Game Review: The Walking Dead, Episode 1: A New Day

Lee hammers the point home

If there is any genre of video game that has been done, redone, overdone, and reheated and done again it would be the zombie genre.  Although it was Dead Island that recently prompted me to purchase my PS3 thus thrusting me into the time suck that is gaming, I am very much aware of the limitations of any zombie game.  Repetitive game play involving smashing, slicing, and/or shooting the heads of random zombies as they swarm to you and eventually you will fight some strange giant “boss” zombie with no basis in zombie-lore whatsoever other than a plot device to move the game forward and give you something more difficult to kill than your average shambling rotting corpse.   That’s generally what you get.  Even I, an admitted undead fanatic, get bored at times when it comes to our undead friends.

When I first heard about Telltale Games upcoming game version of my beloved comic/TV series The Walking Dead, I was skeptical.  Could they actually create a game that could replicate what is so fantastic about the books?  Would it simply be another twitchy shooter, or could they bring what’s best about the books into a game?  Character development?  Emotional impact in unlikely places?  Unexpected scares?  The bigger questions of retaining your humanity in the face of societal breakdown?  After playing the first episode of a planned five episode arc I can say, yes… they can hit those points.  Although not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, The Walking Dead is a fantastic and interesting game.

Unlike previous melee and shooter heavy games of the genre, Telltale specializes in episodic video gaming, and with The Walking Dead, manages to create a parallel story to the source material that occasionally intersects with characters from the books.  Story-based, the game begins with you, Lee Everett , in the back of a police car wearing handcuffs and being escorted to prison.  You don’t know why you there or what is going on… yet as the policeman driving the car begins asking questions and chatting it up with you, you are occasionally given a few different response options… but the kicker here is that they are timed.  You only have a few seconds to process what was asked of you, read your possible responses, and react accordingly.

Much of the game follows that pattern… the story unfolds as either dialogue or various actions that you must go through in order to move the story forward.  What I found most interesting is how the story would change based on your responses, and people’s reactions and eventual behaviors towards you alter with each response you give.  Do you lie, or will you be honest when asked how you got to where you are?  Are you reasonable, or will you be a hot head?  Like life, there are no clear cut directions you can go… the choice is yours.  Basically… this is a Choose Your Own Adventure game with zombies.

The art and animation have a very particular look to them.  In an attempt to mimic more closely the look and feel of the comic, everything looks decidedly two dimensional and line drawn.  At times it appears like a rotoscope design.  There were moments when I first began playing where the somewhat rough animations and poor lip-synching pulled me out of the story and annoyed me a little… but over the course of the game’s 2+ hour runtime, I became accustomed to it and began appreciating this for being something unique and quite different.

Along with Lee, you will encounter a young girl, Clementine, who becomes your ward after saving you from her former babysitter during the game’s second, yet more memorable, zombie attack.  Let’s just say the release of tension that comes from wielding a hammer and repeatedly bashing in the skull of this monster feels both cathartic and deserved.  Yes… the game can be a bit gruesome and disturbing… this is a zombie apocalypse game after all… but thanks to the comic-like art and the fact that more of the game focuses on the human relationships that develop, the violence never becomes over the top and rarely is the point of play.  When it does occur though, understand that this is not for the squeamish. 

Once you meet Clementine, you are then introduced to a few different locations and quite a few new people, including comic favorites Glenn and Hershel Greene, in addition to Hershel’s son Shawn (if you have read the comic then you will know Shawn’s role).  Each addition to your collective feels natural and organic to the story, and each person has different needs and problems that you can deal with in a number of different ways based on which decisions you go with.

When I began playing I honestly felt out of sorts each time I had to quickly respond.  I can’t say I’m completely pleased with some of my earliest responses… they were made in a near panic with a serious “what the hell is going on” vibe.  As the game moved forward, my decisions became more solid and felt more reasoned and calm.  By the end of the first episode when you see a breakdown of how your decisions compared with others playing the game, I realized I began in the mid 20% range in agreement and moved towards the high 70% range by the end in complete linear fashion.  What I gleaned from this information stunned me… like Lee, or anyone who finds their world overturned by something like zombies (insert whatever catastrophe you like really), you can’t immediately get your bearings and will have a difficult time reacting to new and changing situations.  As you wade through this altered existence, you become more accustomed to what is going on and can make more rational and reasoned decisions.  Now THAT is something new.  The character whose development moves the most in the game is you.  Not Lee, but you (as Lee, sure… but I’m being a bit more literal).  You change, you begin to care, and you begin to view things more calmly and put into play everything you know about how to survive in the zombie apocalypse (if you haven’t read Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide you may be unprepared [and yes, I know this is all bullshit, don’t worry about my sanity]).

Is The Walking Dead perfect?  Not by a long shot.  Some of the game play can be a bit annoying in that you are forced into certain actions at very particular points before certain options become available.  Having to go from person to person and chat it up with them for little reason other that being able to advance is a tad tedious at times.  As I mentioned before, some of the animation and cut scenes can be dodgy and there are moments when even after explaining something to someone, they come back with old information.  But Telltale is a smaller developer who are more interested in putting together some new and interesting and are more involved in bringing a good story forward as opposed to killer graphics which can often belie a crappy underlying tale.  As a fan of Robert Kirkman’s comic, I couldn’t be more pleased with the tone the story itself is taking, and believe it to be heading into strong Kirkman territory.

This was the first game I’ve purchased via the Playstation Network… and I must admit, I didn’t know how to play the game once I had downloaded it.  I searched online for answers, but came up short on the day it was released (Tuesday, April 24).  I was a bit pissed and extremely annoyed.  By the next day, the answer appeared online, and I was not the only person having this problem (idiocy loves company).  Turns out you must download the demo before downloading the game itself.  I guess the game info is completely contained in the demo and the game is simply the key to unlock that info.  Now you know…

I’m not sure when the subsequent four episodes will be released, I first heard one a month… than one every two months, but I’m not sure either way.  What I am now sure of is that I will be continuing to play The Walking Dead.  For all the glitches and imperfections, by the end, I was hooked.  From a hammer, to a truck, to a screwdriver, to a pillow, to a gun, to an ax… The Walking Dead comes up with some wonderful puzzles and problems as well as fantastic character development and a shockingly strong emotional core.  What would you do if someone were bitten and wanted to commit suicide?  Do you give her the gun or not?  That is a problem you will face.

If you are a fan of the comic and/or a fan of the show, you will enjoy The Walking Dead.

Rarr, Gak, and other such noises,
Cornelius J. Blahg

Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead is available for PC, Mac, PS3, and Xbox 360.  Most individual episodes can be purchased for $4.99 or a season pass is available for ~$20.

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