If you had to name an immensely popular entertainment property off the top of your head, The Walking Dead could easily come to mind. The comic series began steamrolling its way into mainstream media when the now-critically acclaimed television series debuted in 2010. Gamers were treated to a fantastic gaming experience last year, when Telltale Games released their episodic effort (see our final review here). But that wasn't a direct tie to the television series. Activision and Terminal Reality give us just that with The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct. How does the the game stack up? About as wonderfully as a sole survivor facing 50 zombies without a weapon.
What Is It About?
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct’s intent is to provide backstory for Daryl Dixon, arguably the television series' most popular character. On the show, Daryl is fairly mysterious, having been thrown into the group's situation but gradually becoming more and more important. So there's a fair case for a game to capture what made Daryl who he is and explore the relationship with his brother Merle. Unfortunately, you still have a minuscule sense of what Daryl is about.
The game begins with Daryl returning from a hunting trip to a world overrun by zombies. He moves to find Merle, with whom the game touts you'll be fighting alongside. I don't need to approximate how much time you actually spend doing that, because you don’t. Instead, you'll occasionally have Merle on a radio and rarely have him in the same room. So beyond some brief father-based dialogue and an “I saved your crossbow” moment, you won’t end up anymore knowledgeable about the Dixon boys' relationship. The game's story is merely a series of mundane and, at best, frustrating tasks that end on an anticlimactic note.
Why Should I Care?
You shouldn't care as much about playing the game as you should avoiding it. Now, we all know the dangers of a licensed game. We're so numb to the genre that it’s hard to expect good things out of most of them. The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is a shining example of why pessimism should be the immediate attitude towards licensed games.
For starters, the game looks no better than a game straight out of 2005. The immediate comparison I was able to make was to Call of Duty 2, but I feel that was more impressive. There may be more shine on TWD: SI, but jit doesn't provide any graphical quality. I couldn’t decide what the worst graphical element of the game was, so I’ll call it a tie. The first time you see Merle, his face is decently captured, but the rest of the character is a very basic, horribly simplistic design. Countering Merle’s first impressions are the zombies (walkers, rather), all 5-6 of their designs. Too many end up directly in your face, where you’ll see an overly static face moving back and forth.
Struggle is a main theme to the gameplay. On TV, Daryl is quiet and swift. You play a slow, robotic Daryl whose gestures are too grandiose. It’s understandable that swinging a sledgehammer will be more cumbersome than a knife. I would expect mechanical differences there. But when switching weapons or items turns into a slow-motion affair, it really puts you in a bad spot during walker attacks. Most of the gameplay fails to make sense, though. If The Walking Dead has shown so many times that one good stabbing to the head takes down a walker. Why does the game force you to take anywhere from three to five swings to accomplish that? The combat feels like turn-based fighting in too many situations and your best option will be to execute a walker from behind. That will be incredibly hard to perform, though, when the game throws out dozens of them at you at any given time. The slightest nudge from a walker will come close to stopping you in your tracks, making movement difficult.
Your supporting cast of characters is worth a brief mention, if only to illustrate how worthless and unmemorable they are. You’ll have some forced upon you and some you can opt to bring along. They are meant to make you feel like you’re making tough choices. In reality, they serve no purpose beyond taking up a spot in your car. You have the ability to send survivors out to gather food, ammo or fuel, but they’l mostly become injured. I was lucky to get a couple bits of food, as I was told more frequently that they died and I lost the weapon I provided them. I can't imagine how easily they could have been killed if they were fighting alongside me. At no point did I feel any tough choices were made.
Much of the game simply doesn’t make sense. You’re playing in a zombie apocalypse setting, so the idea is to scavenge as much as possible, right? But you aren't allowed to rummage through cars; to pick up cans; to ransack houses. My favorite "really?" moment came when Daryl gets his crossbow (which you use for maybe half the game). It’s stuck underneath dead body, but you can’t grab it. After fighting a couple walkers, suddenly the one with your crossbow attacks you. Upon killing it, the crossbow is again stuck under the body, but you can grab it this time. Because that makes sense.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
I'm hard pressed to find many positives about The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct. The story is forgettable and abruptly ends. You won’t feel like anything was resolved or there was any benefit to having experienced this. There are some decent times to be had in Herd Mode, where you’re pitted against waves of walkers and stealth isn't as important. But the gameplay is just as bland and the mode feels tacked on.
I suppose The Walking Dead was due for something like this. The brand is only increasing in popularity and thus far, most everything it’s been associated with has been executed so well. The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct rides the brand too much; take the brand away and you have a game nobody would line up for. This is a bland, forced effort that dilutes The Walking Dead. If you want a fantastic Walking Dead gaming experience, look Telltale’s way instead.