This week, Zero Punctuation reviews The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct.
So I was gonna do the new God of War, Ass-tension or whatever it was called but that felt like throwing vegetables at a bear on a hotplate for not dancing well enough, when I should be telling the heartless bastards who own the bear to take it off the hotplate! At this point, Sony is like a pushy mother and Kratos is their little ballerina daughter; they whore him out to every Playstation game that'll take him and they put a link to a preview of The Last of Us on his title screens, which is obviously exactly what we're after when we've put a God of War: Ascension disc in the console and clicked on the God of War: Ascension icon.
And then the game itself can't be described as anything more interesting than another God of War! Ever since they wrote themselves into a corner in God of War III, they've been squeezing samey prequels out of every as-yet unexplored period of Kratos's life. I will put money right now on there eventually being a DMC-style God of War reboot in which you play as a snarky teenage Kratos learning how to fight and first acquiring his trademark simmering rage from all the older Greek men trying to bugger him.
But then this Walking Dead thing comes out and presents a much more interesting talking point. It's supposed to be a prelude to the TV series of the same name, which I know nothing about because what kind of saddo uses their TV for things with no potential for tea-bagging? But apparently it's about a zombie apocalypse, so yeah I think I've got this. Zombie apocalypse was old hat, now it's a dusty torn-up section of brim that came off an old hat because the rest of the old hat was eaten by a stegosaurus.
What I do know is that Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is unrelated to the other Walking Dead game which turned out really good because it wasn't the obvious zombie-killing action game. So at this point, Survival Instinct throwing its very old hat into the ring as a zombie killing action game (in first-person no less!) might be considered a bad move. But there's a place in the ever-reliable adult playground of zombie apocalypse for games of every shape and size, and there are enough interesting ideas behind this one to elevate it from the crowded little playpen where games like Resident Evil sit around trying to light their own farts.
Survival Instinct opens like one of those weird Cabela animal-hunting games in which every animal on Earth has mistaken you for a man made of steaks and bamboo. You are a redneck holding a really shitty rifle in the middle of the wilderness, but after tracking the world's easiest to track deer for a second, zombies show up wanting a slice of your moon-pie. I think a lot of people are going to dismiss Survival Instinct just because it doesn't look like a triple-A game, maybe a second-tier one from about ten years ago of the opinion that any kind of environment design that couldn't have been made in the Build Engine is just being hoity-toity, where the zombies look like someone stuck a Halloween mask on a drying rack and their principal melee strike looks like they're trying to brush lint off your lapels.
But the thing is you have to look past that to see the strong points. You are a redneck named Darryl and you set out on an epic quest to... okay, plot isn't one of the strong points either. Darryl's motivation seems to be to keep moving south with no apparent goal in mind, unless it's to beat his record for how quickly he can alienate people through being a boorish redneck asshole. Hey Darryl, I don't think you of all people need to move any further south!
What is interesting is that Survival Instinct has a core survival element which already puts it ahead of Tomb Raider in the "Relevance of Title" event. Your task, besides avoiding getting your Southern cross bitten off, is to explore open-ended levels to find enough fuel for the journey to the next level, as well as first aid and ammo to ensure you stay alive long enough to waste it. You can also have random survivors join your party, who can go out and scavenge while you're doing story missions, but in my playthrough, they only came back alive twice.
If you set them out on their own you see, they have the life expectancy of a little lost lamb sheltering from the rain in a nuclear test silo, and my car only had one spare seat. Yeah, I noticed the 74% risk rate, but I didn't pull off that spectacular rescue so you could sit and fiddle with the cigarette lighter, mate! And after I found a bigger car and enough chuckdees to make scavenging tenable, then the story campaign was about done. Not that it mattered so much, since when I did run out of fuel mid-journey, all the game did was drop me into a random scavenge mission that was just pissing the stuff out of the walls. I think you need to punish me more, Survival Instinct. I've been a very bad boy!
I can imagine God of War: Ass-slappage giving Survival Instinct a lot of shit on the New Release shelves. "Ooh, look at this joker, thinks he can hang with us! Where are your rendered cinematics and your predetermined action sequences? I bet you don't even zoom the camera all the way out to show off your expensive environment design while the player's trying to tell what the fuck they're doing. No, I bet you just try to make them engage with the main character like some kind of fag!"
Well, you know what, Asperger, I was more tense playing Survival Instinct than I had been playing most of your triple-A ilk lately, way more than when I was playing Dead Space 3 — when I'd look down a corridor with fifteen vents along the wall and say, "Yep, should have gone for the shampoo specially formulated for bodily fluids," and then the music guy would trip and somehow fall on every single button on his mixing desk. No, Survival Instinct achieves tension through organic unscripted gameplay. I thought I'd snuck around those stanky drying racks in the street, but some of them followed me down this alley so I had to start shooting and it turns out some of them were behind a nearby wooden fence, so they start smashing it down to get at me and you'd better cast me in The Cask of Amontillado, 'cause I'm about to fucking brick it!
Where Survival Instinct lets itself down, besides looking like someone left a copy of Redneck Rampage in the tumble-dryer, is that it doesn't have the imagination to make the most of its more interesting ideas. The organic survival management and random mission mechanics were crying out for some kind of roguelike-y mode in which you just keep going 'til you die. If the developers had designed a few more maps for random missions to happen in — and incidentally, you can't reuse a map, start us on the opposite end and think we won't notice. But no, the game just bumbles through an overly brief and schizophrenic story campaign and that's your lot, ending in about the most misguided way it possibly could with a turret section out of nowhere as if to say "Yeah, sorry about all that stealth and effective tension. Why don't we leave you with pleasant memories of blowing heads off instead?"
Surely the lesson of Walking Dead the comic and the show and the other video game is that zombie violence in itself is done like a sticky bun and now it's exploring characters that keeps it interesting. I mean, we all know by this point what happens if you shoot a zombie in the head: you have to use the specially formulated shampoo.
I will survive: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Yes obviously Bioshock Infinite is next week, playing a whole game and making up a load of knob gags about it within a single week hasn't gotten any more realistic
A zombie bit me on the arse but then I laughed it off