Zombies are impossible to avoid. Not that the living dead are walking among us and causing havoc, but the media has been absolutely permeated by them. As evidence, we have The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct; the Wii U’s second game about zombies – known in-game as “walkers” – works as the prequel to a television show about zombies and the ensuing apocalypse. The television show, titled The Walking Dead, is based on a comic book about zombies, also titled The Walking Dead. Being a video game based on a TV show based on a comic book, it might be safe to say that Survival Instinct is one of the most postmodern games in the history of the medium. And that’s just about where the praise both begins and ends.
Fans of the wildly popular TV series will immediately identify the game’s single playable character as Daryl Dixon, the gruff survivalist with a somewhat short temper. Working as a prequel to the show, the game’s plot focuses on Daryl’s life during the apocalypse prior to meeting up with the rest of the group from the show. There really isn’t much plot beyond “don’t get killed by zombies,” so if you’re playing Survival Instinct without watching the show, then you’re basically just playing as some guy named Daryl. It really doesn’t matter.
As promised by the screenshots and inadequate gameplay footage released, Survival Instinct is a first-person survival game, and as such ammo is limited and healing items must be used rationally. While this may be a winning formula for some games in the survival horror genre, such as ZombiU, it simply doesn’t work here. You may have an array of shotguns, pistols, and melee weapons at your disposal, but no matter what you use, combat isn’t any fun. Though sticking to the standard FPS control scheme in which the left stick controls your movement while the right stick controls your sight, most of the combat feels sluggish. Due to the limited amounts of ammo available to you, most of your zombie slaying will be done with a melee weapon such as a knife or hammer, taking multiple strikes before a walker will go down.
The real excitement and joy of any story about reanimated corpses comes when the hoards show up. Waves and waves of zombies arrive, turning any living creatures into fearful bait that has no chance of survival. Now that’s entertainment. In Survival Instinct, due to the boorish gameplay, if more than four zombies surround you, you’re going to die. Facing one zombie head-on is hassle enough, but when they arrive en masse, which they do, often, it’s time to just set your controller down, take a deep breath, and wait for the stage to reload. When surrounded by zombies, a strange quick time event will engage in which you must direct a cursor on-screen to your opposing zombie’s head, and then tap the ZR trigger in order to stab it in the brain. While exciting the first few times, this QTE happens far too often, and after a while it really loses its charm. Add an entire herd to the mix that is attacking you as you try to aim at one zombie’s head with your knife, and it’s simply unmanageable.
Adding to the frustration of the clunky combat is the lack of in-stage checkpoints. Most stages have at least one checkpoint to restart from if things go awry, but they are few and far between. It’s very likely that on the more demanding stages, you will end up playing the same 15 minute portion over and over again because the game refuses to let you restart from a point closer to where you went down. It’s also worth mentioning that the load times, whether in-stage or in the menu, are absolutely atrocious, sometimes lasting up to 60 seconds or longer.
The easiest and most effective way to finish this game is to simply click in the left stick and run your way through, avoiding any and all contact with this vicious dead. Sadly, this tactic actually works in most stages. As an added bonus, running causes you to encounter what has to be the most disgusting effect ever added into a videogame, and that’s Daryl’s sweat streaming down your screen. Rather than simply slowing to a walk and panting heavily after charging forward, you actually see the sweat dripping from the top of your television and blurring your vision. A game heavily featuring reanimated corpses and severed limbs manages to out-gross itself with this affection.
Not only will you find weapons, ammo, and healing items as you search each level, but you will also have the opportunity to find new vehicles and allies as well. Most of the other survivors you find will need certain items such as food or medicine, and by bringing them the items that they desire they will more often than not join your team. Once you’ve got an ally or two, you can equip them with weapons and send them off on their own missions to find food, gas, or ammo while you’re in a level. You can’t bring them with you to help fight the hoards, however, but having someone else gathering supplies can certainly come in handy. This ally system is a perfect example of a great idea that falls flat in its execution. Once a character has joined your team, then you don’t ever have any interactions with them unless you’re sending them out on a mission. Because of this, it’s impossible to become attached to any of the subsidiary characters, so it’s never a great loss when someone you sent on a mission doesn’t make it back alive. It’s helpful when they make it back to the car with supplies, but more often than not they’ll end up dead, and you really won’t care.
Upon clearing an area, you will then be shown a map that connects the different stages together. There are certain points where the map forks, allowing you to choose which direction you travel and which missions you play. Whatever decisions you make and locations you choose to explore, you still won’t be having fun. Having the map set up this way makes it impossible to visit every location with a single play through, ensuring that anyone insistent on seeing and collecting everything the game has to offer will have to play through twice at the very least. Lucky you.
Between each campaign level you will have the opportunity to play additional stages that allow you to scavenge for more fuel and supplies. Sometimes these quests are optional, and other times you have to play them in order to find more fuel, or if your vehicle breaks down and you may have to find a new battery or tires. Whether optional or not, these additional bits are all nothing more than filler used to pad the game’s length. They are actually more poorly conceived than the monotonous campaign missions, usually consisting of only one item to find and only taking a few minutes to complete. They’re also lazily made, often recycling the same exact locations, but in different areas on the map. That’s not to say that some of the “different” areas look incredibly similar, but that they’re literally exactly the same in both layout and content. There is also a complete lack of multiplayer, both online and locally, so any extended playtime that you squeeze out of this one will be entirely based on your desire to revisit the campaign.
As is the case with a vast majority of Wii U games, Survival Instinct is controlled using the GamePad’s hard buttons, with the touchscreen being used to quickly manage inventory, or for off-screen play. You can just as easily cycle through your items and weapons using the D-Pad and X buttons respectively, leaving using the touchscreen almost completely useless. As the options associated with the touchscreen are also linked to physical buttons, the Pro Controller is another supported input method. Unless you prefer managing inventory with the touchscreen, you’re missing out on absolutely nothing that Survival Instinct has to offer by using the Pro Controller instead.
When early video footage of this game leaked a few months back, the reaction was overwhelmingly negative. The environments were boring, the character models weren’t detailed, and everything looked untextured and bland. With a quick PR cover-up, fans and news sources were assured that this was unfinished material, and that the final product would obviously look much better. Clearly this was not the case. Sure, the final product does look a bit more refined than the early footage that we were exposed to, but that’s not saying much. Whether it’s a case of not enough time or not enough talent is unclear, but Survival Instinct looks like something from last generation’s home consoles. With uninspired and repetitive environments, grainy textures, and character models that all look exactly the same, it’s safe to say that this one was rushed onto store shelves. On a related note, the gameplay is also full of bugs. From zombies stuck in walls, to severed limbs floating in the air, this one features all of the classics. None of these bugs tend to be game breaking, but they are little annoyances that should have been squashed on the testing room floor.
While it is a mature multi-platform release on Wii U, it’s too bad that this title doesn’t do the system any favors, and doesn’t do nearly enough to showcase what Nintendo’s new home console is capable of in terms of both hardware and processing power. Survival Instinct is a buggy, ugly, uninteresting chore of a game, but its biggest flaw is that it’s simply no fun to play. This is the type of game that starts out with the best of intentions, but as you spend more time and really get to know it, that’s when its flaws truly start to stand out. Anyone looking for a survival horror experience on their Wii U will definitely want to set their sights on the infinitely superior ZombiU instead.