Ever wonder what life was like for Daryl and Merle Dixon before they met the other survivors of The Walking Dead? According to the “story” in this game, they simply traveled across country in cars that constantly broke down or ran out of gas, all the while fighting zombies with crappy weapons—and dying repeatedly. This first-person shooter features the actual voices of the TV show actors Norman Reedus (Daryl) and Michael Rooker (Merle), but that doesn’t make it any better.
It took me months to complete because trying to get through just one town per night made my blood pressure rise. This is not the zombie slaying fun of games like Left 4 Dead and Dead Island. The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct seems to be designed so you stand very little chance against the zombies. You’re forced to use stealth, sneaking up on zombies and getting them in the head with a knife. But here’s the problem with that. When there are loads of zombies standing in a street and you sneak up to kill one, it automatically alerts all the other zombies to your presence.
When surrounded by zombies, you can only take on one at a time because there are no weapons for mowing down hordes. Each hit you take depletes about 1/3 of your health. And taking health is done in real time, so forget about attempting it with zombies hanging all over you. Actually, forget standing any chance of winning the battle. And don’t even consider pulling out a firearm because gunshots summon loads of zombies and there’s no chance of killing them as fast as they kill you. Plus, the “quick swap” button cycles through the weapons by doing an animation of you whipping out each weapon. Not so quick after all. You’re better off going into your inventory—which pauses the game—and switching weapons that way.
You are also faced with a ridiculous system for defense when grabbed by a zombie. This pinwheel arrow thing appears on screen, and you’re theoretically supposed to line it up with your thumb stick and then press the designated button to stab the zombie. However, you’re pretty much not controlling shit. The arrow randomly aligns properly when it feels like it, at which point you’ve lost most of your health. And if you’re being swarmed at the time, once you kill that zombie, you are grabbed by another and the process starts all over again. Which means you won’t kill even two zombies before you’re dead.
Next there’s the problem of knowing where the hell to go or what to do. You essentially never know. Even in the opening scene, you do some shit and then are told to run back the way you came. You get pursued by zombies, shoot some, keep running, then try jumping over a log you jumped over earlier—and can’t jump over it! WTF? Well, guess what? That’s because you’re supposed to die in the intro. Fuck you, game.
While there are no maps, there is an onscreen navigation compass. As with all navigation compass systems in games, it gets confusing because you have to circumnavigate around shit to get to the actual direction. You’ll often find yourself walking in the complete opposite direction of the compass, wondering where the hell you’re going and panicking as you’re mauled by zombies.
Another handicap is the darkness. I’m not just talking about the missions that take place at night. The day missions send you into super dark buildings with a flashlight that rarely picks up zombies fast enough for you to defend yourself. Pretty soon, you’re trying to run around in the dark, crashing into shit, and being swarmed and killed by zombies. That’s if you’re not killed by the very first hidden zombie, which is programmed to grab you no matter what.
But wait. There’s more fun to be had. Most missions end in a panic situation. You have to rush to the end of the mission while zombies are suddenly everywhere. You try to make the best of the crappy compass situation, but you basically need to die repeatedly and replay the section over and over again, getting a little farther each time so you’ll finally know the exact way to go. On the bright side, these are essentially the “boss” battles, because there are no actual bosses in the game. The downside would be—what the fuck kind of boss battle is it when using your guns gets you killed? There’s no stealthing your way through a boss battle. Fuck you, game.
Next, there are supplies. Or should I say, lack of them. You explore so many damn rooms and buildings in each town, yet you’re lucky if you find two health drinks throughout the entire mission (when you need like ten). And then you collect as much ammo as you can…and wonder why you’re even wasting so much precious inventory space since you can’t use the shit anyway. Inventory is a huge problem. You do get to transfer stuff to your vehicle between missions, but during them, you’ll find yourself having to drop precious commodities because there’s some item you simply have to pick up to complete the mission. Plus, you’ll want space to grab any fuel cans you see, because your cars are guzzlers. If you run out of gas, you face the next nightmare challenge….
The pit stops. Between missions you get to choose where you want to go (it’s either no choice or a choice between two towns). As you watch a line wind its way across a map, signifying your moving car, you sit on the edge of your seat, praying you won’t need to stop because your car broke down or you ran out of gas. You always end up having to stop. And if you’re lucky, it’s only once per trip between towns.
The pit stops throw you into an area loaded with zombies. And usually, it starts you like ten feet away from them. If your car is broken down and you need a part, the compass tells you where to go (aka: you have no fucking idea where to go). If you need gas, you just have to stealth your way around the location to find a certain number of cans. Once you accomplish your task, you have to run back to the car. There are even optional scavenging stops, but once you’ve experienced a pit stop, you will never voluntarily do one. Unfortunately, if you opt out…the game makes your car break down a few seconds later. Fuck you, game.
Another way to gather supplies is to send survivors in your party out while you do a mission. You collect survivors throughout the game but can only fit three at a time in your vehicle, so at times you have to make choices as to who to leave as zombie food. So anyway, at the beginning of a mission, you can appoint survivors to go out and get supplies – fuel, ammo, or food. I’m not sure if “food” means health, but none of us ever complained about being hungry, so I never sent anyone out for food. You can equip a survivor with a weapon as well. Unfortunately, even doing that, I only had a survivor return to me alive and with supplies once. I guess the game just randomly decides when it’s going to let them live, and randomly decides mostly never. Fuck you, game.
What other great disadvantages are there? Oh yes. The autosave system. How I miss ink ribbons and typewriters. Autosave, as usual, is never your friend. The checkpoints are few and far between, and if you turn off the game in the middle of a town, bye bye autosave. You have to do the whole town mission from the start next time you play. Expect to redo everything numerous times. Usually, coming upon a survivor who gives you a side mission creates an autosave, but in the second to last mission, there was a point at which that didn’t happen for me, sending me back TWO survivors numerous times. It was infuriating.
And yet, despite all my griping, I actually played the game through twice. You can experience a very different game on the second play through. For starters, you can simply choose all the alternate routes to visits the towns you missed the first time. Even though there are some towns you have to replay, it’s actually an advantage. Missions are much easier once you know exactly what to expect. The other reason your second game is easier is because you open up cheats based on which survivors made it through the game with you the first time. You have to play the game numerous times to open all cheats because of that three survivor limit, but once you do, you unlock the final cheat: unlimited ammo. Sadly, you can only use one cheat per game—and can’t switch in the middle of a game.
Going through the game the second time, you have a good advantage if you use the cheat that gives you the crossbow from the very beginning (otherwise, you find one much later in the game). The crossbow not only lets you shoot zombies from afar without noise to draw other zombies, it also lets you retrieve your arrow unless you miss the zombie. It’s virtually like having unlimited ammo. Even so, I’d prefer the silencer cheat (which I still didn’t fricking open) so I could just go through this game mowing down zombies with an assault rifle with no repercussions.
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct really gave me a whole new respect for House of the Dead.