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The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct leaves you feeling empty (review)

Robert Kirkman has a twisted mind. Somewhere in the dark recesses of his psyche lurked tales of hacking off limbs, gouging of eyes with spoons, and pinning down male genitalia with nails. And this doesn’t even have anything to do with what the zombies do. He just has to let all that shit out. That’s the only explanation I can think of for The Walking Dead, the writer’s ongoing black-and-white comic book story that has expanded its reach to television and video games.

The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct (out now for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, and PC) isn’t your typical first-person zombie-shootin’ game since you can’t mow down the undead with a generous supply of bullets. It takes place in the early days of the zombie apocalypse from AMC’s version of The Walking Dead — the popular TV series based on the comic — and puts you in the role of Daryl Dixon, the show’s crossbow-firing antihero.

In keeping with the fiction’s rules, gunshots and explosions attract way more zombies (via sight and sound) than those they actually kill, so it’s best to stick with melee weapons and close encounters to ensure Daryl’s safety as he fights through Georgia in search of his older brother, Merle. Developer Terminal Reality wisely emphasizes a survival aspect that zombie-focused games usually ignore, but it’s not enough to elevate Survival Instinct (as played on a PS3) from being more than just a mediocre experience.

The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct

What you’ll like

Struggling to survive

Unlike the undead shooting gallery seen in Left 4 Dead or Call of Duty: Black Ops II’s outlandish zombie mode, Survival Instinct has a distinctive gameplay loop of exploration, scavenging, and hunting down walkers (The Walking Dead’s parlance for zombies). It all comes together really well in the first few hours — you need to look for gas cans so you have enough fuel to travel from town to town; you explore that area for food, munitions, and possible survivors to bring with you; and when you’re done there, you drive over to the next place and repeat the process.

Zombies aren’t just cannon fodder since it only takes a handful of them to kill you. The best strategy is to break them up into smaller groups or isolate them individually, and then sneak behind and smash or stab their heads with weapons like a baseball bat or a machete. It’s impossible to account for every single corpse roaming around, so I always felt nervous when exploring an infested town. But it’s all the more thrilling when you do manage to outsmart them by picking them off or when you successfully hide from a huge herd that’s coming after you.

The road is fraught with danger as well. The chances of your car breaking down or finding a pit stop to search for supplies depends on which of the three routes you take. Driving down the back roads use up a lot of fuel, but you’ll pull over more often for supply runs. Regular streets take up a little less gas and gives you a medium chance to find new areas. And highways need the least amount of fuel, but you’ll also have a high probability that your car will stall.

The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct screenshots

Grounding this risk/rewards system in some sense of realism makes your experience unpredictable. I thought I was doing well when I had a surplus of food and guns … but the next area I traveled through (and the herd of zombies I met) nearly drained me of all of my resources.

It’s a solid system that would’ve worked well with better level designs and mission objectives. But repetition began to set in halfway through my 8.5 hour playthrough thanks to a bunch of problems, which more development time could have fixed.

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