Review: The Walking Dead Episode 1

Telltale Rises From The Grave

Word on the e-street is that most folks read stingers for articles, but rarely click through to read the whole things. Some websites try to combat this by teasing readers, trying to entice them into clicking through. Thats fine, but I want to get this out of the way early: The Walking Dead is great, and you should probably get it.

Telltale’s latest venture into episodic gaming, The Walking Dead, represents the studio’s most mature take on the adventure genre. Taking cues from games like Heavy Rain and its predecessor Fahrenheit, The Walking Dead combines mature themes, graphic violence, evolved adventure gaming mechanics, and a host of player choices (with consequences) into their best game to date.

Read on to find out more.

The Walking Dead launched this week on the PC and PS3, with a reported Friday launch on  XBL. The game comes in two flavors: a season pass for all five monthly episodes for $25 ($20 if you bought it early), or a single episode for $5 (400 MSP). Like previous Telltale games, single episodes provide between 2 and 3 hours of gameplay. Unlike previous Telltale games, the episodes are highly replayable, but more on that in a bit.

At first glance, a zombie apocalypse may seem like an odd fit for the adventure genre. Gamers are more used to seeing survival horror or action titles in the setting. However, fans of Robert Kirkman’s utterly fantastic Walking Dead comic series (or fans of the TV show) should immediately see the potential. You see, the Walking Dead series has always really been about the heroes conflicts with other humans, and their relationships with each other. Setting a mature-themed adventure game in this context, which allows for complex interactions with strong characters, as well as the element of constant danger, really works, and it works well.

Unlike the traditional Telltale adventure titles, The Walking Dead is a far more linear, less inventory-based experience. You won’t find yourself wandering around locations, clueless about what to do next, or what gizmo to combine with what gadget. Instead, the game takes some serious cues from Quantic Dream’s flawed gems Heavy Rain and Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy for us Americans). The game’s narrative takes your character from one location to the next, and the player’s actions will dictate how that scene plays out. In this sense, the game is closer to highly interactive fiction than the traditional pixel-hunt adventure title.

So, narrative and choice are everything in The Walking Dead. The story takes place slightly before and off to the side of that of the original comic series. You play Lee, a man being transported to prison for murder when all hell goes down in Atlanta. Along the way you meet Clementine, an orphaned child that Lee decides to protect. You will meet various characters from the comic series, but the story itself is all original, and how it plays out is highly dependent on your choices throughout the game. This is more intricate than the now-typical Mass Effect paragon/renegade osystem. When a new friend asks you what exactly your relationship to Clementine is, what do you tell him? When he asks what you did prior to the zombie outbreak, do you lie? Careful, specific lies can come back to haunt you. This is even neater when you consider that all five of the game’s episodes will be able to see the choices you made in earlier episodes and will alter the story depending on those choices.

The dialogue is very well written and the voice acting is spot-on. Characters have, well, character. The themes of the story are suitably dark and dire, and the game does not shy away from portraying things that are both violently disturbing and terribly sad. This is a big departure for Telltale, in terms of both storytelling and mature imagery. Don’t go into this expecting a lighthearted romp through the end of the world. The Walking Dead stays very true to its comic origins.

Graphically, the game is also a big departure. Previous Telltale games all had a certain look to them: shiny characters that all kind of fit the same basic models. The Sam and Max games are big offenders, but the Back to the Future games and the Monkey Island games also had this. The Walking Dead, on the other hand, does a great job at giving their characters a stylized “comic book” look, while also giving each individual characteristics and customized models. The environments are well rendered as well. All in all, this is easily Telltale’s best looking game to date.

I should mention, I played the game chiefly on my PS3, and the controls and mechanics were fantastic. Whereas previous Telltale games had spotty ports (to put it kindly) to consoles, I believe that this game is actually better experienced with a controller in your hand. Whereas previous Telltale console ports have been glitchy at best, the PS3 version of The Walking Dead is smooth as silk. The controls are simple and intuitive: the left stick moves your character and the right stick moves a cursor. Hovering the cursor over an item in the environment will allow you to hit one of the four face buttons to interact with it, and those buttons are typically constant.

This also works well in the game’s action sequences. Instead of presenting the player with a straight-up quicktime event (I’m looking at you Jurassic Park), players now have a good deal more control over the situation. For instance, in an early struggle, Lee is surprised by a zombie and falls to the ground. In order not to get bit, the player must move Lee away from the zombie (scrambling backwards), must locate an object (or objects) to help him kill it, and must dispatch the undead fiend. Trust me, it plays a lot better than it sounds. The end effect of all this is that the game manages to engage players in action events in a far more active manner. Instead of just hitting the “A” button when it pops up, you actually feel the pressure and anxiety of the situation.

I was a big fan of the Sam and Max series, and I enjoyed the Monkey Island and Back to the Future Telltale games. Even so, long before Jurassic Park showed up and stank up the joint, I was worried that the Telltale formula had overstayed its welcome. The Walking Dead reinvents this formula, and fully takes into account lessons that Telltale learned in Jurassic Park’s failures, and the successes of modern adventure titles like Heavy Rain. It is a great step forward for the company, and at $5 an episode, one of the best deals out there.  I highly recommend the game to everyone.

About Mike Cantor

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