From one perspective, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct isn't as bad as it first seemed in a clutch of shocking screenshots and one glitch-filled gameplay reel (including such shockers as characters gripping combat knives like shotguns). From another it's much, much worse. Rarely are retail releases these days this, well, awful.
Terminal Reality's survival FPS, channeling AMC's smash hit TV series The Walking Dead, now in its third season, gets one thing right: it makes zombies threatening. A prelude to the show, you play Southern hunter Daryl who, along with his hillbilly brother Merle (roles reprised by actors Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker, respectively), must pick his way through a walker-infested Georgia, scavenging supplies in mountain towns, siphoning gas in trailer parks, navigating pitch black police stations, and generally trying to to keep his brain off the menu in efforts to reach Atlanta, where season one begins.
A difficult task, what with all those brain-hungry zombies virtually queuing around the block for a bite. These are not the athletic infected of Left 4 Dead and its ilk, nor is it the tissue-paper-consistent natives of Dead Island, nor the slapstick buffoons of Dead Rising. Survival Instinct goes for the vicious shambling monsters of tradition. There's no twist on the formula (no AI Director, no co-op, no arsenal of melee weapons) but this no-frills approach isn't necessarily a bad thing.
It is astonishing that this element to the game passed quality assurance
Small and self-contained levels manage to hit the show's note of subdued tension. It's death by a thousand cuts; you can leg it past individuals, sure, but get cocky and you'll likely be overrun. Sprinting makes you pant and sweat, attracting walkers, while flashlights and firearms give off tell-tale cues.
The trips between levels attempt to be tactical. From a menu screen, you can take three options: the back roads (high fuel consumption, less chance of breakdown), highway (vice versa) or streets (a balance of both). Choosing the wrong one might see you lack the fuel for the next trip. There are multiple destinations, and within each, different survivors, weapons and resources, so multiple play-throughs might diverge.
The first level sees Daryl venture to a town with his uncle Jess to find supplies. A simple task, but along the way he meets survivors (though we question how much 'surviving' can be done by someone who can't die in-game until a scripted interval allows).
A mechanic locked in his garage, for instance, won't offer gas until we find his uncle, who has the keys. Armed with the world's biggest eye roll, we begrudgingly accept and trot off to the trailer park. There are several ways in: knocking down a fence, hopping over a car (which sets off the alarm), or pushing the car out of the way. The first two options are loud enough to attract every walker in earshot, so we opt for the latter.
Wouldn't you know it, Mr. Hogs-All-The-Gas's uncle is a zombie. We grab the keys (well, press X some distance away from them), and peg it. On our return, the mechanic is being eaten alive. Fantastic. After a quick shrug of empathy, we unlock a steel fence, power on the pumps, fill up a gas tank (there's a nervous 20 seconds as walkers slowly approach), then run to the waiting truck and make our escape.
Later levels achieve the same tension. Chased by walkers (groups never reach more than a dozen, which is enough given the limited playing space), we ducked inside an abandoned motel room and felt the pangs of pressure as figures outside moaned and clawed at the windows. Now that is what you want from a zombie game.