Clearly intended to cash in on the overwhelming success of the TV show and the recent critical acclaim of Telltale Games’ excellent episodic adventure, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct doesn’t so much as explode out of the gate, but, perhaps appropriately, shamble. The ‘plot’ revolves around the TV show’s troublesome twosome the Dixon brothers, with Daryl Dixon’s search for his sibling Merle comprising the main theme.
The game opens on a hunting trip Daryl’s taking with his father, and it’s not long before things go predictably wrong. Visually, the title looks incredibly flat. Textures are dull and lifeless, and the character models appear less alive than their undead counterparts, mouths flapping awkwardly as they talk. The art direction is also rather odd. The walkers and death animations are quite grisly, implying a more mature tone, yet everything is just a little too colourful, as if the game was influenced by its episodic counterpart, resulting in a bizarre, cheap-looking world.
The game’s core mechanics aren’t much better. You're instructed to crouch and move so that you don't rouse the walkers' attention, but this system is inherently flawed due to the zombies having an unbelievably efficient field of view, which ultimately renders crouching moot. It's from this daft AI design that most of the game's problems spring. Combat is repetitive and dull, requiring just three melee hits to the head to incapacitate a walker, who will swing wildly back at you.
It’s also possible to sprint around an area, get every walker to chase you, and then jump on top of a car where they will no longer be able to attack you, allowing for a methodical cull of your pursuers. The guns are far more effective than melee objects, but using a ranged weapon will attract more walkers, and, while this may sound like a more efficient means of clearing out your foes, do note that it’s entirely possible to sprint through an entire level without harming a single enemy – there’s even a Trophy for it.
Each level comprises almost entirely of fetch quests, with every survivor that you come across offering the key to advancement, but only if you gather some medicine for a family member or complete other such dull tasks. There’s always a primary objective for you to fulfil, indicated by a compass in the corner of the screen. However, this is often a confusing and inaccurate indication of where to go, particularly if staircases and multiple floors are involved. Items are scattered throughout each level and range from foodstuffs for healing to weapons, ammo, and fuel for your vehicle.
As the story has you trying to find Daryl’s brother in another part of the country, vehicles are used to travel between locations, and while you don’t get to drive them, this is one of two interesting ideas that Survival Instinct incorporates. At the end of each level, there’s a map screen that allows you to select the next destination and the method of travelling there. Electing to travel by the back roads permits opportunities to scavenge – you’ll load into an area spoiled with items and can leave at any point. Travelling this way also consumes less fuel and there’s a smaller chance of breaking down. Meanwhile, journeying by the streets provides fewer opportunities to scavenge, but consumes more fuel and increases the likelihood of a breakdown. Finally, taking the highway consumes the most fuel, significantly amplifies the chance of a breakdown, and dramatically reduces the number of scavenging opportunities.
While interesting, this system doesn’t work particularly well. Fuel is plentiful, provided you pick it up as you progress through levels, and surely travelling by the highway would consume less fuel, not more. While you may choose to travel by the back roads for scavenging opportunities, you’ll get just as many chances if you choose the highways, due to the high risk of breaking down or running out of fuel. Also, there are only a few preset areas for scavenging, and we came across an identical location twice on the same journey, which was a little jarring.
The second interesting mechanic is the survivors. While you’ll come across a few of these over the course of the game that choose to remain where they are, many others will elect to travel with you. Upon arriving at a new level, these survivors can be instructed to search for ammo, fuel, or food. Each survivor has a preferred weapon, a health bar, and a percentage chance of fatality, which decreases as more survivors are assigned to the same task. However, once you enter the level, they’ll instantly disappear, and you won’t get an update on their mission until you reach the end of the stage. It’s also impossible to foster any kind of emotional attachment to a survivor, as after you first meet them, you'll not have a single dialogue interaction with them, which makes them feel like more like a burden than an ally. We managed to successfully kill off almost every survivor that joined us, simply because the game did nothing to make us care for their wellbeing.
As mentioned previously, there’s almost no narrative content here whatsoever. Survival Instinct does absolutely nothing to clue players ignorant of the TV show into what’s happening or whom the characters are, instead relying on prior knowledge of the show to do most of the work. While Daryl may be looking for his brother, he appears to know exactly where he is, seemingly only stopping at the towns along the way to give you something to do, and at no point does he clue you in on where he's actually headed. There’s absolutely no character development, with every survivor you interact with playing the role of a simple plot device, which made us instantly disengage with every ‘dramatic turn’ the story aimed to inspire.
And then there’s the brothers themselves. The Dixon brothers are probably two of the least likeable characters from anything ever. We’re not talking ‘Kratos isn’t relatable’ unlikeable, but ‘you couldn’t find two more obnoxious jackasses if you tried’ unlikeable. The writing even goes so far as to make them hateable at times. While we appreciate that this may be true to their characters in the TV show, why on Earth would you make them the protagonists of a game? Surely their only purpose in the show is to antagonise the main cast every so often, but with the game it feels as if they’re only here to irritate the player.
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is an appalling, unpolished mess. Gameplay is dull and buggy, there’s very little attempt at a plot, the characters are unlikeable, and bar a couple of interesting mechanics, everything feels rushed and dated. The likenesses and voices are accurate, with Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker reprising their roles as Daryl and Merle respectively, but that isn’t enough to rescue this abomination from the shallow grave of wretchedness that it has dug for itself.