Instinct puts you in the shoes of Daryl Dixon, who is on a hunting trip at the beginning of the zombie outbreak.  Following the death of his father in the opening scenes of the game, Daryl sets out to find his brother Merle and reach safety.  Fans of the show might think this is an interesting backstory for those characters, but from where I was sitting, the main plot was dull and Daryl and Merle were uninteresting and very poorly developed.

In fact, the secondary characters you meet along the way seem to have much more interesting concerns during the zombie apocalypse, but they get so little of the spotlight that they serve only as a hint of missed storytelling potential.  Basically, for people who aren't already fans of the Walking Dead series, the storyline is really just an excuse to explore zombie-infested Georgia, and it's a pretty bad excuse.

To be fair, though, you don't really need much of an excuse for some good old fashioned zombie slaying, and the underlying mechanics are solid.  You'll take on the zombie hordes using a variety of melee and ranged weaponry to clear paths to supply caches or survivors.  You can also sneak quietly around, but although the zombies are generally only sensitive to direct line-of-sight or loud sounds, there tend to be so many of them that sneaking isn't terribly effective. The main components of the gameplay aren't stunning, but they certainly get the job done, and it's reasonably fun to kill tons of zombies, even if it is a little mindless at times.

One gameplay mechanic that really hits the mark, however, is what happens when a zombie grabs you.  If a zombie manages to get ahold of you, your only escape is to stab it in the head; doing so requires what amounts to a frantic quick time event - you must center your view on a smallish circle on the zombie's head (which is far from trivial, as the zombie's grip causes the camera to shake wildly) and quickly pull the right trigger.  If successful, you'll be treated with a gruesome close-up of the zombie's lobotomy, followed by the next-nearest zombie grappling you itself if you don't quickly push it away.  While constant grappling can get a little tedious, it does an awesome job of capturing the hectic terror you might expect from a zombie attack.

Another nifty feature is that you can send your companions out to search for fuel, food, or ammo while you're off exploring a town.  They'll get hurt or possibly die on their missions, but when they get back, they'll bolster your resource reserves.  If these bonus goodies had been necessary for completing the game (or at least really helpful), it could have been a fun challenge in resource management, but as it stands, they merely supplement the ample collection of items you can find in the field yourself.

There's also a pretty neat transition between stages.  Instead of lengthy cutscenes, you have brief voice-overs while the characters' car progresses to the next town.  During each of those trips, you can choose whether to try to take highways or backroads, which will consume different amounts of fuel and have different opportunities for scavenging supplies.  The differences between those choices is mostly cosmetic, as there are similar numbers of stops either way (and they're functionally identical but officially have different purposes), but they're still kind of cool.

While these mechanics are interesting ideas, the fact that grappling can get very tedious and the fact that your choices regarding companions and travel options have minimal effects on the gameplay suggest that it could have been a compelling zombie survival game.  Instead, they're just a few novel gimmicks in an otherwise mechanically underwhelming game.

To make things a bit worse, along with choosing the way you travel, you occasionally get to choose between two different destinations.  These options result in different stages, so it probably sounds like a plus, but those branching paths recombine almost immediately, so there's actually little variation between path choices.  Furthermore, there are only 12 missions (most of which only take about 30 minutes to complete) over the course of the plot, and only 4 of those come from the branching choices, so the majority of the game is identical regardless your choices.  The stages themselves are also pretty linear, usually having only minor side areas to explore.  The result?  A relatively short game with very low replay value; you're probably not going to get more than 6-8 hours of fun out of it.

On the more superficial side of things, Survival Instinct is decent, though nothing is really special.  Zombie models are noticeably repeated and not terribly detailed, the environments are rather bland most of the time, and the graphics generally don't compare well to the best contemporary games.  While the voice acting is likely very exciting for long-time Walking Dead fans (Daryl and Merle are apparently voiced by their actors in the show), it didn't do much for me.  The main voice actors did an acceptable job, though their spoken lines failed to make their characters any more compelling; again, secondary characters seemed to have a bit more emotional depth than the main guys, but they didn't get much coverage.  The music, on the other hand, is pretty well-designed, appropriately setting the tone for the end of days, which is a bright spot in the game's audiovisual design.

And finally, achievement hunters won't have a terrible time with this one.  Two playthroughs are needed to get a couple mutually exclusive achievements that depend on choices you make along the way, and you might need to spend some time grinding out random survivor encounters, but nothing is too difficult.  The only problem is tediously running through the same linear stages repeatedly, but it's certainly doable within 15 hours or so.

The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct doesn't deserve any awards, and there are certainly better zombie alternatives for sating your zombie game needs, but the first playthrough is entertaining enough.  For the reputation that pop culture tie-in games get, Survival Instinct is surprisingly good and probably a good choice for fans of the show; as an independent game, however, I'd say it's merely average.

My Rating: 5/10 - ok.

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