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.
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.
What you won’t like
No emotional investment whatsoever
One of the main reasons why The Walking Dead property is so popular is because of its focus on the characters and the raw, emotional drama (and the violent situations that it creates) that occurs from living in their nightmarish world. Telltale Games understood and excellently adapted this crucial storytelling element in its episodic adventure game based on the comic books.
Survival Instinct has none of those things.
While it reveals some bits of Daryl’s and Merle’s backstory prior to The Walking Dead first season, it’s far from being required playing for fans of the television show. Actors Norman Reedus (Daryl) and Michael Rooker (Merle) reprise their roles, but they don’t sound very enthusiastic. Except for Reedus’s funny one-liners (when he stealthily executes a walker), most of his dialogue falls flat. And it’s hard to gauge Rooker’s performance because his character is absent for practically two-thirds of the game.
With Merle being somewhere out in Georgia doing god-knows-what, it’s up to the various nonplayable survivors you’ll find to keep you company. These are ordinary folk who are just trying to stay alive, and — with the exception of plot-related characters — it’s up to you if you want to recruit them to your little group (limited by the number of seats you have in your car). Inexplicably, they don’t provide extra firepower during missions or even side objectives, like when your engine gives out and you have to search for a new part.
The only thing they’re good for is sending them out on fetch quests to find more ammo, fuel, or food; if you equip them with weapons from your inventory, they’ll have a better chance of coming back alive. But since Daryl doesn’t talk to them all that much, you don’t have enough information or time to develop any kind of bond.
I didn’t care if they lived or died. The only person I regretted losing was some kid wearing a blood-stained sweatshirt, and that was only because his scavenging skills were superior to almost everyone else I’d met.
A magical family of zombies
In the show and the comics, major characters often die because of zombies that attacked them from dark corners and alleyways. So when zombies would grab me from out of thin air, I didn’t think much of it at first; I thought it added to the danger and vulnerability. But it kept happening again and again.
I approached Survival Instinct’s somewhat open-ended levels meticulously, crouching around and slowly killing zombies as quietly as I could. But sometimes, I’d return to a cleared area maybe a minute or two later only to find it filled with (different-looking) zombies who were also in the same spots as the ones I killed earlier. It’s as if nothing ever happened, and all my work (and time!) spent fighting them was for nothing.
The zombies also magically spawned behind me if I used any of my firearms. One memorable instance took place inside a hospital, where I ran across a large group and attempted to kill them all with my only grenade. A split-second later after the explosion, dozens of zombies were attacking me from behind, which I made sure was clear just moments earlier.
Terminal Reality touted the fact that Survival Instinct’s zombies can sniff you out if you stay in one place for too long. But after seeing the way they tend to instantly appear at a moment’s notice — it’s always the same five or six zombies by the way, just dressed in different hair colors and clothing — and with no way to measure how “smelly” I’m becoming (does sprinting make it worse?), it sounds like nothing more than an excuse for zombies to beeline toward me even if I was hiding.
Subpar production values
Murky textures, repetitive levels (you’ll see the same pit stop areas more than once), and character models that look more like wax statues than actual people are just a few examples that make up Survival Instinct’s bland take on the Georgia countryside. The developers tried to give the towns and campgrounds that lived-in look, with all sorts of trash, debris, and scattered merchandise giving a sense of the hysteria that swept through the state as the zombies started spreading. But I found myself bored walking through the aftermath as nothing stood out from the many generic pharmacies and police stations.
The assorted bugs doesn’t help, either: Fragments of doors (that zombies broke down) flew through brick walls, my bolts hung in midair after I shot them, and new mission objectives popped up revealing plot details that hadn’t happened yet. I also ran into a game-crashing freeze that made me lose about a half-hour of progress because of poorly spaced checkpoints.
I’ve stuck with the AMC show through thick and thin (I actually liked the much-criticized episodes from Season Two), but The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct left me feeling empty. It’s less of a story arc and more of a montage of “Here’s what Daryl and Merle did before Season One.” Unfortunately, technical problems and frustrating design decisions prevent its one redeeming feature — the survival gameplay — from reaching its potential.
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct released on March 19 for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, and PC. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a PS3 copy for the purpose of this review.