We didn’t think it was possible, but Terminal Reality has somehow made its zombies too stupid. They obliviously ignore the sounds of carnage being inflicted on their brethren mere feet away; they stubbornly refuse to investigate the source of a piercing beam of light creeping up behind them; and yes, every now and then they stare you straight in eye while pondering whether or not they’re really feeling that peckish.
If you were concerned that Survival Instinct would merely offer bog-standard first-person shooter fare wrapped in a pale, rotting Walking Dead skin, you’re actually in for a surprise, because there’s been real effort here to craft a game in step with the series’ survivalist themes. Ammo is scarce and melee combat a necessity; levels task you with scrounging for fuel and food rather than embarking upon daring heroics. And yes, very often you’ll have to run away from combat rather than risk being overwhelmed.
There’s some tough decision making too. Fuel is a precious resource, but between levels you can choose to use up more of it by taking the backroads en route to your next mission. Get lucky and you might be able embark upon a small side quest (exploring a not-quite-as-deserted-as-it-seems farmhouse, say) that lets you top up your supplies.
There are even moral decisions, though not of a calibre that will see Telltale rushing to revise the script to the second series of its game. Completing side-missions during levels will usually reward you with a new survivor tagging along with brothers Daryl and Merle. These survivors can be sent on (entirely unseen) missions to fetch loot while you complete levels. Collect too many followers at once, however, and you’ll have to kick someone out of the metaphorical lifeboat. These moments lack impact however: because the extra survivors are optional, they’re also extraneous to the story, getting no plot development from the moment they hop on board. You don’t even have to look them in the eye when you abandon them, since it all happens via a menu screen. We’ve transferred players in Football Manager and had a more emotional experience.
Survival Instinct’s ultimate failings lay in the basics, however. Cramped level design funnels you along, unpredictably dumb zombies rely on suspect respawns, its stealth system is unclear, and its combat a travesty. For a title with such a focus on melee combat, Survival Instinct has no idea how to make it more interesting than repeatedly slapping ghouls in the face with whatever tool is to hand until they fall down. If combat was a last resort, that would be fine, but sneaking rarely works well enough to let you avoid these wearying encounters. Guns feel suitably powerful, but firing comes at the cost of attracting all the dead nearby.
For a licensed tie-in, Survival Instinct’s a more ambitious title than we might have predicted, but that doesn’t make it any better executed than we expected.