The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct Review
After TellTale blew fans and critics away with its emotional point-and-click adventure take on The Walking Dead, any game bearing the franchise’s name had a lot to live up to.
And with the AMC series’ popularity, a game that tied in a little closer to that source material must have sounded like a good move to some executive along the line.
And lo, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct was born.
Starring fan-favorite ear-collector Daryl Dixon and his fans-put-up-with-him-because-he’s-Michael-Rooker brother Merle, Survival Instinct sets out to give fans the untold story of how the hillbilly brothers survived the early days of the zombie outbreak before ending up at the campsite with Shane, Glenn, and the other survivors.
The chronology in the series dictates that not too much of consequence can happen to Daryl and Merle during the game, and in that sense The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct delivers in spades.
There is very little story to be had, and surprisingly very little entertaining brotherly banter to go along with it. This is Daryl’s story, with Merle playing a minor supporting role in a few levels after he is introduced halfway through the game.
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct tries to take a sneaky approach to fighting the undead, encouraging you to crouch through hallways and pick off zombies one by one with stealth kills from behind.
The zombie AI, however, is far too inconsistent for that style of play, with no reliably discernable cone of vision for what will cause a zombie to realise your presence. Some will let you stand two feet away in safety while others will spot you through walls.
Even when one does notice fresh meat walking about it is difficult to take them as a credible threat as the hilarious pathfinding gets them stuck in doorframes, or any other piece of level geometry that shouldn’t normally pose an obstacle.
Once you are face to face with a zombie it comes down to your melee weapon, a hunting knife by default but everything from hammers, lead pipes, and fire axes can be found along the way.
Hitting a zombie is particularly unsatisfying, as it just pauses and stands there waiting for the next hit. There is the occasional jump scare, a supposedly “dead” zombie getting up as you pass by, for example, but there are few occasions where the game will expect you to fend off more than one or two zombies at a time.
Should you choose to fire a gun in an attempt to make things more interesting, the gunshot will finally grab the undead’s attention. It may even trigger a zombie swarm, essentially a quick-time event where each zombie patiently takes its turn shoving its face toward the screen while you aim a shaky reticule to land a killing blow.
These mob scenes can go on for a comically long time if you attract a large enough group, and hold the unique distinction of making face stabbings seem boring.
To its credit, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct does at least make an attempt to offer something fresh outside of its questionable combat and AI.
The entire game is structured around a road trip of sorts, as Daryl drives across Georgia first looking for his brother Merle, then looking for a way to escape the looming undead.
Structurally it’s almost akin to Oregon Trail or, perhaps more accurately, akin to the recent indie parody Organ Trail.
While major towns and landmarks make up the actual story levels, much of the game takes place on the road watching a little dotted line on the map make its way from one town to the next.
Just like Oregon Trail, your road trip can be interrupted for any number of reasons, such as finding a spot to scavenge for supplies, cars blocking the road, your car breaking down, or simply running out of gas.
These roadblocks trigger miniature stages where you run about pushing stuck cars and finding fuel or a replacement car part to get back on your way.
The game even gives you a false choice by asking if you want to take back roads, regular roads, or the highway between destinations, which in theory should effect how many road stops you encounter.
For example, back roads offer more scavenging opportunities but punish you with high fuel consumption while highways are light on supply runs but your car breaks down more often.
In the end though, you’ll hit about the same number of pit stops regardless of the route, with the only difference being the type you encounter.
Since each encounter plays out essentially the same, in the same small number of maps, what could have been the game’s saving grace for variety turns into an exercise in tedium.
Even with the road encounters being the boring mess that they are, the road trip structure could have been salvaged if not for how The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct mismanages its inventory system.
For example, with the game emphasizing fuel consumption in the different routes, you would think that scavenging for supplies and hoarding fuel would be a viable survival skill.
Not so, as the car’s tank can only ever be filled to slightly above empty, with any remaining fuel taking up a valuable inventory space.
Daryl only has a small amount he can hold, so each inventory spot is precious, a matter that isn’t helped by the fact that one spot is permanently occupied by Daryl’s hunting knife even after far more effective melee weapons are found within the first hour.
There never seems to be a shortage of supplies on the ground, but you are still constantly running out of ammo and gear because there is not enough space to store and carry any of it.
It is an odd kind of frustration that sets in when you feel the need to conserve ammo while at the same time throwing away half of what you find.
Speaking of throwing things away, throughout the game Daryl has opportunities to rescue survivors that he meets. At the end of the level they will join your caravan, which only has a limited number of room, so most will be abandoned and left for dead shortly after saving their lives.
All of this is done through menus without any dialog, so there is clearly no attempt made to turn it into a moral dilemma that would actually speak to the themes present in every other representation of The Walking Dead.
Survivors are just another resource, which you can send off to search for supplies while you are playing the story levels. Supplies that you inevitably won’t have room for in your inventory, and that could get the survivors killed while they are searching.
Like so many elements in The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, the survivors are an idea that could have been interesting but instead come across as a pointless afterthought due to poor implementation.
With another year of development to flesh out its more ambitious idea of a zombie-killing road trip, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct may have actually become a good game.
It’s a long shot given the hurdles it would still have to overcome from its boring combat, questionable AI, and repetitive locales, but certainly possible.
What’s saddest though is that the game also fails on the level of fanservice, when die-hard fans of the show are the most likely to overlook it’s technical shortcomings.
Norman Reemus and Michael Rooker may lend their voices to Daryl and Merle Dixon, but the line delivery is lifeless in a story that adds little of substance to the characters.
Maybe no one was expecting greatness on the level of TellTale’s episodic game from The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, but there are brief fleeting moments when Terminal Reality’s game shows that there was a real vision for something good.
The vision didn’t hold though, and players are instead left with a listless shambling husk of what the game could have been.
Version Tested: PC