“The Walking Dead” is one of the hottest properties right now but Survival Instinct isn’t the game that even comes close to capturing what makes the show special.
Developer: Terminal Reality
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Wii U, Xbox 360 [version reviewed]
Release Date: March 19, 2013
Current MSRP: $49.99
Survival Instinct is a prequel story focusing on the character Daryl Dixon, the cross-bow wielding badass of the television series played by Norman Reedus. This game is based on the AMC TV show now in its third season, not the comics created by Robert Kirkman in 2003. Daryl and his brother Merle, played by Michael Rooker, aren’t even characters that exist in the comic universe.
Activision announced Survival Instinct in July 2012. The developer, Terminal Reality, is known for its recent games like Ghostbusters: The Video Game (2009) and Kinect Star Wars (2012). A fake trailer leaked on YouTube in early January that looked absolutely horrible. The studio said the trailer wasn’t an example of the finished product so players shouldn’t dismiss the game so quickly, but here we are two months later with a full release.
Terminal Reality developed Survival Instinct in a much shorter time than needed and it really shows. Watch what Survival Instinct looks like:
Fight the Dead
Survival Instinct plays with a first-person perspective from Daryl. Walkers, the zombies in “The Walking Dead” universe, are the only enemy in the game. Survival Instinct isn’t a game where you can go around blasting and killing every walker. If you go on a rampage you’ll be overrun. On the show the style is more about being stealthy and careful, otherwise they’d alert a group of walkers and all be killed.
The easiest way to take out a walker is to go up from behind and execute them with the shoulder button. The game will display a prompt for the execution and go into an animation with Daryl’s knife. You can’t do this with any other weapon. If you alert a walker, the only way to take them out is using melee attacks or bullets to the head. A walker’s limbs can be removed using a gun or certain melee weapons. If you take out their legs walkers will still crawl after you.
Walkers can grapple you if you’re not careful. When this happens their face takes over the screen and you need to aim the trigger button to the walker’s head to kill them. This isn’t as easy as it sounds because the game tries to make it a challenge by having the icon move around the screen. Depending on how many walkers are nearby, this could lead into an endless scene of trying to stab your knife through a walker’s skull. Walkers can be pushed away if you get in a jam, allowing a few seconds to make an escape.
On a level walkers will be standing around, walking aimlessly or hunched over eating bodies. To distract walkers, you can throw objects like bottles. This is somewhat of a helpful tactic but doesn’t work well when trying to trick small groups. There are many walkers on each level, so you have to be smart about the ones you take on and how you decide to kill them. Quietly hunting down walkers is the way the game is geared towards.
Almost immediately you notice how behind the game’s mechanics are. Survival Instinct uses a compass and health meter in the bottom left corner that looks like it belongs in a game from 10 years ago. You heal using green sports drink bottles and instant meal pouches. Much like the rest of the game, these aspects feel terribly dated and reminds you that you’re playing a bad video game.
The World is Over
Survival Instinct is filled with lifeless, uninspired environments. Most of the environments beyond the moving walkers are static and lacking detail. Walking through small shrubs on the ground makes absolutely no additional noise to the sound of your movements. The levels all have a similar setup; cars everywhere, destroyed rooms, garbage all over the ground and the dead randomly spattered on the streets. These placements look the same from level to level, so most of the environments don’t stand out in any way.
One of the worst offensives the game commits is that Survival Instinct looks like an original Xbox game, not a 2013 release near the end of a console’s life. The visuals are straight up ugly and low budget. The footage shown in January looks almost the same as the final version, without the severe technical problems. Walkers look cartoony like they’re based off the comics, but Survival Instinct is focused on the show. Shoving a knife through a walker’s throat during a grapple attack doesn’t look that good. The game’s walkers and animations can’t even compare to the ones created by makeup artists on “The Walking Dead.” These poor graphical aspects take you out of the mood and constantly remind you that you’re playing a cheap imitation of the show.
One level takes place in a hospital where all the rooms have exactly the same look and position of items; a bed, x-rays on the wall, medical posters and a calendar where the first Sunday has on X on it. If you see any calendar on a wall in Survival Instinct, there’s a good chance it will also have the first Sunday marked off. Most of the doors in this hospital are locked, and the ones that are open look identical to the room you were just in before. This goes for most areas in the game.
When killed, walkers fall in odd and truly bizarre positions, unnatural even for a zombie. After being executed from behind one looked like it was doing push ups, its arms in that ready position. Another looked like she was laying on her back sun tanning at the beach, soaking in the rays beaming down on a post-apocalyptic world. After being killed walkers slowly fade into the ground and disappear, which looks awful.
The dialogue quality doesn’t sound like the main characters are talking in the same environment as the level. When you melee something like a garbage can, desk or even a walker’s dead body, it makes a sound like someone’s smashing an anvil. The environments aren’t believable, which also hurts the mood. You can’t smash a car’s window and can only move extremely specific obstacles in the level out of the way.
Some of Survival Instinct’s environments do show the potential of the game, like a police station filled with the deceased, a destroyed campground, an abandoned train yard or a walker hanging from a church’s ceiling. There’s also a few awesome sections when you hear someone on a nearby radio while exploring a room. When you try to communicate back with them, the feed goes down after some struggle on the other end. In one instance a walker attacks you immediately after the conversation ends, the same person a woman had asked to talk to over the dispatch.
There’s sometimes a sense of tension during a level. You have to be evasive and sneaky around a lot of the walkers so you don’t get in a bind, stuck in a room with no way out. There’s even real, legitimate scares once in a while with walkers popping around corners or through a door unexpectedly. These moments are done well and will make you jump, but there’s not enough of them.
Hell on Earth
Missions in Survival Instinct are so simple and tedious, always requiring you to find somebody or something. There’s main objectives and then sometimes optional missions to recruit survivors or find a new car. Daryl is basically an errand boy. During one mission you need to find boxes of fireworks to distract the walkers. That’s right, boxes of fireworks. The six boxes are placed in the most random of places in the town. Another dumb mission has you looking from house to house for evacuation information, then running back and forth alerting the last survivors in the area.
If you don’t immediately talk to the person with the next mission objective, they will continue to repeat the same lines until you press X. The optional objective to find a set of car keys makes no sense because the game doesn’t tell you why you need to find a different set of wheels. There’s no indication of what triggers that objective on a level either. Besides random items for people, you’ll need to find gas canisters to keep your car running. Fuel is one of the most important items in the game.
Sometimes when Survival Instinct tries to set the mood of the show it actually does work. A sense of fear develops when entering a ravaged store with no power or having to use your flashlight to navigate a hallway. It’s too bad these moments are ruined by the gameplay. There are a few instances when the game mixes up its exploration routine, like jumping from rooftops to enter new buildings. Unfortunately with the times when something special might happen you’re left disappointed. One mission says an approaching herd of walkers is nearing a bar in town, so you need to get there before it happens. This doesn’t mean anything to the player because the herd is never shown.
The walkers can be pretty smart at times. They’ll notice you from a distance and begin to chase you down. Some walkers will still sense you when crouching, which the game tells you helps avoid them. They can smash through wooden doors but can’t get through the game’s blue steel doors. Walkers do aggressively pursue and fight you. If you’re spotted they follow you for a long time. Gun shots attract more walkers so it doesn’t make sense to use them. Other times walkers are complete idiots. Many times walkers seem to get stuck in place like they hit an invisible wall. Even when there’s a large group together, they’re unable to climb up small obstacles to reach you. You might stand next to a walker or come up from behind and they won’t even notice.
Combat is extremely generic, breaking down into smacking a walker in the face with a pipe or knife while it stands there until it stops moving. If three or more walkers overwhelm you then you’re pretty much dead. They’ll continue to slap you until you escape or die. The walker group will initiate a grapple sequence that turns into an endless loop of the animation. You could literally kill up to a dozen walkers this way. If you try to run away for too long, sweat will appear all over the screen, which adds no value to the gameplay experience. Walkers respawn so there’s no point in clearing out a room or section of the town, unlike on the TV show where it’s done all the time.
Recruitable survivors are scattered across the game. They will join your party after completing an optional objective or just by finishing a short conversation. These survivors don’t follow you on missions like a squad-based game. Before going into a level you can choose to send them out to find fuel, food, ammo or have them stay at the car. Survivors can be equipped with weapons for their scavenge. They each have their own traits like a preferred weapon type and personality, like if they’re weak or reckless. The more survivors you send out the lower their chances of dying are.
This is another interesting feature of Survival Instinct that doesn’t go anywhere. You never actually see your group do any scavenging. There’s no cut-scenes or dialogue from them detailing their job. They lose large chunks of health on these scavenges so it’s not even worth the investment to use healing items on them. If you pick up too many survivors, you have to choose at the end of the stage who gets to stay in your car, which is only like two or three people. When you dismiss someone, there’s nothing acknowledging their departure, leaving them to presumably die in that town. The supplies they find are minimal so survivors aren’t important part of the game. You can only hold 10 inventory items. The car can hold a few more than that, depending on which ride you use. For a game that puts so much focus on scavenging it’s bad you can barely keep any items.
After finishing a level you select on a map where to go next. To get anywhere your car needs fuel, which runs out quickly. During certain points in the story there are two paths to choose. You need to play the game multiple times to see everything. You also have to finish a level during one sitting. You can’t quit the game after a checkpoint. If you do you’ll have to restart the entire stage. There’s three different driving options. You can take a back road, the streets or the highway. Each allows for completely random scavenging opportunities but also comes with a different risk of the car breaking down. Once a path on the map is chosen, you just stare at a red line being traced to the next location as Daryl says a few words. You don’t get to actually drive the car.
Once you choose a destination on a map, additional options might pop up like scavenging opportunities, where you play as Daryl. Others like moving a car out of the way or taking an alternative route are totally worthless besides adding an extra minute to the overall game time. Depending on the path taken your car might break down. These car breaking down scenarios are just padding for a few extra minutes of gameplay too, requiring you to find a part on a small residential area or highway to continue on. It literally sometimes only takes 30 seconds to find the spare tire or engine and get back to your car. Running out of fuel while driving also triggers these lame scavenging side missions. These are considered unmarked travel locations and nothing more than a cheap way to add more game time.
Survival Instinct gives players a false sense of choice. One of the random moments that pops up during the loading screen is to drive through an approaching herd of walkers or move a car out of the way to continue on. I chose to drive through the herd. This would have been an awesome cut-scene. Instead it never happens and the loading screen continues. These choices mean nothing to the player because there’s no visual or acknowledgement of what you picked and the game goes on normally. The only interesting thing that happens is that extra survivors can be recruited during these unmarked locations.
There are a few real choices during missions in Survival Instinct, like choosing which potential survivor to save during a walker attack. In the moment these options feel like they mean actually something, unlike the map choices.
All You Need is Merle and Daryl
There’s no sense of what you’re actually doing in Survival Instinct or what’s the point of playing the game. Missions have no sense of continuity from level to level. You’ll even forget that you’re supposed to be looking for Merle or getting to Atlanta. The game begins as a brief tutorial stage playing as Daryl’s father that shows promise for the game’s story. After the third level Survival Instinct becomes an extreme chore to play.
After a scene where an important character in the game goes south, there’s no cut-scene, dialogue from Daryl or even a simple mention of what takes place. What should be an important scene in the game is ignored completely as an afterthought. What the show does so well is have these moments become character-defining and important to the season. In Survival Instinct it doesn’t even matter.
No connection is created between the survivors you let join your group. When you first meet them, they give a brief story of only a few sentences and you never hear from them again. One survivor you find just stands in the same room after telling his story and you can’t talk to him anymore. He’ll stay in that exact spot but somehow winds up at your car for the next mission. If a survivor dies during a scavenge, nothing is made of it during the game. It’s like they never existed. You can run into people again from a previous level on a new stage, but they go on to do their own thing so they’re not important characters.
One of the only emotional moments in the game takes place during a side mission. An older man’s wife is infected and he knows time is short. He asks you to get something from the town’s pharmacy that would ease her suffering. When you return to his home with some antibiotics, it’s already too late. This scene is a great example of the emotional toll of the outbreak that the show captures so well. Survival Instinct should have been filled with these scenes but it’s not.
The biggest selling point is that Survival Instinct features Daryl and Merle. As seen from the first official video for the game, this is what players are supposed to be excited about. During this 19 second reveal Michael Rooker said, “Merle and Daryl in a game. What can be better than that?” Barely any real conversations happen between Daryl and his brother. They’re so brief and lame that their involvement in the game doesn’t mean anything for fans. The two brothers will have extremely short bits of dialogue before a mission starts, often that goes nowhere, and then you’re abruptly thrown into gameplay.
Everything done and said in Survival Instinct is so vague. During one level Daryl needs to find Merle and a motorcycle club. What is this club? Why is it so important? Then the objective quickly changes from finding Merle to reaching an evacuation point in Atlanta. Meeting up with the military and a doctor in the game who are doing tests with the walkers and the infection showed potential, but like everything else this goes nowhere. Learning more about the infection was an awesome aspect of the show’s first season but it doesn’t happen in Survival Instinct.
There’s no character progression between the two brothers. Everything feels rushed through. Merle isn’t even in half the game, which only takes several hours to finish. You learn hardly anything about their past that couldn’t be done in a short scene or conversation on the show. Even the stuff brought up in Survival Instinct isn’t resolved in any way. You don’t learn much at all about their father, Merle’s biker gang, his military service or involvement with drugs. They do a bit from season two of the show where Daryl hears Merle when he’s not there but it’s another instance where it goes nowhere in the game.
Daryl does have some good lines in the game like,”I ain’t the asshole you worried about…I’m a different one.” He will also say a few words when you find health or ammo too, but just like the rest of Survival Instinct his involvement really doesn’t add much to the game. You don’t even get Daryl’s crossbow until the game is close to finishing. It’s an effective weapon but comes so late in Survival Instinct that you don’t get the full enjoyment out of it.
The final insult comes when Survival Instinct just abruptly ends and the credits roll. It doesn’t even lead up to the first season of “The Walking Dead” or how the Dixon brothers got together with the group on the show. If you’ve never watched “The Walking Dead,” you would be immediately turned off.
Each level has one or two collectibles to find, which is a squirrel statue and a poster. Collectibles are just more padding to the total gameplay time. Posters could be a painting of that person or an advertisement for their business. Finding collectible posters is a cool concept but you don’t learn anything about these people except discovering their dead bodies, which are more visually detailed than most. This was another interesting aspect that went nowhere and is confusing why it’s even in the game.
The way the mission selection is set up encourages multiple playthroughs. There’s no mission select at the main menu so you have to play the game from the beginning. Achievements are earned through several playthroughs by finishing the game with certain survivors on your team. The story can be finished in 4-6 hours. Relics are unlocked after beating the game with certain survivors in your party. These relics give you perks on your next playthrough, like starting the game with the crossbow or silenced weapons. Survival Instinct is incredibly boring and dull so it’s unlikely many people will bother with multiple playthroughs.
Buy the Game, Fear the Cash-in
It’s shameful that with such a great property like “The Walking Dead,” fans got this game from Activision. As someone who read the entire comic story and watched every episode of the show, Survival Instinct is severely disappointing. Survival Instinct is nothing more than a cheap attempt by Activision to make a quick buck off the brand’s hot popularity. This was obviously a rushed job. You can’t fully blame Terminal Reality. The studio did the best it could under the circumstances but it’s still a terrible game. Given more time, Terminal Reality might have produced something great. You can see the game’s potential at certain points in Survival Instinct.
Survival Instinct is nothing compared to the fantastic, story-driven 2012 episodic release of The Walking Dead by Telltale Games that’s based on the comics. Survival Instinct feels like an incomplete game. You would wonder how “The Walking Dead” got so popular if your only exposure is this game. It would have been awesome to get a real game out of “The Walking Dead” and the Dixon brothers, which many fans consider to be the best characters of the show. Instead Survival Instinct is a bargain bin game that adds hardly anything to the mystique of the show.
Many fans of the show are going to get duped out of their money buying Survival Instinct. It does an extremely poor job of capturing what makes the show so popular. There are some cool ideas but nothing is done well. Survival Instinct looks and plays like a game made in a rush, because it was. Beyond the game’s intro cinematic, Survival Instinct shares little with the television show it’s based on and fails to replicate the magic of the program. Survival Instinct is playable so it does meet the bare minimum requirements of a working video game, but has about as much life to it as the undead roaming the streets of Georgia. This is a licensed game in the worst sense, personifying that justifiably dirty term.
- Some legitimate scares
- A few cool ideas, poor execution
- Weapon variety
- Meets bare requirements of a working game
- Barely any story
- Visually looks like an original Xbox title
- Lifeless environments
- Tedious mission style and exploration
- No real ending
- Meeting other survivors is pointless
- No emotional connection to any character
- Merle looks bad
- Voice acting sounds off
- Adds nothing to the storyline behind the show
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct was purchased new for the Xbox 360 for $37.99. 24/50 Achievements were earned for 330 Gamerscore.