NOTE: ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON COMICBOOKMOVIE.COM 10/13/2013
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct was a target from the day it was unveiled to the public: A “me too” Walking Dead first-person action game from publisher Activision, infamous for milking franchises like Tony Hawk, Guitar Hero and Call of Duty among others to death, based on the AMC TV series coming right off the heels of the debut of Telltale’s brilliant “The Walking Dead” inspired by the comics of the same name. The intellectual property itself doesn’t really lend itself to action like Activision’s other licensed FPS games, I mean sure, the survivors fight and survive in a post apocalyptic zombie ruled United States, but the franchise has found cross media success due in part to the well-developed characters in the nightmare scenario of a world trying to eat them.
To dismiss Survival Instinct out right thinking its a run and gun Walking Dead skinned shooter would be doing the game a huge disservice. The game really earns the “Survival” part of its title, and is one of the more authentic zombie games I’ve ever played, and is in fact quite good if you’re willing to give it a chance.
Set as a prequel to the insanely popular TV series, you take on the role of Daryl Dixon (with both likeness and voice supplied by actor Norman Reedus) in the early days of the zombie outbreak as you hit the road in search of your brother Merle (likeness and voice both provided by Michael Rooker). Admittedly the story of the game is not its strongest point: the player gains no further insight into the plot of the show, nor do you run into any other of the series cast. You’ll encounter several other characters throughout the game, some of which stay with you for a short while, but none are realized or developed into anything memorable. If anything, the people you’ll pick up along the way are more so part of a sub game. When you enter an area, you can send out your party to get additional supplies, with a meter indicating their chance of survival and what weapon that will increase their chance of returning alive. Should they not come back to you safe and sound, it’s really no skin off you back.
Where the game falls short in story, the game succeeds astonishingly well in evoking the terror and dread of what it’s like to live in a world infested with, ahem, the walking dead. This isn’t Left 4 Dead where you can run in guns blazing mowing down hordes of the undead; should you play like this you’ll get nowhere fast. Success in Survival Instinct comes with thinking of how you as a person would survive in this world. Guns and ammo are scarce (even when you get Daryl’s trademark crossbow you’ll be chasing bolts like they’re Nerf darts), zombies are plentiful and noise and light attracts unwanted attention. The best way to hunt for the necessary supplies you need to keep going (food, gas and ammo) is to avoid making noise, dim your lights and aiming for the head should you get cornered. Believe me when I say this is a game where if you’re stumbling through a deserted grocery store in the dark and accidentally knock over a can, you WILL have a sinking feeling in your stomach over the sudden attention you’ve given yourself.
What I also appreciate about this title is the general lack of scripted sequences compared to other modern games in the genre. A lot of games do have tremendous and memorable set pieces, but some times you also have a feeling you’re being led from one section to another. Here you can go about your goals any way you wish and are open to explore how every you want to increase your survival rate. However, this also leads to one of the second major problems with this game.
Between levels you have a choice of what route you wish to take: you can hit the highway and burn extra gas to reach the next town faster, or you can reduce your gas consumption by hitting the back roads and searching for extra goodies. Either way you’re going to end up doing one of the mini supply hunt missions, with the smaller areas tending to repeat themselves a little bit too much. This does give you an opportunity to increase your supplies, but you’ll quickly realize that these levels are little more than lazy padding from the team to extend the games play time, another major flaw.
For a game that once cost $50 (it’s since dropped in price, but I picked it up brand new) it’s almost over just as you get your crossbow and start hitting your stride. It offers little replay incentive other than to go through again at a higher difficulty or to track down one some of the scattered collectibles. That being said, I’m glad there’s no shoe horned VS. multi player mode, but even a co-op option in the campaign would’ve been nice for this solo only affair.
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is by no means a perfect game, but it also doesn’t deserve to get a lot of the hate that the games average of about 30% on Metacritic would lead you to believe. If you’re looking for a strong interactive drama in line with the comics, you’d be better off going with Telltale’s series. If you, however, like The Walking Dead for the tense scenes where the characters are avoiding walkers and fighting for their life, or are a fan of zombies in games in general, you might want to think about giving this game a look. As a wise man once said: is it too much to ask for both?