|The Walking Dead Episode 1: A New Day|
|Developer: Telltale Games||Release Date: 4/25/2012|
|Publisher: Telltale Games||ESRB Rating: Mature|
|Platforms: XBLA, PSN, PC, Mac||MSRP: 400 Microsoft Points, or US$4.99|
Telltale faced an interesting challenge when developing a Walking Dead video game: how to transplant the character-driven zombie tale into the more action-oriented gaming sphere. Having ignited the comic world in its original form, then translating that success to a wider audience with the television show, The Walking Dead has only video games left to conquer. But creating a compelling video game about the zombie apocalypse that focuses less on maiming the undead and more on the people trying to lead normal lives in such bleak times is a lofty challenge. Yet thanks to Telltale’s fantastic writing and unique adventure gameplay, the first episode of The Walking Dead is an exciting and emotionally-charged first step (first shamble?) for the series.
You play as Lee Everett, a former professor at the University of Georgia who was on trial for a crime he may or may not have committed—the episode wisely keeps this a mystery, only dishing out minor clues as to what really happened. After a ride in a cop car with a talkative police officer ends in a walker-related crash, Lee is freed from his bonds and begins his plight for survival.
You’ll travel from a suburban neighborhood to a small town pharmacy, and even visit iconic locations from the comics like Hershel’s farm (the game takes place before the events of the comic). You’ll meet a handful of fellow survivors who are just trying to stay alive long enough to see the end of this mess. The plot itself isn’t much to shrug at—it’s your typical zombie apocalypse scenario.
Driving The Walking Dead is a stable of strong characters, who, thanks to the gritty, paced writing and outstanding voice acting feel (mostly) fleshed out and multi-dimensional. Lee is of particular note: Telltale deftly avoids painful urban stereotypes and creates one of the most strongly-written black men in all of video games. Clementine, the little girl you meet early on who becomes your companion, is also thankfully adorable, making you want to protect her because you genuinely care about her, not because a Game Over awaits if she dies.
The writing truly is superb throughout most of the episode, which is what makes it especially disappointing when characters experience momentary bouts of crippling stupidity; in one scene, an adult woman who claims to have been trying to fix a small radio for hours is dumbfounded when you point out that, oops, it doesn’t have any batteries! And in another intelligence mishap, one character referred to Clem as my daughter, despite telling him moments before that I was only her neighbor. Thankfully these moments are rare, but they certainly don’t go unnoticed.
The Walking Dead puts you in the driver’s seat of Lee’s story, allowing you to choose his dialogue options in conversation. The interesting twist is that in most situations you’re given a limited amount of time to select your response. The story will then shift based on your words, and there’s no going back after you’ve made a choice (although you’re told immediately if somebody thought what you said was important, so you at least have an idea of how your choices have impact). The Walking Dead bluntly ensures that you feel the weight of your decisions, whether it’s in the form of saving one life over another or telling people details about your family. This results in a story that is not only gripping, but lends itself well to replayability.
Gameplay consists of classic adventure game elements with a control scheme similar to Heavy Rain. You’ll spend most of your time searching for useful items by navigating through areas with the left thumbstick and steering an interact icon across the screen with the right thumbstick. The exploration controls work well, but camera angles can become bothersome when they make it tough to find walkways in cluttered environments like the pharmacy.
Combat plays out as QTEs, requiring timed-button presses and accurate aiming. The Walking Dead is no Dead Rising or Left 4 Dead, and while this will undoubtedly turn some gamers away, I had a blast with The Walking Dead’s more unique combat setups. One of the best of this episode was a centerpiece moment in a motel parking lot crowded with walkers. Tasked with reaching a survivor at the opposite end of the lot, you have to quietly sneak around the area and dispatch the walkers without alerting the rest of the pack. Encounters play out much more like puzzles than straight up combat sequences, and The Walking Dead is better for it.
I also enjoyed The Walking Dead’s comic book-inspired cel-shaded look—thick black outlines made characters and environments pop, and characters surprisingly emote convincingly. Despite this, the game still falls victim to Telltale’s typical technical woes: unusual glitches and animations crop up, and transitions in camera angles or scenes are often accompanied by jarring freezes which, at times, suck all the tension out of important moments.
The first episode of The Walking Dead nonetheless succeeds at being a good entry into the gaming realm. Crisply-written characters and desperate scenarios make this tale feel right at home next to the comic book and TV series, and the gameplay mechanics give this version of Robert Kirkman’s zombie world its own flair. Being an episodic game, this episode predictably ends on a cliffhanger. Judging from the preview for episode two, things are only going to get crazier. Fans of The Walking Dead would be wise to give it a spin, and the same goes to anyone else who’s looking for a different zombie experience.
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