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Walking Dead: Survival Instinct (Video Game)
-Review by Nic Brown-

Let me start this review out with a couple of points:
1. I love AMC's "The Walking Dead" series.
2. I've read quite a few of the comics and enjoy them a lot too.
3. I can play zombie killing games all day long, usually finishing the game on normal settings, and then going back to play it again on the harder skill levels until I've beaten it at all of them.

I bring these points up because I want the reader to understand how excited I was about the idea of a first person shooter zombie game set in the world of the "The Walking Dead" where the player is not just some random survivor, but Daryl Dixon, the man who made being a redneck cool.

The game promised a lot: backstory for Daryl and his brother Merle, melee and ranged combat with hoards of zombies using a variety of weapons including Daryl's trademark crossbow, and the opportunity to gather survivors and work together to complete levels. Promising and delivering are two different things.

The backstory aspect of the game is probably the best part of it. With both Norman Reedus (Daryl) and Michael Rooker (Merle) lending their voices to the game, the characters sound `the way they should' and the delivery of some of the lines is spot on. However, the positive points for the game go downhill fast from there. The story revolves around you, Daryl, finding your way from a hunting cabin in the woods through the suddenly apocalyptic and mostly abandoned landscape of Georgia on a quest to find your brother and the supposed safety of Atlanta. Along the way, you scavenge for food, fuel, weapons and ammo, with the occasional opportunity to collect a new vehicle or new survivors.

That's where the game shows its first big weakness. The survivors you pick up do not act as AI characters to support you in your missions directly, but rather, before each level you set them on a specific task: look for ammo, look for food, look for fuel or stay in the car. The better armed and the more of them there are, the more likely they are to come back and to bring you stuff to use. That would be OK except what you really need is to have AI characters that you can bring into the game play with you to help complete the level. This lack of direct support devalues the survivors and also means you don't get to fight battles with Merle at your side as I was expecting from the game's description.

Speaking of game play, let's talk about that. The controls are set up along standard lines for the most part, but somehow they picked just enough things to change from the set up for this game compared to other shooters to make it overly challenging to engage in combat. I often found fumbling the controls was a bigger danger to my character than the zombies I was facing.

Control issues aside, the zombies in the game were another disappointment. The number of zombie types was very limited, to the point that it seemed there were no more than five or six unique undead to fight. The game ghouls all had the same speed, same reactions, and the same weaknesses. Following the show meant the game really couldn't introduce things like boss monsters, but the hoards I faced during the game were more boring than threatening as you plod through the motions killing them. I found it more entertaining to try and work my way through levels where I killed the least number of zombies that I could, knowing that when I completed the level I just had to walk at a steady pace (with the occasional sprint) to get to my safe zone.

Killing the zombies wasn't as much fun as it should be. The melee weapons were lumped into two classes, heavy and slow or light and fast. Bladed or blunt made little difference and fights with machetes and baseball bats tended to involve the same number of repeated attacks to dispatch the undead. Best case was a machete where a light attack followed by a slower power attack would end a zombie, but again the difference between the hand-to-hand weapons was so minor that ultimately it made little difference what was used. Ranged weapons were also a let down. The only rifle with any accuracy was the single shot, bolt action hunting rifle with scope. That allowed for generally quick distance kills. The pistols (only two types that I saw) were hard to aim, the other rifles were not much better and the shotguns, while powerful and easy to aim, didn't deliver the kind of group zombie blasting power that I was hoping for. Basically they were just really good for shooting zombies fast without much aiming. Very much later in the game, automatic weapons (an AR-15 it looks like) are introduced, and they are good to use, accurate and fast, but they don't become available until near the end. The biggest disappointment for me though was the crossbow. The weapon has some great features: it's silent (unlike the guns which bring all zombies in the area running the first time you use them) and the player can retrieve fired arrows (if they hit a zombie) so they are reusable. Unfortunately when you miss, the arrows are invariably lost, even when there is a wall behind your target that should stop them. Even the opportunity to pick up arrows is limited, meaning that by the last levels of the game I had no arrows left and no chance to pick up more. The biggest let down though was that Daryl doesn't even come across the crossbow until more than halfway through the game.

Last but not least in the list of let downs was the game's graphics. The environments lacked detail and the characters were cardboard cutouts. It felt like I was playing a first person shooter that was made for a first generation X-box or Playstation from the turn of the century. Even the movie portions between levels, the point when most games bring out their best graphics, seemed flat and choppy. The environments themselves were very limited; the player is invariably herded through a narrow corridor of play with few opportunities to explore a large environment. During cut away mini-campaigns, when your car breaks down or you run across survivors during the trip between major levels, there are only four or five `sets' for play so you find yourself in the same town, the same garage or at the same diner over and over with supplies and zombies almost always in exactly the same spots each time you visit.

All of these points were annoying, but the game was still playable, and I moved through it methodically, waiting for the plot development and backstory that were the payoffs. However I was shocked when the game ended. I had expected it run for much longer and just when I thought it was going to get interesting, it ended. While challenging, the final level was a let down and the shortness of the overall game play made me feel cheated since I bought "Survival Instinct" at the new release game price of almost $50. I didn't time it, but I estimate it took less than 16 hours of play to finish, beating only last year's "Lollipop Chainsaw" for shortest overall game play, but without that game's humorous story, good graphics and fun characters to make up for it.

In case you can't tell, overall I was very disappointed with this game. I believe that Activision rushed its production to try and release it before the end of the show's third season. They would have done better if they had taken the time to develop more challenging levels, better combat, more ammunition, and most of all by giving the player the chance to interact and work with more AI characters directly during game play. As a fan of the show and the comic I'm glad I played the game just to pick up the small bit of backstory it dropped, but I would not recommend it for any reason other than that. Pick it up used or once it goes on sale, but don't pay more than $15 for it because in my opinion "The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct" was dead on arrival.  


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