Gosh, American cable TV is borderline great these days. While HBO’s Game of Thrones is definitely the most epic TV broadcast in years, AMC have also been hard at work to keep our eyes glued to the screen. Personally, I’m more familiar with Mad Men than Breaking Bad, but that’s not to say that one is better than the other. What is amazing is that The Walking Dead made the transition from comic book to TV serial so successfully, becoming one of the most popular shows in America and beyond. For it to spawn into last year’s The Walking Dead from Telltale, a masterpiece in episodic point-and-click adventure that had more to do with the social interactions of the characters than the walkers themselves.
Unsurprisingly then that Activision and Terminal Reality’s new full-priced shooter based off the AMC series, dubbed The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, completely misses the mark.
First thing’s first. If you’re going to make a game about a series that prides itself on how people react when things become desperate, don’t turn your main protagonists into ugly, unlikeable, gung-ho rednecks. After being ambushed while hunting deer by the walkers, Daryl – one of the most popular characters from the show, is put into a position where he must travel south. His only motivation seems to be to find his brother Merle, an unhinged psychopath who apparently went to jail shortly before the outbreak, to tell him that their dad is dead. The scripted survivors leave as quickly as they arrive, never once getting a chance to develop as characters. As for the two rednecks, did we really need their origin story? They probably warrant a TV special or a flashback in a future episode, but not a full game that does their characterisation a huge disservice.
Problems don’t end there though. You can tell just by looking at it that The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct was built on a budget with not enough development time, just by looking at the visuals. Maps regularly feature carbon copies of houses and shops in places, while zombie variety is too shallow to suspend belief. When viewed up close, the zombies look more goofy than anything else, mindlessly wailing at you like a kitten and dangled string. The game also has a metric ton of bugs and glitches; one of the more dramatic involved talking to an NPC to complete an optional mission, only for him to ignore me. After minutes of trying to get his attention, I opted to just complete the mission. As soon as I got to the next checkpoint however, it warped me back to the NPC’s house for the discussion that was never had. Backtracking is one thing, but this was ridiculous.
Don’t get me started on the combat… Here is the outline for an entire level based on how you complete levels. Step one – smack the walkers on head. Step two – talk to NPC. Step three – smack more walkers on the head. Step four – retrieve key item. Step five – escape horde while picking up random bonus objectives. Initially, there’s a primeval thrill that comes from sneaking up behind them and assassinating them without them noticing. Dealing with enemies at long-range is filled with the dilemma of alerting a horde. But then the game decides to give you Fire Axe that kills zombies in one blow (with practice) and a Crossbow that silently kills from afar. What was once a somewhat challenging game, is reduced to a mere walk in the park.
With a handful of marked missions, taking the campaign up to a remarkably short running time, it’s clear that the game didn’t have enough development time; but does it have any redeeming features? Looking at the whole “survival” concept, it challenges you to balance fuel, ammunition, and food on your journey down south. During missions, you will find basic food items to heal yourself with, but you can also use the food packs to heal your fellow survivors picked up along the way. On paper, it is a fascinating concept, but it is let down by the sheer lack of scope associated with it. For one, each of the survivor’s stats is never explained at the right time – i.e. when choosing which survivors to take with me. I only learned after I’d completed the game once that a Tough survivor takes less damage than a normal survivor, while a weak one takes more. Okay, so it isn’t exactly rocket science, but how am I supposed to know that the Risk meter determines how hurt your survivors get when foraging for supplies?
At the very least though, it has the right idea about economising fuel consumption when travelling by taking different roads to your mission, keeping your survivors healthy, and even choosing who to sacrifice; but the execution is haphazard. Even your prizes for keeping them alive are uninspired unlockable relics that provide you with cheats for subsequent playthroughs that make the game a total walk in the park, such as a Silenced Pistol and Silenced Rifle perk. Beyond that and the alternative routes, there’s no need to play this short game again…
If you needed to sum up The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct in but one word, it would be “rushed”. By taking two characters that may or may not be decent in the show and replacing them with bland redneck stereotypes, you know this is a bad start. It sure does get the “survival instinct” partially right, with a degree of micromanagement, but it certainly isn’t worthy of the name of the franchise. Instead of providing a decent campaign with big decisions that impact the rest of the game, you get a half-assed FPS campaign with minor decision-making that provides little to no context. Telltale has already made probably the definitive homage to the comic book and TV series in videogame form. This slop is more like “The Boring Dead”.