Long before the game’s release, expectations were low for Terminal Reality’s adaptation of AMC’s The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct. The fact that it was a licensed game from Activision notwithstanding, early leaked footage looked distinctly dated, with bland visuals and lacklustre gameplay. Marketing was all but nonexistent, and when it was released ahead of schedule gamers were understandably cautious. The official trailer was released towards the end of the development cycle, along with a number of developer interviews, which (similarly to Ubisoft’s ZombiU) promised not so much a run-and-gun first-person shooter as an exercise in stealth and tension. We’re fully aware that visuals don’t make a game, and we welcome the notion of a stealth-based game set during the zombie apocalypse, so we were more than willing to give the title a chance. After all, with 2013 having already delivered one of the worst licensed games imaginable, surely The Walking Dead couldn’t be that bad. Right?
The development team started out with the perfect design brief: to set the game up as a prequel to the popular TV series, allowing gamers and fans to step into the shoes of the show’s resident crossbow-wielding antihero, Daryl Dixon. We would experience the zombie outbreak firsthand, while gaining an insight into both Daryl and Merle Dixon’s backstory. The campaign would be fraught with danger and relentless tension, as players scavenged for supplies, rescued fellow survivors and made their way across country, seeking (amongst other things) revenge and refuge. Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker would reprise their respective roles, lending proceedings an air of authenticity. Sadly, however, that’s where the similarities between the TV show and the game end. Firstly, the central failing of The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is that of the Walker AI. When developing a stealth-centric experience it is fundamental that the enemy AI forces the player to adhere to the rules of the gaming universe. Here, thanks to broken AI scripts, the experience is hit-and-miss at best. Some Walkers will detect your presence from a good way off, while others will simply ignore you to the point where you can “stealth kill” them with ease. Players can opt to play by the rules and traverse the badly designed environments in the shadows, but they will succumb to the game’s flawed mechanics eventually.
You will be frequently presented with Walker “herds,” which, while intimidating at first, can be easily dealt with in two ways. Firstly, you can chose to sprint past them and avoid confrontation entirely, or, for those which a penchant for QTE’s, confront them directly. When the player becomes overwhelmed by Walkers, the game delivers a simplistic quick time event which requires the player to attack at a specific time in order to destroy the Walkers’ brains. Each enemy is addressed individually, meaning, health dependent, it’s entirely conceivable to deal with large groups of enemies without the need for alternate solutions. That is, of course, if they show any interest in your presence. There are a number of enemy scripted events throughout the campaign, which, while on occasion will provide the odd jump scare, once again result in the same simplistic QTE. Another wasted opportunity comes from the game’s resource management aspects, which, on paper at least, sound intriguing and in line with the show on which it’s based.
It soon becomes clear that many of the game’s environments have been recycled throughout the campaign, with slight amendments. There may be a new survivor added here and there or a fresh assortment of supplies, but fundamentally they’re the same streets and building you’ve encountered earlier. Upon reaching the level’s end you’re offered a chance to review your spoils, and manage items and resources. This breaks down to handing out weapons and placing excess supplies into the current vehicle’s trunk. Survivors can be sent out to scavenge for items, but aside from selecting the option to do so, that’s where the interaction ends. Also, whether the survivor returns seems to be down to pot luck. To progress through the game, players have to “travel” to the next location, which again is fine on paper, but is badly executed. The travelling consists of selecting the destination on the map and choosing whether to use back roads, streets or highways. Each option comes with its own pros and cons, be it using less fuel, increased opportunities to scavenge, or a greater chance of breaking down. Once the method of travel is selected we sit back and watch our progress via a cutscene. If the vehicle breaks down or the chance to scavenge occurs, we’re dropped into a limited selection of small environments and must follow the compass until we reach the item in question. The first couple of times are fun, but towards the end of the campaign it’s nothing but an irritation.
Irritation perfectly sums up The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct. As with the recently released Aliens: Colonial Marines, the source material is ideally suited for video game adaptation. Here we have a brutal, unforgiving universe ripe for a survival sim, yet one can only conclude a lack of time, resources and budget have conspired to produce a deeply flawed and frankly ugly game. Broken AI, dated textures, recycled environments, poorly conceived quick time events and uninspired combat all serve to detract from what should have been a welcome extension to the franchise. Publishers Activision recently announced a number of redundancies as they focus their efforts and move away from the often lauded license adaptation market. As the economy struggles, gamers are less likely to blindly support these endeavours and developers and publishers alike are slowly realising this. Licensed games can stand against other AAA IP’s, as the likes of Telltale’s The Walking Dead and the Batman Arkham series prove; then the source material and the fans are treated with respect there’s a profit to be made. Perhaps, therefore, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is one of the last of a dying breed, and, with a little luck, cheap licensed cash-in games will finally stay dead.