Based on the hugely successful TV show of the same name, which in turn is based on the comic series by Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct
isn’t the first game created from the zombie-filled license. Rather than take the easy route and make a basic zombie-killing shooter, Telltale Games
decided to make their critically-lauded episodic Arcade series, The Walking Dead
, a story-driven adventure title, full of tough choices and branching storylines, which also happened to have zombies in it. Terminal Reality
have instead made their game a basic zombie-killing shooter.
As Daryl Dixon, one of the most popular characters from the TV series, we embark on a road trip through a selection of towns and facilities in search of rebellious brother, Merle. Unfortunately, all of the locations we visit have been overwhelmed by the living dead, who are still stinking up the place. The focus of the game is squarely on sneaking and melee combat. Whilst a variety ranged weapons are available, you’ll find yourself avoiding these as one gunshot can bring the entire horde on you. There are also various melee weapons that you can use to batter and slice through the shambling corpses, however once you get your hands on one or two that are good for instant decapitations, you’ll find yourself ignoring the rest. The same goes for ranged weaponry when you get your hands on Daryl’s iconic, silent crossbow and its reusable ammo. Why use another gun ever again? Weapons do not degrade at all and, even though Daryl and his vehicle have limited inventory slots, the inventory management becomes useless when you only really care to use one or two weapons.
There is a certain amount of fun to be had early in the game when you encounter walkers and decide how to progress. If there are just one or two zombies, a stealthy approach works well. If there's a larger group, you can either try and get the attention of individual shambling skin-sacks to separate and pick them off, or use glass bottles and flares to provide distractions and make your way around them. Unfortunately, once you've figured out your tactics, you'll find yourself settling into the same patterns throughout the game. There is no variety to any of the combat as the zombies themselves are such one-note enemies; always aimlessly coming straight for you, arms outstretched and mouth agape. The story teases you with the prospect of encountering groups of raiders, biker gangs and military personnel to break up the monotony of zombie slaying, but these situations never deliver.
Daryl has a few combat skills in his arsenal that help him get an upper hand on his rotting foes. As well as your standard sneak, sprint and lean abilities, he can shove approaching enemies back, giving him the opportunity to circle around them for an execution or the seconds he needs to escape. He's also a deft knife user; when he manages to get behind a zombie, he can perform a brutally satisfying execution move. If a meat-bag is allowed to get too close, Daryl will be grabbed, which initiates a quick-time event to perform an execution move on the offending zombie’s face. If there are other nearby zombies around at this point, he can be grabbed again, but can either shove his way free between grabs or simply continue performing a chain of executions. These unique moves add a small amount of variety to the combat, but they too ultimately become tedious as you utilise them time and again to kill zombies using the same pattern of shove, run around the back and execute.
Scattered through each level are survivors who can be brought into the group, often after performing a rudimentary fetch quest. The prospect of these survivors promises much, but delivers very little. Once you have collected survivors you must choose who to take along with you as space in your vehicle is limited. However, this group management is purely perfunctory. You can choose to send people out on scavenger trips for food, ammo or fuel before starting a mission. Sending more people out lowers the risk factor of each trip, as does giving them a weapon, but that is as far as the strategy extends.
There is also absolutely nothing in the way of emotional connection to your fellow survivors. For the most part you have no more interactions with them after picking them up, and dismissing them is simply an act of pushing a button and they're gone; no tearful farewell, no objections and no caring. Even though there are numerous stopping opportunities between main levels, no effort is made to use this time to develop a bond between the different survivors. Maybe the sense that this “touchy feely” element is sorely lacking is more thanks to the influence of the Arcade title and its focus on the stresses and strains of a group of people in dire peril, but the complete absence of any emotional depth is notable in a game based on a TV show based on a comic, both of which focus so strongly on these elements. Even the inclusion of two of the most enigmatic characters from the TV show, Daryl and Merle Dixon (brilliantly portrayed by actors Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker) is a wasted opportunity here. There is very little effort to further explore the history and emotional dynamics of the troubled brothers other than the template that the show has already laid down: Daryl is a tough hick with a sensitive side and a heap of misguided loyalty for his selfish, drug-addled brother.
In between main missions, you are presented with a map that asks which route you'd like to take to the next point and how you'd like to get there; gas guzzling but resource rich back roads or fuel efficient but empty highways. These choices do have some effect on how the game progresses, meaning that you'll experience different locations on each playthrough and make optional stops along the way. These location choices hint at branching storylines with different outcomes, but the story and extra characters are so bare-bones that you’ll wonder why the story is branching at all. Whilst the environments include small towns, a hospital, train yard and campsite, there is very little variety involved. They are mostly linear sojourns through drab, grimy, empty levels that alternate between enclosed areas such as alleys or corridors and more open area such as a graveyard or reception. None of the locales have any design flourish or visual identity and you’ll find the different towns in particular just merge together in your memory.
Throughout the game there are small moments that make you realise that the whole thing just isn’t fully developed and smacks of lazy, inconsistent design choices. For instance, invisible walls make frequent appearances, despite efforts in other areas to make barriers using walls, fences, cliffs or abandoned vehicles. Similarly, out of the many locked doors in the game, roughly half are recognised as doors and tell you they are “locked” when you get close, whereas the other half are simply pictures of doors. Also, even though you must manage who will fit in your vehicle out of the optional survivors you based on how many seats are available, story-specific survivors don’t seem to take up any seats at all. I’m presuming they sit on the roof or on Daryl’s lap.
Apart from a small selection of story-progression achievements and some for completing levels in a specific manner, most of the game’s achievements are cumulative for performing actions numerous times. Luckily, these are stackable across deaths and playthroughs so you will easily get most of them by your second time through the game. Due to collectibles and survivors being split across the different branching locations in the story, full completion will require at least two full playthroughs as there is no “Chapter Select” option. This could go up to three or four playthroughs as some of the survivors randomly appear at optional stopping locations and there are achievements related to who you end up with in the final sections. Luckily, the tedium of multiple playthroughs is offset by the fact that the game allows you to use the Crossbow and Assault Rifle from the beginning after the first playthrough.
Ultimately, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct
is a short, tedious tie-in that should only really be picked up by lovers of absolutely all things zombie. It’s not broken and the basic sneaking and zombie-killing mechanics work well enough, but they soon become tiresome and repetitive. The few interesting ideas such as branching levels, and inventory and survivor management, are extremely underdeveloped and amount to little more than pointless logistics. Furthermore, there should have been much more focus on the story, characters and emotional turmoil of the Dixon's road trip to help tie it all together and hold our interest. Like Merle Dixon, this game is the crude jerk brother to the other Walking Dead
’s sensitive but powerful, Daryl.
The reviewer spent 10-15 hours in the shoes of Daryl Dixon, finished the main campaign once, executed hundreds of walkers, explored most locations thoroughly and replayed the first chapter a few more times for extra achievements for a total of 35 out of 50. The game was reviewed from a personal copy.