The signs were never promising. From the initial shoddy screenshots depicting scenes that don’t actually occur in-game to the lack of actual gameplay in the official gameplay video, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct had all the hallmarks of a cheap cash-in. Rushed out to capitalise on a successful TV show and an award-winning adventure game tie-in, expectations were low. What we weren’t expecting was for the end result to be easily the worst game released this year, and a strong contender for worst game of the last decade.
Acting as a single-player prequel to AMC’s hit series, you play as Daryl Dixon: a scowling redneck with a heart of gold buried somewhere beneath layers of mistrust. An incident at the start of the game leads you to try and track down your brother Merle and flee from the swelling masses of undead roaming the county. Where you begin is never really explained, nor is where you are attempting to reach. BioShock aside, first-person shooters don’t really offer much in the way of plot at the best of times, but when you have two interesting characters already established thanks to three seasons of a TV show there’s no reason why the game couldn’t have capitalised on their story. Instead, it feels like a massively missed opportunity.
Zombies abound in each area and whilst you start out with a knife and hammer, you’ll soon find more powerful blunt and bladed weapons as well as guns to use to take them out, not to mention Daryl’s trademark crossbow. Navigation between areas is done by vehicle, but instead of actually driving you’re treated to a dotted line on a map slowly moving between two locations which is as gripping as it sounds. Occasionally you’ll be treated to a bit of banter as this line plods along. More often than not, you’ll be sat waiting to see if you run out of fuel and have to stop and find some, run into a roadblock you’ll have to stop and clear (or avoid, using more fuel), or find a potential “scavenge” opportunity for, yes, fuel as well as ammunition and food. Health is recovered by using sports drinks and ready meals and is also fully restored after each area. You and your vehicle have ten inventory slots each, which can be filled with weapons, ammo, food or other items such as flares and bottles which can act as distractions to lure away the enemy.
The tired, murky graphics may have held their own at the start of the last decade, but given the progress that has been made with the 360 hardware since then there’s simply no excuse for the blocky trees and static environments you find yourself stumbling through. If you enjoy watching zombies get stuck on cars and door fragments or even half-disappear into walls as you attack them, you’re in for a treat. Any suspense generated by dark areas dissipates the moment you move through them, thanks to low-quality textures and awful smearing that makes it almost impossible to see what is happening. You’ll end up dreading any confrontations in low-light conditions, but for all the wrong reasons. The zombie skins rarely alter, and the animations are so predictable that you’ll know exactly what is coming after ten minutes of play. Roaming outside isn’t much better; the landscape rarely changes from a green-brown mush and the same models are reused again and again. And again. An opportunity to scavenge at a car park offers up decent amounts of fuel and food, but when you blow a tyre on the highway a couple of hours later, you end up back in the exact same car park. This process is repeated for most areas which aren’t directly linked to the main plot and is just lazy game design, offering up perhaps three or four unique locales on your travels and then rehashing them. As such, the “choices” the game offers in terms of different locations to travel through en route to your main destination are rendered moot. The blame for this could likely be laid at Activision’s door as the game feels rushed and cheap, a far cry from one of Terminal Reality’s previous licences - Ghostbusters.
If the gameplay were up to scratch, the visual deficiencies could possibly be overlooked. Unfortunately, the underlying game mechanics are horribly broken. You are given the choices of either stealthily taking out zombies from behind, bashing their heads in or gunning them down from the front, or distracting them with bottles and sneaking past to your destination. Whilst ostensibly an FPS, any usage of guns is limited due to the noise they make pulling in crowds of nearby walkers. The crossbow is the exception here, and thanks to its silent kills and reusable ammo it is one of the few satisfying aspects of the game’s combat. Executing zombies from the rear triggers the same few two-second cut scenes which soon become wearisome. Hitting them with whatever melee weapon you have works well if there are only a couple to take out, but the only real difference is the number of hits that are required to kill them.
Bizarrely, if you are surrounded by a group of zombies you are given the opportunity to off them, one at a time, by focusing the targeting reticle on their heads and pulling the right trigger. It doesn’t matter if there are two or twenty as the end result is the same: focus on the zombie, hit RT, focus on the next one and repeat until all of them are dead. Let’s consider that again for a moment: the easiest way to clear an area of infected zombies is to allow them all to surround you. Presumably the rest of the walkers are standing around waiting for their chance to bite you, in some sort of martial arts pastiche. Why the development team thought that this would be either fun or a good idea to begin with is puzzling. It is also fairly pointless, as the moment you move away from the area the zombies you’ve just killed respawn. It is a cheap tactic to cover up a lack of thought or depth to the game, and saps any fun or sense of achievement.
Ultimately, since the game offers so little emotional involvement other than moving from one area to another via some sort of collectible/plot item, the best method of survival is to run. Doors can be shut behind you which will delay the horde if the doors are wooden, or stop them completely if they are metal, and the walkers simply can’t catch up in open areas. A lack of difficulty levels to choose from has been substituted with areas where hundreds of zombies are piled into a single location. This might have provided a challenge if a) the compass didn’t direct you straight to your objective(s) and b) you weren’t able to run past almost every zombie to your goal, relatively unharmed. Add this to the fact that you’re usually provided with everything you need to complete a level upfront - a trend that continues to the finale - and you have a game that relies more on zipping through it, rather than any significant skill.
Sterling voiceover work from Norman Reedus as Daryl and Michael Rooker as Merle only serves to highlight the blandness of every other character in the game. They act either as tools for you to send out to retrieve supplies, or fetch quest endpoints. Get keys for a generator, find batteries, locate a friend...regardless of the task, having them join you yields little benefit. You can order them to find fuel, food or ammo, or stay with whatever vehicle you currently have. If there are more passengers than space in the car (which is usually the case), the game forces you to kick one out. This happens without a word from either party. Since you have zero investment in their well-being - mainly because they don’t interact with you once you’ve completed whatever sub-mission they assigned you in the first place - you’ll have no issues with leaving them to fend for themselves and replacing them with someone who has a fuller health bar. The NPCs have so little characterisation to them that they make Call of Duty’s supporting cast look genuinely engaging. After you meet them they essentially become an extension of the inventory, and a fairly poor one at that. You can equip them with weapons to help aid their foraging, and the game specifies their preference (bladed/blunt/ranged) but even that might not help. On one occasion an NPC with full health and described as “Strong” was provided with a hammer - his weapon of choice - and still ended up dead. There’s no logic to the system and since any weapon you give to an NPC that dies is permanently lost, there’s little benefit in risking your arsenal unless you have plenty to spare.
Given the fact that the two protagonists are a couple of the most fleshed-out characters in the ensemble on the wildly uneven TV series, you may be looking forward to learning more about their backstory. You will be sadly disappointed though, as the overarching plot is notable in its absence and you’ll be lucky if you hear more than a total of ten minutes of voice-over work from either of them. One main plot point occurs in the introduction and everything else covering the remaining six hour running time consists of pointless stops that contribute nothing to the Dixon brothers’ story. At one stage in the second act you end up at a town that had been preparing for a festival, and you have to blow up a church with fireworks scavenged from around the area. There’s no explanation given for this, other than to thin out a roaming herd. Similarly ludicrous are the breakdowns that occur when driving. At the game’s whim, you’ll find yourself in one of a handful of repeated locations looking for a car part which is easily located via the compass that guides you directly to it. Breakdowns occur more frequently on the highway than on the back roads for reasons never defined. The game lays out arbitrary rules without bothering to engage the player or offer any sort of explanation, and leaves you to scratch your head at their implementation. It feels like padding to drag out the game and when the gameplay is as utterly dull as it is here, those six hours are going to feel tortuous.
Masochists may enjoy scouring the cookie-cutter buildings for random collectibles, but most players will want to focus on killing zombies and doing something, anything, that provides a modicum of variety. There is some replay value, as completing the game with different survivors in your vehicle will unlock various rewards that allow you to play from the start with specific weapons. The question is whether you’d be prepared to put yourself through the ordeal again.
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is an abomination on every level: a dull, cynical and irreparably flawed mess which is as mindless and soulless as its antagonists. The recent goodwill created by excellent franchises such as Batman: Arkham City, Telltale’s superb take on The Walking Dead and even Terminal Reality’s own Ghostbusters has been dealt a blow here. Worse still, the premium price tag attached to something so fundamentally underdeveloped serves only to underline exactly what Activision thinks of its audience. It is unlikely to stop die-hard fans of the series from picking up a copy which is no doubt what the publisher is expecting, but any sane gamer should do themselves and the gaming industry a favour and stay well clear from this rotting corpse.