If you’re like me, the moment you heard about the new The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct game you couldn’t wait for arrival of the release date. What’s not to get excited about? TWD Survival Instinct is an officially licensed AMC game based on arguably the best cable TV series of all time, features the voices of cast members Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker, and is published by experienced game-maker Activision. I’ll preface this with letting y’all know I’m not a professional gamer or game reviewer. What I am is a huge fan of The Walking Dead comics and TV series who puts in more than his fair share of time with a game controller in hand.
What I was most interested in with this game (besides kicking walker ass) was actually learning more about the backstory of the Dixon brothers. The duo is not featured in the comics or two novels by Kirkman and Bonansinga so little is actually known about their history before we meet them in season one of the TV series. You take the controls of this first person shooter as Daryl Dixon not long after the initial outbreak of the disease and for a brief moment you even meet his father. From there, Daryl goes on a journey through Georgia to find his brother Merle and search for some kind of evacuation from this undead nightmare. At this point in the timeline of Kirkman’s universe, some of the grid is still functional with isolated pockets of military and police presence so we’re not in the full on breakdown mode where we see the TV show begin.
The standout feature of this game is that the Dixon characters are voiced by Reedus and Rooker. This should be obvious given how much of the marketing push has been centered around this fact. The only other positive thing I can say about this game is the environment sounds. Sneaking around at night with no visibility outside of your flashlight stream listening for the rustling of walker movement does add some creepy ambiance. Plus there are plenty of surprise jump out and grab you sequences to keep you on your toes. Sadly, that’s about the extent of my positive thoughts.
One of the biggest disappointments for me was the lack of solid storytelling. With so many excellent games out today that focus on crafting wonderful in-game scripts, the absence of this from a game based on a TV series that originated from a comic book was a letdown. If you’re looking at this game as means to learn about the Dixons before the Atlanta camp, then don’t even bother with it. What we get is extremely shallow with little more than repetitive catch phrases and meaningless drivel between side characters you could care less about. As you play through the campaign, you’ll also find that the interaction between Merle and Daryl is almost non-existent. I was hoping for some side-by-side team ups and potentially even multiplayer campaign capability, but you actually never even see Merle when you are not watching the limited cut scenes. Not getting the chance to play the game as the Merle character was a bit of a letdown as well. We’ve learned on the show that he is an excellent marksman who can hold his own with the walkers so actually taking the controls of Merle would have been fun for fans – even if he hasn’t yet acquired his awesome knife stub.
The environments and walkers on the surface look decent, but the game boards are small and relatively closed. It seems pretty obvious they don’t want this to be a run and gun style FPS (like a Left 4 Dead or Dead Island) which is a welcome change. Unfortunately, the game is so repetitive and slow that only sneaking around lumping walkers over the head with a baseball bat or lead pipe gets tiresome. Eventually, you get Daryl’s quiet crossbow which is fun, but you lose bolts easily and it’s hard to find replacements. Sneak style games like Splinter Cell can be a lot of fun when done right, but the zombie apocalypse just isn’t the place for it – although if you were playing as Glenn roaming the buildings in Atlanta that actually would be fun. When you decide to start using all of those fun shotguns and pistols be prepared to be swarmed as we all know loud sounds attract walkers. Not only are the primary objective gameplay environments quick, the designers inserted several side-mission sequences to help fill in some time during the short campaign with more walker killing. As you travel between primary destinations in your vehicle, you can choose whether to take backroads, streets, or the highway – each offering differing chances for breakdown, scavenging opportunities for supplies, and varying fuel consumption. The problem is that they only created a handful of these environments so you end up seeing the exact same highway encampments, diners, and street scenes over and over again. You are occasionally faced with a choice on what town your group should travel towards, but after that decision is made you never have a chance to go check out the other location. Again, a very linear closed off map environment that could have been a lot better had it been opened up.
Resources in the zombie apocalypse are limited. We all know this. So the game tries to simulate that problem for our heroes which is also quite different from some of the other popular fps zombie games I already mentioned. The resource mechanic falls short again. The decisions to take various kinds of roads to conserve fuel or avoid breakdowns is irrelevant because you will always stumble upon one of those same sub-boards to get what you need. Ammo isn’t abundant, but you’re supposed to be stealthy anyway which goes back to the boring repetitive nature of the game. You also pick up survivors along the way that you can send out on their own missions to scavenge for supplies while you are completing the primary objectives in the towns. Tip: don’t even bother. They come back with so few items that it’s not even worth the risk since more often than not they will die while foraging and there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re best option is to keep as many alive at the car as you can in order to score a few extra achievement points at the end of the game. This was yet another resource and emotional addition that was meant to add a deeper dynamic which could have been great with better execution. You are often faced with a choice on what town your group should travel towards, but after that decision is made you never have a chance to go check out the other location. Again, a very linear closed off environment that could have been a lot better had it been opened up.
If the game description and commentary I’ve seen in interviews didn’t mention this was supposed to be in Georgia, I never would have known from the gameplay. You frequently see a map in the game, but all of the town names are fictional. This could have been a lot more fun if it has used an actual map of Georgia with real town names or at the very least let you see where you traveling within Georgia in relation to Atlanta. Yes, Atlanta is mentioned and you meet a surprise person with a connection to characters in the first season of the show, but you never actually make it to the city. The boring storyline actually starts to get interesting at the very end of the game before it abruptly ends. Do you remember that moment you felt in the theater when the credits started rolling during Lord of the Rings The Fellowship of the Ring and you wanted to keep watching to see what happened next? Yeah, this is like that only less epic. My point is, the game didn’t actually connect the dots between the backstory and the survivors we see in season one of the show. The ending definitely leaves the story (what little exists) open for a sequel for us to continue following the Dixons on the way to Atlanta, but that game getting made is highly unlikely. Even an additional level could have quickly closed the gap on the backstory.
In short, hardcore fans of the show will probably want to give it a chance. If you go in with low expectations and are prepared for the repetitive nature of the gameplay, then you might find some enjoyment. Most of that will come from listening to Reedus and Rooker who do a great job voicing the poorly written script. There is no multiplayer mode and you will need to start the game over from scratch in order to visit the towns that you didn’t select the first time through in your travel map destinations. The latter is highly unlikely for most casual players. Taking both of those into account, this is one that will probably not get any replay value so you are better off to simply rent the game or pick up a used copy – which I imagine there will be a lot of floating around a week or two after the release date.
If you really want to play an outstanding game in The Walking Dead universe, check out the one from Telltale Games. It is done in graphic novel style so gameplay movement is more limited and ties in with the comics rather than the TV series. It is a fantastic piece of storytelling with beautiful animation and builds an emotional bond between the player and the characters. You’ll likely even shed a tear. Seriously. It’s that good.
Note from Patti: Follow our good buddy Chad on Twitter at @Ratpack