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.