Last year’s The Walking Dead: The Video Game was a near-perfect title, delivering a compelling narrative while innovating in how that narrative was delivered. Snap decisions had lasting effects, giving players an incredible number of branching options while still keeping the sharply written story meaty and coherent. Its use of The Walking Dead license was barely perceptible: except for its Georgia setting and a few choice characters from the comic series, it easily could have stood on its own as a deeply emotional take on the zombie apocalypse.
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, sadly, aims much lower than that game.
Based squarely in the same universe as the TV series (the full game title is actually AMC’s The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct), the game casts you as fan-favorite Daryl Dixon as he uses his hillbilly repertoire to try and escape the living dead hell of Georgia. Fans of the AMC show know that Daryl is a hunter in his former life, and is master of the stealthy kill, and this mechanic is at the dead heart of Survival Instinct. Instead of charging in guns blazing, the game encourages subtlety, with the ability to distract walkers with a well-tossed item before sneaking up on them for a quick one-button kill. This is deeply satisfying the first few times you do it, before the choking monotony sets in and you realize that you’re really not having much fun. The AI for the zombies is laughable at best, and while the living dead should be brain dead to a certain degree, the walkers in this game are especially stupid. Even if you fall back on one of the game’s few firearms—a potential suicide attempt as walkers are alerted to sound—the terrible path finding of the game’s foes make dispatching them almost offensively easy.
Even if a zombie does manage to get his putrescent paws on you, the game resorts to a QTE—the bane of this console generation—to dispatch them with a brutal one-hit kill. Line up the reticle with the zombie’s head and mash the button and you’re done. It’s almost easier to allow yourself to get caught and suffer the momentary QTE than to try and do the stealth kills, at least as a time-saving measure.
The lame-duck FPS mechanics are modestly spiced with resource management, which has you recruiting a handful of cookie-cutter survivors to scavenge for resources in the game’s meager levels. Food, fuel, and ammunition can be found at pit stops between the game’s main campaign maps, and you have the option of taking different routes in order to stock up. Taking the highway burns little of your precious gasoline, but is more likely to lead to your transportation breaking down. The back roads make you go through gas like water, but they offer more opportunities to scavenge for resources. You’re pretty screwed either way, as trying to scavenge for these resources leads to the same conclusion: traipsing around even tinier maps than normal trying to find car parts or gas cans. It’s a lose-lose situation.
Finally, there’s the presentation of the game. First, the positive: stars Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker lends their vocal talents to Daryl and Merle Dixon, respectively, and they certainly class up the production quite a bit. There is a certain degree of “phoning in” present for each of them (at times Daryl’s one-liners sound like he’s as tired of the game as we are), but they certainly fare much better than the graphics. To put it bluntly, the game would have looked mediocre at the beginning of the console generation, so to see a game look this poorly in the twilight of the Xbox 360 (which I played it on) and the Playstation 3 is simply unacceptable. There are countless other games that use the Unreal Engine with phenomenal results, but Survival Instinct simply craps bland environments, ugly models, and muddy textures across the screen in a fashion that would be wince-inducing on a 15-dollar downloadable title, let alone a “bargain priced” 50-dollar retail release. The disappointment is amplified even further by the gross repetition of zombie models in the game, with the variety of walkers being so meager that you are literally dispatching the exact same zombie multiple times in the same level.
Ironically, given Telltale’s episodic, seat-of-their-pants releasing of The Walking Dead: The Video Game, it’s Survival Instinct that feels rushed and incomplete. Without compelling gameplay or, worst of all, characters you actually care about, the game feels like a pointless cash-grab. If you want a solid Walking Dead game just replay Telltale’s effort and avoid Survival Instinct like the plague that it is: another disappointing license-waster.