Fans of the hit TV show Survivor can be a pretty dedicated lot, and there's no doubt they'll be strongly tempted to snatch up Survivor: The Interactive Game should they spot it while Christmas shopping. But if you're harboring even a tiny urge to buy this game, please listen very carefully to this advice: Don't do it. Just walk out of the store and try to forget you ever saw it, because this is one of the most inept pieces of drek ever to be pawned off as a computer game. Even the name is a giveaway--when a game publisher has to remind you that its game is "interactive," chances are it only barely meets the minimum requirements of that adjective.
Nearly every aspect of Survivor is dreadful, so let's hit the high spots first. The game installs smoothly and takes up a reasonable 330MB hard-drive space; all the real-life castaways from Survivor: Pulau Tiga and Survivor: Australia are featured; and hitting the Esc key while playing gives you the glorious opportunity to exit directly to Windows, where hopefully you'll find something to do that will assuage the futility of having spent time waiting to see if the game would ever become entertaining.
After firing up the game and seeing a few decent-looking video clips, you arrive at the main menu, where the manual says "you will have the option to select the series you wish to play." But that's not quite right--only Outback is available for play in this release. The manual alludes to future expansion packs, but their existence would serve only to prove either that anything can be sold if marketed properly or that it's impossible to underestimate the tastes of the gaming community.
In the single-player game, you choose difficulty level and game length. True masochists will opt for the full mode, which consists of 13 episodes (each episode is two "days" long); the half option lets you begin after the two tribes merge with seven episodes left; and short lets you start with only three episodes remaining. Next you pick a tribe and decide whether to create a character or play as one of the real-life survivors. When creating a character, you're given points to spend on skills like strength, running, swimming, fieldcraft, communications, cooking, cunning, empathy, and so forth. Sounds like pretty standard stuff, but it does make you wonder about the difficulty setting you chose earlier: The manual says that, on medium, "your skills will be on par with those of the other survivors," which might make you think it doesn't matter how you assign those points. A few minutes of gameplay (and we use the term loosely) reveals that some of these ratings do affect your character's performance, but it's still confusing, which apparently is in keeping with the entire game concept.
Next comes the game's most tension-filled sequence: role selection. You've got only 15 seconds to pick a role because "the other tribe members are racing to pick roles as well" (emphasis added). Don't sweat what role you pick. You, the gamer, don't actually perform any type of survival actions--all you do is watch your character walk around the camp, squat by the fire, stab at invisible animals with a spear, or scoop water out of what appears to be a toxic waste site. Finally, you get a chance to set your "emotional energy" levels, which the manual claims determines how much you like other survivors and how much you're willing to invest in maintaining a positive relationship. More on that later...
Then the horror begins. Each day is broken into five segments: two survival periods, a reward challenge, an immunity challenge, and the dreaded tribal council. It's during the survival period that you watch your character saunter around camp (the manual says you can unlock the camera and look at anything by hitting F6, but it doesn't work) and are given the opportunity to strike up conversations with fellow tribe members. This is the time when you're supposed to forge alliances and discuss other members' strengths and weaknesses, but the responses of the computer-controlled characters are neurotic and contradictory. Someone might tell you something like "Sonja's not going to be around long," but when you chime in with "Sonja's on edge," they'll come back with a reply that makes it sound as though Sonja's a lock to make it to the final four.
Although you might as well just leave for a cup of coffee during the survival period, since it might well be the slowest three minutes in gaming, we decided to try out some strategy: We simply lowered our survivor's emotional energy to zero for a couple of characters we thought weren't of much use, then walked around relentlessly slandering them. Mysteriously, when there were just two other characters remaining, the one whom we'd abused horribly to her face voted for us to remain--so we won!
As bad as the survival period is, the challenges for rewards and immunity are even more torturous--a series of interminable clickfests that should be patented as a cure for insomnia. Some challenges involve pushing a large object (rock, log, and so on) by clicking on "faster" or "slower" depending on how fatigued your character is; others involve a little hand-eye coordination by letting you shoot at targets with a bow and arrow or slingshot, toss rocks at circles with various point values, or chuck a burning stick onto a large pyre--whee! Should you tire of these physical activities, you'll thrill at other tasks like taking part in a survivor trivia contest, guiding fellow tribe members through mazes by clicking on directional arrows, or--believe it or not--solving a slider puzzle. Throughout all these wretched minigames you'll stare in awe at stupendously choppy animation, blurry and undefined terrain, and some of the most bizarre color schemes ever devised to represent grass, sky, and other parts of the environment.
It might take a couple of hours for you to get to the tribal council in the full game mode, and that's a good thing--the tribal council sequences are completely lifeless and seem to last an eternity to boot, with no way to skip any of the painstakingly slow walking sequences and just get on with it. But there is one good thing about the tribal council: Should you botch it and get the ax, you'll already know there's probably no reason to play the single-game mode again.
Survivor offers multiplayer support via TCP/IP, but just barely. There's no support for GameSpy or any other matching services, so finding an opponent will be as frustrating as rolling that big rock up a hill for five minutes just to get five pounds of rice. Only medium and short games are available in multiplayer mode, but in one last bad design move, you're given only 60 seconds to discuss who's going to be kicked out of the outback. Chatting with fellow Survivor fans over whose flame will be snuffed should be the most engaging part of the experience, which explains why you have so little time to do it here: The designers didn't want to ruin the game's perfect track record for inducing tedium, indifference, and disgust.
Oh, by the way--did we mention you shouldn't buy this game?