Following on the footsteps of Telltale Games’ groundbreaking point-n’-click adventure series was never going to be easy, but Activision’s adaptation of the popular The Walking Dead television series has drawn a negative reaction from the core gaming audience since it’s initial unveiling. While a first-person shooter (FPS) title does seem the most direct (or lazy for the most cynical of us) route to retail for a zombie survival adaptation, there could well be merit to the concept of surviving against the odds on the road. And in The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct there most certainly is, just sadly hindered by a few more obvious and damaging flaws.
Casting the player as Daryl, fighting alongside his brother Merle, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct acts as a prelude to the original television series. Those already involved with the franchise we already have an understanding of what this experience is likely to entail, but for those who are yet to watch the programme The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct will offer a hard-hitting zombie-killing FPS with a bunch of white trash hicks in its own right. There is no need for prior knowledge of the series, though you miss the occasional nod and wink to the events that do happen later in the story.
The videogame begins with what appears to be a routine hunting trip. Armed with your rifle, you are told to walk along a creek and find a roaming elk. However, there a number of hints that not everything is as normal as it may seem, and the sound of a distant scream and gun fire sets the wheels in motion. The next few moments will not see you well, and the entrance of our most unlikely protagonist is not particularly graceful.
The meat of the experience is a unique premise for an FPS videogame. Driving south in order to survive, the player moves from location-to-location scavenging all they can along the way. Fuel, food and ammunition is needed to survive, with the former essential to make it from one destination to the next. The player can choose the route taken, with variable chances for success and fuel consumption, though does not drive themselves. Upon arriving at the destination a short equipment management sequence takes place in which you can shuffle items between inventories (on your person and left in your vehicle) as well as giving jobs to any survivors you may have picked up along the way. Then it’s time to get into the action, which is sadly where The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct falls apart.
At times it feels as though the development team at Terminal Reality has gone for a Condemned style of play; you are always low on supplies and often find your vision severely restricted, making do with your torchlight and a rather blunt knife or slow-to-swing hammer. This in itself could make for some fairly interesting gameplay if the moments of suspense didn’t come crashing down thanks to some totally inept artificial intelligence (AI). More than once during Electronic Theatre’s time with The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct was a potentially devastating zombie attack halted by a bottle, trash can or other object on the floor, with the enemy AI unable to figure out how to move around it. This isn’t simply a case of trying to design AI for braindead reanimated cadavers; when the enemy is unable to figure out the need to take a single step left in order to get through the door this goes far beyond that.
The visual and aural quality isn’t much better, though claims this standard could be achieved on older hardware are more than merely exaggeration. The zombie animation is frankly awful and some of the textures are noticeably low resolution, however the scope of some of the environments is at least a little impressive. Not enough to redeem The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct’s other visual failings, but comfortably believable as a small town or trailer park. The voice acting of Daryl, with Norman Reedus reprising his role from the television show, is arguably the best of the collective aural delivery. One might go so far as to suggest that Reedus took the opportunity very seriously – perhaps due to some personal engagement with videogames or the belief that a higher quality product was on the cards – but the accompanying soundtrack is so pedestrian it doesn’t do his efforts any favours.
That The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct was judged prior to its arrival is most certainly unfair on the product and is symptomatic of a template life cycle gone wrong. Too often does a videogame has a dozen trailers, preview opportunities and series of information titbits revealed in the weeks, months and years prior to release that any title which doesn’t is considered to have been swept under-the-rug. Some publishers can’t call upon that kind of attention, and some titles don’t need nor want that audience following them. The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is most definitely it the latter camp: it’s not a bad videogame, but it will be ripped apart by those who play nothing other than AAA releases.