Like a rotting, clawing zombie that refuses to die, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct was a game that continued to surprise me and refused to be brained by its shortcomings.
WDSI has been bludgeoned, hammered, eviscerated, immolated, and shredded by just about everyone who calls himself a critic. But I’m here to tell you that the game is not that bad. In fact, it’s actually kind of good. But, just “kind of”… just a little bit. That said it’s still a far cry from the high purchase price publishers Activision and AMC Studios are demanding for the game.
However, if you want to compare it to another recent high profile bomb, I’ll tell you one thing right now: WDSI is worlds better than Aliens: Colonial Marines.
Last year’s Walking Dead game (developed by Telltale Games) was a point-and-click adventure game that took place in the graphic novel’s universe. Developer Terminal Reality’s Survival Instinct is a first-person action game that takes place in the TV show’s universe. WDSI stars the show’s favorite rednecks, the Dixon brothers: Daryl and his psychotic older brother Merle. Interesting fact: the Dixon brothers never appear in the graphic novels; they are a complete invention of the TV show.
WDSI opens up at the beginning of the zombie outbreak. Daryl Dixon is hunting in the Georgia wilderness with his father and friends, when all hell breaks loose. He decides to hit the road and track down his brother, Merle. Daryl’s road trip across Georgia includes many stops at small towns, farms, and other roadside areas that may yield the game’s three precious resources: fuel, food, and weapons/ammunition.
There is no greater point to the story than to survive long enough to find your brother. The game is basically a prequel to the Dixon brothers’ introduction to the TV series. During his travels, Daryl meets other survivors who may join his small group and could offer assistance in collecting resources or offering unique items such as new vehicles. But these characters are never really developed, and none of them end up hanging around very long. The game’s theme of survival is enough to keep the story going, but the addition and exploration of more long-term characters may have added an extra depth of dimension to the plot.
The Walking Dead: Survival Instincts is part first-person brawler, part shooter, and part strategy game. The problem is the brawling part of the game is the only ones the developers really got right. This game is full of so many good ideas, and not a one of them is ever fleshed-out or successfully pay off.
On paper, WDSI sounds like an amazingly good game: travel across Georgia using only your wits and what you can scavenge to survive. You can choose the paths you will travel, and each will offer different rewards: back roads use a lot of fuel, but have many more opportunities to collect supplies. If you travel by highway, you’ll use less fuel, but you will not have as many opportunities to collect resources. The type of vehicle you choose will dictate how much fuel you use, how many survivors you can bring in to your group, and how many supplies you can carry. You can assign survivors in your group to go out and collect resources for the group, and each has his or her own unique fighting styles and weapon preferences. The particular weapon you assign to a survivor, and how many are on assignment at once, determine the chances of their success and their survival. Each survivor has his or her own health meter, and you can choose to use your group’s very limited food resources to heal the member before sending them out into the wild.
As great as all this sounds, none of it works. Now, the game is not broken, so to speak. Rather none of these design elements are ever really brought off in a successful way. Sending out survivors is unnecessary, as Daryl collects more than enough resources on his own. It does not matter what kind of vehicle you use, because you will always run out of gas anyway, and you will always overfill your inventory. It does not matter when one of your group members dies because they are fleshed out in any meaningful way.
WDSI does get its gameplay mechanics right, and bashing zombie skulls never seems to get old. The game offers a number of different weapons from hammers and axes to pistols and rifles. Unfortunately, the interface to switch weapons is extremely clumsy, and makes it super difficult to switch weapons on the fly. Blunt weapons are extremely satisfying to use, and making direct contact with a walker’s melon is a wonderfully satisfying experience. The fire axe will decapitate a zombie, and its head will pop up in the air – it’s not terribly realistic, but it’s an awesome site. You will spend the majority of your time using melee weapons, because, as is emphasized in the TV show, the sound of gunfire draws mobs of walkers to your location. Guns are not even good “last resort” weapons, because a desperate situation becomes impossible when hordes of zombies spam your face. And you will never find enough ammunition to fight off every zombie in the wave. Guns are only viable when the end of the level is in sight.
It may sound like I’m complaining, but I’m not. The challenge of not using firearms brings a welcome dynamic to the game’s structure. Later in the game, Daryl gains access to his signature crossbow. The crossbow rocks! It fires quietly, so you can use it without attracting attention. The bolts are recoverable, so you may never run out of ammunition (however, the crossbow is slow to reload). If you nail a walker in the head, you are treated to an awesome spray of blood against the nearest wall as the body crumples to the ground.
Other gameplay highlights: the developer restrained themselves from adding unnecessary and out of place “super” zombies (a la Left 4 Dead). Speaking of zombie design, they are top notch, and show a significant level of detail… especially in their dead, dried out eyeballs. There is a wide variety of zombies and they do not repeat as much as I was afraid they might. The biggest gameplay annoyance was the game’s habit of spawning zombies anywhere and everywhere. You could back into a corner you know has no zombies in it, and as soon as you turn your back to it, a zombie pops in behind you and ambushes you. You might be climbing an empty stairwell, and the landing you cross (which is obviously empty) all of a sudden spawns a zombie behind you out of thin air. It’s really cheap, and is an unfortunate blemish.
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct looks a lot like a first-generation Xbox 360 game with an improved lighting engine. Textures can look quite blurry (the insides of cars look inexcusably horrible), and there is a lot of shadow draw-in. While Daryl and Merle’s models look very nice, and zombies are nicely detailed, environments are filled with a lot of repeated textures and props. Car models are also re-used to an annoying degree. There is one sedan model, one coupe model, one SUV model, and one pickup truck model, and they are all used over and over again. It gets to the point where streets end up looking like car dealerships.
The lighting engine in the game is actually quite nice. Your flashlight casts real-time shadows, and there are nice sunlight effects. Weapons models are hit-and-miss in quality, but the nickel-plated revolver model looks quite nice.
WDSI is not a horrible looking game, but it’s not a game you’ll use to show off your new GPU. On the bright side, it’s not difficult to run on lower-end machines.
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct’s audio is quite good. Actors Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker reprise their roles as Daryl and Merle (respectively) from the TV show. Both are top-notch actors and do a fantastic job of giving the game a real connection to the TV show. The game also uses the TV show’s theme, further strengthening the connection.
The game’s soundtrack is minimalist, and reminiscent of good horror films. It’s subtle and sits in the background, and adds to the stark atmosphere of the game. Sound effects are also very good. The *shunk* of a hammer against a walker’s skull is always satisfying.
My experience with The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct was one plagued with more crashes than I find normally acceptable. Crashes seemed to happen most frequently when I paused the game. Also, the game never remembered my anisotropic filtering setting after I exited to the desktop. Each time I launched the game I had to get into its video settings and turn on anisotropic filtering.
Rereading this review, it seems like I had enough positive things to say about the game to give it a higher score. The sad fact of the matter is the game frittered away too many of its good ideas, and it is too difficult to look past the game that could have been. If there’s anyone to blame for this, my money is on the publishers, specifically AMC. This game was announced less than a year ago, and it was simply released way too early for Terminal Reality to bring it to term. I don’t even blame Activision. My guess is Activision acted as mostly a distributor for the game, and while people love to pick on Activision, their games are at least of higher quality. I think the blame likely lies with AMC. This is a company not experienced in the video game industry, and was probably desperate to ship the game before the final episode of season three aired. Delaying the game until the premier of season four would not have given the developer enough time to make fix all the game’s problems. Waiting longer than that would have pushed the game into the next generation of consoles, at which point no one would care. What AMC could have done was initiate the game as a next-gen title, and wait to ship it until the end of season four. However, that would have increased production costs substantially, and may have put the game off past a point where people stop watching the show. At the end of the day, WDSI was cursed with bad timing.
Despite all of its problems, there is still quite a lot to like about WDSI. This game is not nearly as bad as many others would have you believe. The biggest caveat is the game’s price: $50 is too much for a game that has not been fully realized. When it eventually receives at least a 50% sale price on Steam, I do recommend it.
And it's still way better than Aliens: Colonial Marines.
It’s tied closely to the AMC TV series. While the plot is as simple as surviving until you find your brother, it’s still enough to hold your interest. The game could have used more dimensional secondary characters.
Many of the game’s best ideas were never given enough development time to gel, which leaves the player yearning for what could have been. Combat mechanics are satisfyingly brutal.
First-generation Xbox 360 visuals with a nice lighting engine.
First-rate voice acting featuring actors from the TV show; the sound of hammer against zombie skull never gets old.
FINAL SCORE: C