When I first read The Walking Dead, it hit me like a freight train. The comic was then around 50 issues in (it's recently topped 100 and counting). Its unblinking black-and-white style was one thing, but its take on the zombie apocalypse was an original take on a genre that then, as now, feels like a setting deadened through repetition. Even today, its gritty melodrama feels fresh, one of those few creations that transcends an often trashy genre - the reason it ended up as primetime TV.
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is what comes, with sad inevitability, alongside such an achievement. It's a low-budget tie-in, just like the bad old days. Developer Terminal Reality's previous work includes 2009's decent-ish Ghostbusters, which despite leaden moments showed a real affinity for the material, and last year's Kinect Star Wars, which we'll pass over without comment. Such a catalogue suggests we might expect Survival Instinct to handle the license with some sensitivity, but this is a forlorn hope. The biggest determining factor in Survival Instinct's final form is one word and a whole lot of change: budget. This is a shoestring production, and it feels like one carried out at double-time then stitched together at the last minute. The best you can say is that it has big ideas but never realises them.
The game is a prequel to the TV show and casts you as the charmless hillbilly Daryl Dixon, whose most distinctive trait is calling female zombies "d***head" as he stabs them. Your mission is to stealth-and-shoot through levels that are basically large corridors - which could of course describe many first-person shooters. But while the better examples of this design do a good job of hiding it, in Survival Instinct, you're constantly running into invisible walls and knee-high obstacles. The cut-off points for levels are also invisible, and will simply fade the screen to black then respawn your character facing the other way. This isn't just bargain-basement design, it's uncaring.
What constitutes these locations is just as bad. Rows of boxy buildings, boxy houses, boxy cars and hundreds of poxy doors that don't open but look the same as the ones that do. The textures everywhere are woeful and the few dynamic elements that exist - such as zombies bashing through doors - are rudimentary. (This is also the first FPS I've played in an awfully long time with bulletproof windows. Their place in history is well deserved.)
Each level has a main objective, which is always to reach the other end of the corridor for something, and most also have sub-objectives for you to stumble upon. The levels are so linear it's hard to miss the latter, but fulfilling them usually involves a bit of backtracking and rewards you with more supplies, while some offer the opportunity to take a new survivor along.
The survivors are one of the many potentially interesting but totally unfulfilled ideas in Survival Instinct. They sync with another: your vehicle and its limited seats. Throughout the levels, you have to collect fuel so the car's got enough to reach the next stop and then choose how to drive: fast, without stopping, or slow and looking for plunder. These are menu choices, not mini-games. Voiceovers play over a basic animation of the journey, which is occasionally punctuated by incidents you can choose to investigate or ignore.
Ignoring them is always the best option, because who wants to play more of this? These incidents play out on a very limited pool of small maps, and after two or three you've seen more than enough. Such paucity of ambition is also what characterises the survivors. You can send them out to look for supplies while you're on a mission, risking injury, or make them wait by the car. That's it.
When you dismiss somebody, abandoning them to the zombie apocalypse because you couldn't possibly fit three in the back seat, what happens? Nothing. You move to the next menu screen and they've disappeared. I mention this because these are the kind of decisions that The Walking Dead, in its better incarnations, turns on: betrayal, the greater good, practical concerns recast as life-or-death dilemmas. Survival Instinct's failure to grapple with these decisions turns its characters into ciphers (a stark contrast with Telltale's Walking Dead adventure game from last year).
I've avoided talking about the zombies because it's not pleasant. The basic shambler is the only type of enemy in the game - top marks for purity of vision - but unfortunately there are only about six skins for them. They're dumb and can be taken out instantaneously from the back, but will see and smell you at close range as well as respond to gunshots. Let loose a shotgun and everything dead comes a-walking.
It's another of those neat ideas that Survival Instinct doesn't quite pull off, and the reason is obvious: the combat is terrible. Melee attacks are feedback-free, only useful for one zombie at a time, and you quickly work out that it's quicker to shove zombies, run around their backs and perform an instant kill. What a terrifying foe. Getting surrounded by zombies leads to Survival Instinct's most bizarre mechanic, an endless group hug where the zombies attack, one at a time, in QTE sequences, but never stop coming: a war of attrition you can never win. Thematically that might be appropriate, but the execution here is so botched it can only be called a disaster.
Firearms do make things a bit more interesting, thanks to the horde effect, but it's not like this is a great shooter. The one bright note is a crossbow that you acquire later. Finally you can shoot things in silence, but that's more a question of convenience than enjoying firing the thing. This point is driven home in an unforgiving manner by Survival Instinct's climax, where you're given an assault rifle and lots of ammo to run through a minor labyrinth of zombies - and it's all topped off with a mounted gun. Where do they come up with this stuff?
There was a very specific moment when Survival Instinct turned, for me, from a bad game into an intolerable one. My car had to stop on the highway because there were vehicles blocking the road. Upon entering the mini-mission, I found the car I had to move. It was in a suburban car park, and I had to push it out and onto the kerb to clear the route. (It's the last screenshot in this review.) Why has my car stopped on the highway, yet I'm clearly in suburbia? Why is my character clearing a route through a car park when there are clear roads all around? Most of all, why is what's right in front of me obviously not clear when the mission says I've cleared it?
There is no point in trying to explain these contradictions, because the people who created this game didn't care enough for there to be answers (or, at best, weren't given enough time or money to care). I expected better from Terminal Reality. Ghostbusters wasn't quite the real deal, but it suggested a studio that could go on to much better things - and then Kinect Star Wars, and now this. If you don't want The Walking Dead tarnished forever, then avoid Survival Instinct: it is simple hackwork, fan exploitation at its most crude.