When you think The Walking Dead, quality is the first thing that comes to mind (after the zombies, of course) but The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct breaks that trend. The new game from developer Terminal Reality takes advantage of the franchise’s great reputation and not in a good way. The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct follows Daryl and Merle Dixon (voiced by Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker, respectively) in the events that led to them meeting up with everyone’s favorite group of zombie killers. It turns out not that much happened, nothing of consequence anyway.
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct tells a very boring and unnecessary story about the Dixon brothers. You play as Daryl Dixon as he tries to figure out why all these “psychos” are running around. You are on a hunting trip with his father and uncle when they get attacked by the walkers, only you and your uncle make it out alive. The next step in the plan is to reunite with Merle who, unsurprisingly, is locked up in a small town jail to the south. and that is the extent of the story. The rest of the story consists of “drive south and see what happens”.
The gameplay of The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is where most of the game really falls apart. Staying true to the Activision style of licensed game development: Make a sub-par game and throw a big name on the box, there is nothing at all resembling a fun game in Survival Instinct. The game tries way too many things and fails at every single one of them. It’s actually kind of sad, if Terminal Reality had actually followed through on what was promised, The Walking Dead: Survival Instincts could have been a great game.
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct features an interesting group mechanic. Interesting in concept at least, during your travels you will come across survivors who will only scratch your back if you scratch theirs. Usually this means coming with you when you leave. To take them with you, first you have to perform a certain task for them in the form of an optional quest and second you have to have a car big enough to take them. Once you have the survivor in your party the game will ask you at the beginning of each mission what you would like them to do: Stay at the car, search for food, search for gas, or search for ammo. Depending on the number of survivors accompanying them the risk of the mission will go up or down, which determines if your group will survive the search, you can also lower risk by giving your group weapons.
And that is it. As much interaction and gameplay that will happen with your ragtag group of adventurers. You tell them what to do at the beginning of an incredibly linear mission, and when you get back there will be a message telling you if they came back and if they brought anything back with them. Even if they do help they will bring back 1 or 2 bullets for a gun that is the next best thing to worthless. They don’t help you out on missions, there aren’t any unique or interesting character interactions, it’s just another half-ass feature tacked onto The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct.
The actual mission progression in The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is done rather poorly. The game is just Daryl and Merle driving south checking out one area or the next based on hunches or rumors. It’s only assumed that they are looking for rescue. This is done in the map view. Every other mission you will be given a choice to go either southwest to Town A or southeast to Town B. That is the extent of the player agency in The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct. Whichever one you choose you will be given another choice between taking the streets, the highways, or the back roads to get there. With each choice you will have a varying chance to break down or find a place to resupply. On top of that, each route will use a different amount of fuel and adding even more to the fun, each vehicle you drive will have a different fuel efficiency meaning you also have the ability to run out of gas.
There are only minor differences in breaking down, running out of gas, and resupplying; namely stopping for supplies is optional. Once you stop, forced or otherwise, you will be locked into an uninspired level filled with supplies. If you ran out of gas it will tell you how much gas you need to collect before you can leave. If you broke because of your battery for example, they will hide a battery in the level and you cannot leave until you find it. If you chose to stop you may choose to get back in the car and drive away whenever. All of this only serves to stall you until you can’t help but ask: “how much longer until the ending?”
The level design is equally uninspired The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct often reuses the same levels and does very little to hide it. My experience went something like this: stop for supplies, play the level, leave, run out of gas, and then get locked into the exact same level with all of the supplies in the exact same place. Up until then I had assumed that at least the objects were randomly generated but alas, no. This kind of thing happened multiple times. Each level in The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is simply a cut and paste job and Terminal Reality hopes you don’t notice.
The zombies of The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct have to walk a fine line. If you make them too dumb the game is way to easy, but if you make the zombies too intelligent then you have a few more problems to worry about. Problems like zombies seeing you from the ground while you are the third floor, then proceeding to path find through the 1 first floor door going directly towards the stairs inside breaking down the door seconds later. That is one smart ass zombie. The zombies can also see in the dark, you cannot however and your flashlight attracts zombies. Seeing as 1/3 of The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct takes place at night, this makes playing through those levels next to impossible without finally giving up and trying to run through the level as fast as possible.
The marketing speak for The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct states that even one zombie is enough to overwhelm you, this is true because the combat is abysmal. While aiming my trusty lead pipe directly at the back of a zombies head it takes multiple swings to connect once and it takes 3 hits to take a zombie out. The combat should be the most satisfying part of a first person game based on The Walking Dead. Instead it is one of the absolute worst, and in this game that is saying a whole lot. While we’re on the subject of my lead pipe (heh) there is a very distinct lack of interesting weapons. I was carrying the lead pipe for roughly 60% of the game, simply because I didn’t encounter anything better. I later found a sledgehammer that took about 4 seconds to wind up but was a one hit kill, too bad I found it in the next to last level.
If you do happen to get surrounded you will invariably get pulled into a grapple. While grappling with a zombie you are forced to line up a circle onto the offending zombies head, pressing the RT once you get to the right spot. The longer you take the more damage you take. Sounds pretty standard, except that time doesn’t stop while you are in this grapple and the sounds attract more zombies. Leading to long frustrating stretches where you kill one zombie just to get pulled into a grapple the moment you get free, and so on and so forth. This once happened to me 10 times in a row, before ultimately getting killed. This isn’t a bug, in The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct you get an achievement for killing 4 zombies in one grapple sequence. The developers knew about this fun killing series of events, and decided to call it a feature.
Guns are slightly more than useless in The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct as soon as you fire it zombies from the entire level will converge on your position and surround you making it impossible to do anything. This is easily solved by jumping onto a car, if you center yourself perfectly the zombie can’t touch you and with some finesse you can still reach them. On most levels I would get tired of sneaking around, and pull a gun and use this trick. The problem with this little exploit is zombies in The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct respawn infinitely. You could meticulously clear a level of zombies, only to turn around and 8-9 more zombies roaming around. It is absolutely maddening. So that means you could be on top of that little car for quite a long time.
Now lets get to one of the most apparent problems with The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct: the visuals. The game looks like it came out late in the PS2 era. The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is filled with horrible textures, incredibly bad screen tearing, and anti-aliasing issues that, frankly, we shouldn’t be seeing on a game this late into the console generation. I often go back and play old games that I particularly liked, and I found myself more distracted by the graphics in The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct than I did when playing old Zelda or Mario games.
I can’t help but wonder that The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct might have been a fun game had the developer’s tried little harder. The fault could lay with Terminal Reality’s team or it could be that Activision didn’t give them enough time. The countless missed opportunities for good gameplay here are apparent. Had there been a more weapons, a better use of your survivors, better combat, and a more fleshed out story this could have been a good game.The Walking Dead is a big enough franchise and has such a storied history of having amazing character interaction and engaging story that there should have been more attention on The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct. The Telltale game based on The Walking Dead spoiled us by showing us how great a game based on this series could be. The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct shows us the other half of that coin, it shows us how bad that you can screw up.
The Walking Dead is about people, and how we treat each other. The Walking Dead, at its core is a character drama. The zombies only exist to put the characters into interesting situations. The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct has no interesting characters and no interesting situations. It has only bad gameplay wrapped around a shallow belief that The Walking Dead is popular because of zombies. This results in one of the most disappointing games that I have ever played. Made all the worse by the thought of what could have been. The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is one of those games that will live in infamy, and that reputation is rightly earned, do not play this game.