The Walking Dead brand has been making waves in several forms of media for the better part of a decade now. First came the excellent ‘The Walking Dead’ comic and graphic novel series. Then came AMC’s brilliant television adaptation which is also aptly titled, The Walking Dead. The Walking Dead then sauntered into the world of computer and video games last year with an amazing entry to the world of point and click adventures in Telltale’s Xbox Live Arcade triumph. It appears that no matter what format the brand appears in, it excels in every department.
With the comics going strong for ten years, the show on the brink of an electric finale to the third season, and the XBLA game being one of the format’s biggest sellers with a view to its next adventure, it was time for Terminal Reality to bring this license to the horizon. When Terminal Reality announced The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, there was an intriguing buzz about the game. Notably because the game would be a prequel to the television show rather than a tie-in to the comic series. Usually all forms of licensed video games are branded failures before they’re even off the cutting room floor. But as it stood, The Walking Dead was a huge success in everything it had been involved in. The fact that the license was already used on a brilliant game meant that people were willing to give Survival Instinct a chance. Were we right to do so? Good lord, no.
When it was announced that the game would be a first-person survival shooter, warning signs were apparent. It didn’t help that when the game was nearing release, you’d be hard pressed to find more than thirty seconds of gameplay. Then many websites let the word out that early review copies of the game weren’t to be sent out. That seemed to all but clinch the game’s fate. With the publishers not wanting to show their game off, many were already aware of its quality before release. But that’s enough dawdling; let’s explain why we feel that it lacks the quality it should.
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct just looks bad. An original Xbox game under the guise of a current gen game. There only appears to be detail on Daryl and Merle’s faces. Everything else is blandly textured and it looks as though not much effort went into them. All NPCs in the game may as well be zombies themselves, they appear to have their faces stuck on with glue, much like Max Payne in his first adventure. As for the zombies, I’ve seen the same few over and over again. There can’t be more than five models made for the hundreds that you may see over the course of the game. Now, I’ll be the first to jump to a game’s defense and shriek “but graphics aren’t important, and they don’t make the game”. This is true, when the game has a particular art style. A good example of this is the Borderlands series. Borderlands doesn’t look too nice. But it’s supposed to be a toon-like cel-shaded adventure that encapsulates the tone of the game
Level design is as linear as you may have ever seen. It’s worth noting that The Walking Dead is set in the real world. But The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct seems to be set in a world that only exists within the parameters of the level you’re currently playing in. Even the zombies you see walking around have more life in them than the dead environments you’ll peruse. They’re better rendered too! The streets, buildings, trees, signs, and doors that you see are not adequately made for this generation. You’ll have a hard time trying to distinguish the doors you can’t open from the doors you can. They look exactly the same. I have also never seen a game suffer from “invisible wall syndrome” more than this one. Effort wasn’t put into it, and it shows.
Surely graphical aesthetics were sacrificed for gameplay. No? Okay. Combat in the game is really lacking. Guns are essentially useless in the game as the sound attracts all zombies in the area. Now I know that sounds like a good feature as it is taken directly from The Walking Dead lore. But the big Walking Dead rule is that you only use guns when that is the only option that keeps you alive. So when you have to, you have a hunting rifle with a scope on top. A long range rifle to combat the zombie hordes that are right in your face. It goes without saying that that is not ideal at all. You will find yourself wielding the hunting knife for the majority of the game. Zombies will take at least 4 slashes to the face before they go down. They do just as much damage to you, so it can be quite a challenging game if you’re the kind to go asking for trouble. There is an execution style move where you can sneak up behind an unwitting zombie, and stab it right in the head. This is extremely exploitable as you can shove a zombie, and then proceed to run around it and perform the execution. This is the most ideal method of despatching them. There are little game-play mechanics such as throwing a glass bottle or turning on radios to distract the walkers, but these are merely distractions for yourself as they aren’t really necessary. The fact that there are no higher difficulty levels in the game makes sure of this. Ah but this game is about Daryl Dixon, you say! What about his signature crossbow? Oh yeah, it’s in the game. It’s just clunky and pretty much unusable. Sticking to the ‘creep and knife’ method is really all you’ll ever need in this game.
Survival Instinct has another aspect to its gameplay. The clue is in the title, survival. Once you finish a mission, you can choose different routes to your next. Some use more gas but have less of a chance of breaking down. Others use little gas but have very low chances to scavenge useful items. While you do your missions, you can choose to send certain survivors out to scavenge for things like gas, food and supplies. You can recruit survivors by completing their adjacent side missions. Using them to collect your items makes it easier to survive on whichever horrific road you choose. Back roads are the scavengers’ way but use the most gas. Highways use the least gas, but the chance of a breakdown is high. If you break down, you are placed into the smallest of levels to look for the car part that you need. Again, this sounds like a pretty cool addition, but given how poor the level design is, you’ll wish you’d never broken down at all.
Given how poor everything else had turned out to be, I had high hopes for the story, at least. The Walking dead has never disappointed when it came to both character and story development. The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct does, however. Given that we knew where the brothers would end up at the end of the game, we could be forgiven for thinking that we’d at least find out why they act the way they do. At the start of the first season of the show, both characters are not what you would call moral. Only looking out for themselves, neither of them could be described as a people person. Merle is even openly racist. There are many routes that could’ve been taken here. Unfortunately, there really is no story and the characters are just there to be there . You just go from place to place trying to survive until you make it to your destination.
It’s a shame that the game falls short, in hindsight. Daryl and Merle Dixon are voiced by Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker (FROM THE SHOW!), and they are actually pretty good. The voice work by the pair is splendidly done, channelling their on-screen counterparts to a tee. Unfortunately, this doesn’t carry over to the rest of the cast who portray the usual bland uninterested tinny voice acting we’re used to in low budget productions. It is quite a painful transition going from the excellent line reading of Reedus and Rooker to the equivalent of Keanu Reeves’ performance in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I can’t stress enough just how intolerable the voice work is. Oh, go on then, one more reference. Nic Cage in The Wicker Man.
To sum up, the game is pretty much bad all around. It’s short, bland, and quite frankly, boring. The game is only around five hours long and even with the short amount of time it just feels like a chore. Even at the discounted price at launch, it truly isn’t worth it. As a fan of The Walking Dead, I’ve enjoyed every adaptation of the series so far up until this. You may be thinking “I know the game is bad, but I’m a huge fan of The Walking Dead. I want to experience it anyway”. You gain absolutely nothing by purchasing this title. Your money is better spent on a list of great games that have been released over the past few months. In a sentence, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is an insult to Robert Kirkman’s brainchild and should’ve been vastly improved before it was launched.