Like many of you, I’ve been skeptical since the beginning. The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct’s marketing campaign has been a rocky one, after being soured by a series of disappointing trailers — both fake and official — screenshots, and an obvious push by Activision to get the game out during the third season of the television series. It didn’t help that the game was quietly crammed into the very busy march lineup, almost as if Activision realized the game wouldn’t live up to expectations so they let it die in the shadow of several of this year’s more high profile releases.
I won’t bury the lead: this game isn’t good. If you’re interested in finding out just how bad it is, I suggest reading on.
For fans of The Walking Dead, there are certain things we’ve come to expect from this series. The story, characters, and how they interact, is crucial to a successful TWD game. You need drama and dread in equal measures, and sadly, because of a series of bad decisions, Survival Instinct fails in both areas.
Let’s start with the dread.
Struggling to survive, alone and not as well-equipped as one might like during an apocalyptic scenario, should be a terrifying experience. Due to a number of poorly implemented mechanisms, Survival Instinct is never scary. For example, one of the worst things that can happen during a zombie apocalypse is getting surrounded by the hungry undead. That’s brought the end of many a brave survivor in games, books, movies and television. In this game, getting surrounded is the best thing that can happen to you, and it’s often the easiest way to clear an area of zombies. This is due to the fact that when you’re surrounded, the zombies are polite enough to have a go at you one at a time. All you have to do is jump into a group of them, successfully execute a few quick time events, watch the shallow collection of canned execution animations, and you’ll soon be free.
For the most part, guns are not your friends. You’ll have a decent arsenal to choose from — including rifles, shotguns, and handguns — but a zombie only dies by a headshot. Ammunition is rare enough, this is a zombie apocalypse after all, that it quickly becomes easier to just pick up one of the myriad superior melee weapons strewn about the game’s repetitious environments than it is to waste time trying to plant a bullet in every zombie’s head.
Next up, the drama.
Limiting the scope of the game could have worked well. Some of my favorite episodes of the TV series have been the ones that worked on a smaller scale, following only a few characters rather than the more complicated episodes that moved from group to group. Because this game follows backwoods brothers Daryl and Merle Dixon — and specifically the former as he searches for his brother — they’re interesting enough characters to base a game on.
So what went wrong? Unfortunately, a lot.
Much of the game has Daryl traveling across the South in search of his brother, Merle. This is experienced via a map, by the way. You can’t actually drive in this game. Going from one destination to the next uses up precious gasoline, which you can scavenge (along with other supplies) from one of a handful of recycled maps. You’re also given the option of taking to the highways to conserve gas, but that can bring with it a smaller chance of finding supplies and a greater chance of your car breaking down.
You won’t be alone in this, as you can pick up survivors along the way. You’re able to arm them and send them out to get supplies on their own, but more often than not, doing so yields less supplies than you could have gathered on your own. This means you can send them out to endure the intensely boring scavenge missions, or you can punish yourself and get more supplies. Also, they can die. However, like everything else in this game, they’re never interesting enough to really care about. I don’t imagine anyone losing sleep over that bland, faceless character meeting a gruesome death as they fetched you some Gatorade.
Should you decide to spend your time scavenging for supplies yourself, prepare to fight the same fights and see the same maps over, and over, and over again. If the repetitive scenery doesn’t get to you first, the combat will. Survival Instinct could have benefited from a deeper, Condemned style combat system. I wanted the fights to be difficult, to force me to me strategic in how I pursued them. In The Walking Dead, a lone zombie can be a major threat and you’d be crazy to run into a group, guns blazing.
Unfortunately, zombies are never much of a threat, unless they sneak up on you.
The fact that this was released before it was ready becomes apparent rather quickly. Visually, it’s on the same level as an Xbox 360 launch title. It’s buggy, and brimming with awful level design ideas, including an almost impressive overuse of invisible walls. The checkpoint system doesn’t do it’s job very well, mostly since they’re too few and far between. The enemy AI is unpredictable, and not in a good way. It’s not uncommon to see a zombie get stuck on small objects in the environment or ignore you even when you’re very much inside their personal bubble. This goes the other way, too, as I had zombies notice me as I was crouching twenty feet away, quietly assessing my surroundings.
Did I mention you can see sweat pouring down your screen after Daryl overexerts himself? Yeah, that’s weird and a little gross.
It’s also unforgivably short. I completed the campaign in just under five hours, and with no co-op or multiplayer in sight, there’s really no reason to return to it after you’ve beaten the game. That is, unless you pre-ordered it — in that case, you can continue punishing yourself by mowing down waves of zombies in the single-player Herd mode.
The sad thing is, we’ve seen how amazing a game based on The Walking Dead can be. Sure, Telltale’s effort was a buggy one, but it was also well-written, emotional, and often unpredictable. Quality licensed games are becoming more common, thanks to Telltale, Rocksteady’s Batman, and High Moon Studios’ Transformers, among others. As a prequel to the TV series, this game’s potential was squandered by pushing it out long before it was finished.
The Final Word: Whether you’re a fan of The Walking Dead or you’re just looking for a solid zombie game, Survival Instinct isn’t worth anyone’s time.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, this game isn’t well designed. It’s also buggy and often frustrating. Youtuber MarphitimusBlackimus recorded a few of the many, many issues plaguing this game, which you can see below: