Last year’s The Walking Dead: The Game was a surprising critical hit that found a wide reach amongst many players. It took the largely out of fashion genre of the adventure game and used its characteristics of narrative, puzzling and player consideration to tell a fantastic story that entwined moral complexities with emotional grandeur. In spite of the fact that it was based as a prequel to the original comics, rather than the popular AMC drama, it still managed to capture a certain essence that is present in both interpretations: proving the latter’s faithfulness to the former. For all the walker horror and guns blazing machismo of the main characters, the most interesting element of post-apocalyptic fiction is the way it removes the ideological pressure of an over-arching society and places all moral responsibility on the individual. Yes, Rick Grimes is an absolute lad, but the way he held himself against Shane’s differing views on capital punishment in season 2 presented a thoughtful conflict that challenged the viewer to consider the weight of both arguments. Similarly, the role of Lee Everett in last year’s videogame was to give the player a choice between differing views on important situations that arose throughout the story.
It is therefore interesting, and perhaps even slightly amusing, that a game licensed by AMC and actually based on the TV series, rather than specifically the comics, ends up not resembling its source material in the slightest. The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is a cynical title that automatically presumes that Daryll Dixon’s crossbow and badassery is the only element of the TV show that a wide and devoted audience of viewers would be capable of understanding in a game form. There are no dilemmas or great questions of existence, just a blank premise that barely forms a story, combined with a bit of shooting. Set as a prequel, Survival Instinct follows the story of Daryll as he drives across Georgia in search of his infamous rascal, racist brother Merle (both voiced by their television actors). And that’s it. You meet a few people along the way, and there are a few standard setbacks, but primarily the story leaps all over the place finding no plausibility. It then ends on a pathetic climax that provides no satisfaction other than it points towards the city of Atlanta, the Season 1 setting of The Walking Dead.
Forming the experience of this meager plot is an FPS with a suitably survival twist. You do kill a lot of Walkers, but the player must conserve ammunition whilst searching for food and fuel. Other survivors can be found on the journey, which can be equipped with scavenged weapons and sent out to search for supplies at a risk indicated by a percentage. In addition, journeys between main missions are separated by your car breaking down, running out of fuel, or simply supply scavenge opportunities. A decent enough form for a game, you might think; after all, who cares about story when you’re playing as Daryll Dixon with his iconic crossbow? Well the problem is that Survival Instinct is an incredibly lazy and sloppy game that ultimately undermines any hint of creativity in the experience. At first, the emphasis on silent killing in order to avoid taking on crowds of Walkers seems interesting, but then half way through the game, weapons like the fire axe make it incredibly easy to take down enemies. This, coupled with shocking walker AI (who seem to enjoy letting you slaughter them more than a fresh morsel of brains) effectively kills any sense of ‘survival’ the game was originally trying to establish.
In addition, the more brutal weapons such as the pistol, shotgun and rifle are made suicidal to use and therefore redundant, due to a poor balance between the amount of walkers attracted by the noise they make and the amount of ammunition available to use. By firing off a few rounds in nearly any scenario, dozens of randomly generated Walkers will suddenly appear, regardless of whether you’re positive you killed all the ones in that area. There simply is never enough ammo to kill all the magically appearing new enemies, and so it forces you to either run and pray, or simply die at the hands of an undefeatable horde. Weapon noise attracting more Walkers makes total sense, and would add a great sense of necessary strategy to the game, but as a result of this nonsensical approach to Walker attraction, it is a rare occasion where it seems viable to use a non-quiet weapon. Why even put a shotgun in the game if you can’t use it? The result of these aspects then, make the combat far too easy if you play quietly, and far too difficult if you try using a gun.
It’s not just in enemy encounters that the lacklustre design of the game is apparent. Character models are dreadful; Merle and Daryll are so lacking in expressions as to appear brain-dead, and possibly therefore could be confused for Walkers. Enemies are exactly the same throughout the game, both in their attacks and the way they look. While the only thing more down-heartening than the grainy, grey look of the environments is the fact that they are stock-used repeatedly in the bonus levels. Even the show’s usually stirring and epic string theme tune somehow suffers from a cheap production that makes it uninspiring (or perhaps it’s simply because I normally associate it with something to be excited about). It could honestly be confused for a game that simulates depression.
Perhaps the only redeeming fact of The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is the way it hints towards what it could have been. The survivor system would have had more impact if the game was longer (it’s 6 hours long at tops), while the emphasis on sneakiness and only using guns sparingly would have been effective if it was balanced correctly. You might enjoy it in the kind of mindless way that is usually reserved for a Bruce Willis film, but essentially Survival Instinct is not a finished game. It is yet another testament to the impressive ability for publishers to release such cheap tie-ins and still make money out of it.
Version reviewed: Xbox 360