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The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct (Xbox 360) artwork

The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct (Xbox 360) review

"The game spooked me on a couple of occasions and frequently almost has enough atmosphere to make its many shortcomings worth overlooking, but then you come across a walker staring at a wall, getting stuck to an object or running in circles due to pathfinding confusion and all immersion is shattered."

The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct asset

I can picture the creators of The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct breathing heavy sighs of relief a couple of months ago when the now legendarily bad Aliens: Colonial Marines was hogging headlines. "Whew," they must have thought. "Now our dated, hideous first-person shooter based on a popular horror franchise will slide completely under the radar!"

Survival Instinct can, as such, at least sleep soundly knowing it's not the worst major release of the year so far, which means it's a hair better than many of us superficial types were expecting it to be ever since its dreadful-looking announcement trailer surfaced mere months ago. In fact, Survival Instinct actually has enough interesting ideas at its core that I almost feel bad for calling the end product a lazy, unfinished mess. The description fits, but I suspect that with a little more flexibility in its development cycle, the game could have been something genuinely worth playing.

For one thing, Survival Instinct is one of the few first-person shooters to actively discourage shooting. Ammo tends to go pretty quickly, and using it often does more harm than good, anyway – in keeping with the rules of the show, zombies are attracted to loud noises, and thus using firearms generally tends to send every walker in the vicinity bolting toward you with its arms outstretched. Since it's not feasible to gun down every single enemy in your path, the game has a surprising focus on melee combat and stealth, forcing you to create distractions and pick off walkers one at a time by stabbing them in the head. (The Walking Dead continues to inhabit a universe in which human skulls are made of styrofoam.)

The game also earns the "survival" in its title, since there's an actual economy to progression. You need to collect and manage fuel to move from one mission to the next, and you can choose from several routes based on gas usage and risk of breakdown. Survival Instinct has branching paths with unique levels, and any areas you explore in between – either to clear obstacles or search for supplies – are randomized. You really get the sense that everyone who plays Survival Instinct will have a relatively unique experience, which is rare in a modern, linear game. You even have the chance to recruit NPCs, arm them, and send them scouting while you're completing objectives. There's an unexpected degree of depth to the game's structure.

It's a shame such depth was left out of the actual mechanics. The byproduct of zombies being difficult to take on in large numbers is that they're embarrassingly easy to engage individually. You've got a one-press execution technique if you manage to get behind an enemy (which doesn't even require you to be quiet), and even if you're attacking from the front, smacking a walker repeatedly in the head with a melee weapon just locks it into a looping recoil animation until it falls over. Since walkers have a very specific range of detection, even if you're shining your flashlight all over the place, it's incredibly easy to clear large groups just by drawing them away one at a time and picking them off in the same manner.

Walkers will occasionally grab hold of you, which initiates a relatively simple quick-time event sequence. If you're grappled while being attacked by a large group, the rest of them will politely wait in line until you're finished stabbing the walker who has currently captured your attention.

Now, I generally hate describing things as "boring," because I think it's just about the laziest criticism you can make, but there's no other way around it: Survival Instinct is boring. With just one enemy type and only a handful of efficient ways to kill them, the game is generally too easy and predictable to be any fun. When it's unpredictable, it's cheaply so, as developer Terminal Reality will often leave walkers around corners where it's impossible to avoid getting grabbed, or respawn them in places they physically could never have reached. Clearing out entire areas more or less can't be done, with zombies often reappearing literally while you have your back turned. This limits exploration to a frustrating degree, though it's not like the level design gives you any breathing room to begin with – Survival Instinct is an invisible wall jamboree.

The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct asset

If you're thinking that this is all worth putting up with to get any significant backstory on two of the TV show's main characters, well, maybe it would be. I wouldn't know, because Survival Instinct doesn't offer any such thing. Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker were indeed brought aboard to reprise their roles as brothers Daryl and Merle Dixon, but aside from the intro sequence (which depicts a relatively important personal event), the game gives us absolutely no insight into the pair that we haven't already gotten tenfold from the TV series. The explanation for how Daryl and Merle wound up in Atlanta, apparently, is that they just happened to be driving that way. As someone who's just recently regained interest in the show, I was looking forward to some elaboration, but Survival Instinct's string of largely unconnected events feels almost unworthy of bearing the Walking Dead name.

Only during the final few missions, when Daryl finally gets his crossbow, does the game ever feel in tune with the show. There's some visceral joy in delicately putting arrows in walker skulls, and having a ranged weapon that doesn't give off your location helps Survival Instinct to at long last move at a faster pace. Predictably, however, Terminal Reality made the ever-so-common mistake of believing that the only way to make a game's finale feel climactic is to crank up the volume, and thus Survival Instinct's over-caffeinated conclusion is rife with machine gun fire, explosions, helicopter crashes… the works. I can credit the final level for at least having a bit of energy, however, which is more than I can say for the rest of the campaign and its overreliance on tedious fetch quests.

By the way, the game is also a technical catastrophe. I won't dwell on it being ugly, since Survival Instinct has much bigger problems than that, but I will dwell on its terrible AI, and how embarrassing it is that I have to make that criticism about a zombie game, which doesn't exactly require state-of-the-art AI to begin with. The game spooked me on a couple of occasions and frequently almost has enough atmosphere to make its many shortcomings worth overlooking, but then you come across a walker staring at a wall, getting stuck to an object or running in circles due to pathfinding confusion and all immersion is shattered.

The good news is that if you're really itching for a good Walking Dead game, Telltale Games released a rather excellent one last year. The bad news is that if you're itching for a Walking Dead game that's a bit more direct or that functions as a worthy extension of the TV series, you'll have to wait for one that isn't shovelware. Survival Instinct, from marketing to finished product, feels like a title that was hastily slapped together to piggyback on the popularity of a major franchise, and while I can't fault Terminal Reality for a lack of novel ideas, I'd rather be spending my time on a generic game that's actually fun to play.

P.S. If you do play Survival Instinct, keep an eye on the upper-right corner of the screen during the opening credits. A mouse cursor erroneously appears in a couple of shots. Yes, really.


Suskie's avatar
Freelance review by Mike Suskie (April 15, 2013)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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