Review: The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct doesn't have a zombie leg to stand on
Back when its first gameplay trailer "inadvertently" leaked a few months back, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct looked like trouble. Screen tearing, poorly paced street combat and the kind of zombie behavior that makes you wonder if they're even trying at all was already apparent. But Activision insisted that the game was better than it appeared, and that it would match the tone of the popular AMC television series, without missing a beat. Well, after playing the game, I can honestly say…the final product isn't far off from what that trailer represented. It sucks.
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is a first-person adventure that trudges along at the pace of a, well, zombie, with hardly any rewards for getting through each area and a tiresome formula that can't shake free from its limited design. It's like you're going through the motions hoping for any jarring moment that reminds you of the brilliance of the show, only to find disappointment with each step you take. And when you're yawning as you kill zombies, you know the game has problems.
The story takes place before the events of the show, with Daryl Dixon attempting to reunite with his troublesome brother Merle. There's an interesting lead-in with the opening of the game, with a startling death that puts things into motion. But that's really the closest you'll get to feeling any sort of raw emotion.
Survival Instinct's pacing is questionable. You'll spend a good amount of time making your way to certain stops on a map, collecting fuel so that you can keep moving in your car and occasionally taking on the undead. The game doesn't even give you the joy of driving from destination to destination, running over zombies along the way. It follows specific points in a map, for what seems like an endless amount of times. And even though Terminal Reality attempted to add strategy by letting you choose which roads to take – and the consequences that follow – it all pretty much leads back to the same old gameplay. Collect fuel and ammo, kill a few zombies, move on.
In an attempt to pick up on Telltale Games' far better Walking Dead product, Survival Instinct does introduce survivors you'll run into on certain stops, but they're practically useless. You can arm them and send them out on missions, but they'll either come up short with the supplies they were supposed to get, or end up dead anyway. You're better off just doing everything yourself, and even then, there's very little motivation in doing so. And the fact you never feel connected to anyone – not even Daryl – is a failure on the developer's part.
One thing that's hard to overlook is the design of the zombies themselves. There are only a few to choose from, and they don't quite behave the way they're supposed to. Sometimes you can shoot a rifle from 50 yards out and, the next thing you know, they're all over you; other times, you can be waving a shotgun around right in front of them and they're barely alerted to your presence.
That leads to the gameplay, which is a mess. Using firearms is a crapshoot, which for a first-person game of this nature, is pretty inexcusable. Even when you have a zombie through the sights of your rifle, there are times that the hits just don't connect fast enough, and you find yourself surrounded again. Melee weapons work more reasonably, but they're dull. You strike zombies the same way, over and over, with very little variation in combat. The only change comes when a zombie grabs you, forcing you to line up their head in a reticule and hitting the right trigger button to execute them. But, surprise, that gets repetitive as well.
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct drags on with very little incentive – no hard-hitting weapons, no chuckle-inducing bonus rounds, no multiplayer (unless you pre-ordered the game, of course – because why put it on the disc and benefit gamers, right?). And what's worse, the presentation seems pedestrian at best. The graphics feel like a big step down from Activision's higher-quality Call of Duty shooters, with limitations on the level design, poor character renders (only Merle and Daryl stand out – the zombie models are a joke) and voicework that goes all over the place. In fact, the only class acts that stand out are Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker, who voice their characters as convincingly as they do on the show. But, of course, they know the parts by heart.
It seems like Terminal Reality was trying to go for a "survive by any means necessary" approach with The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, but so much more could've been done with the design to bump up its intensity. It's repetitive, stale, and lacking the shocking jolts that the show has managed to do so well. If you're a fan, just stick with watching it on TV or, better yet, check out Telltale Games' Walking Dead game instead. Now there's a game that gets the emotional core of the series right, compared to this lumbering mess.
[Reviewed on Xbox 360]