By David Mayne
Developer: Telltale Games
Platforms: PC, iOS, Xbox360, Playstation 3
When it comes to games based on movies or TV shows, I usually roll my eyes and plod through well-intended, yet utterly disappointing and disjointed attempts at entertainment. When you look back into the gaming history archives and realize that 99% of games based on movies flat-out suck, from the infamous E.T. The Extra Terrestrial for the Atari 2600 to the horrendous Back to The Future for the NES, one cannot help but wish that the genre would just go away completely and leave movies as movies and games as games. Don’t even get me started on Van Damme’s portrayal of Guile in the ill-fated Street Fighter, after which they felt compelled to make a new game, BASED on the terrible movie, that was already based on a FREAKING game! Or Mario Bros…really? Don’t get me wrong but did Super Mario Bros. really need to be made into a movie? Ok, I’m getting off-topic here. Point is, movies rarely make good video games, and games rarely make good movies (with a few exceptions).
The great thing about The Walking Dead series of games is that, while occupying the same fictional world as the TV show of same name, the game tends to follow Robert Kirkman’s comic book series more closely, allowing for more freedom and scope to make a truly unique and thrilling game play experience, free of the constraints involved if they had to, say, “stick to the script” of the show.
While some might hear the name “The Walking Dead” and imagine gameplay similar to Left 4 Dead or House of The Dead, California-based Telltale Games chose to take the gameplay experience back a few notches, focusing more on story and character development, with actual gameplay harkening back to the point-and-click adventure glory days. With face-paced, context-sensitive combat interspersed with dynamic and thoughtful writing, The Walking Dead is a true work of art amidst an industry ruled by run-and-gun deathmatches and gigantic, open-world chaos.
Choosing to release the game in “episodes” rather than one full installment, Telltale has nailed the concept of “small transactions pay off”. At only $4.99 (depending on sales), The Walking Dead episodes are a great deal, especially if you are like me and prefer to try out your games before you make the “big purchase”. Since there are now 5 episodes total in Season 1 of the game, you will spend roughly $25 for the entire “season”, although the occasional Steam or Gamefly sale might have the entire package down to under $10, in which case it’s an absolute steal.
In Episode I, you play the part of Lee Everett, a reluctant hero of sorts who must come to grips with the zombie outbreak taking place around him. Meeting a young girl named Clementine, whose parents are thought dead in Atlanta, Lee takes it upon himself to care for Clementine and to find a safe place to stay, away from the spreading chaos.
The first thing you’ll notice about The Walking Dead game is its interesting, yet brilliant use of a sort of “cell shaded” comic book look, which is quite simply: gorgeous. Given that The Walking Dead had its beginnings in comics only serves to make the game look that much more authentic, and for fans of the books, you’re in for a visual treat! Combine that with the rock-solid voice acting and you have an interactive presentation reminiscent of story-driven heavyweights such as Heavy Rain, The Indigo Prophecy, and Gabriel Knight.
At its core, The Walking Dead game is pure action/adventure with a heavy dose of story. If you are one of those gamers that can’t stand 5 minute-plus long story sequences, this series may not be for you. While plenty of exploration and action is to be had here, the emphasis on the human story takes center stage, and at times I felt as if I was playing more of an interactive movie than a video game. That said, Episode I sets the stage perfectly, with a smart balance of action and dialogue, all the while hinting that there is more-than-meets-the-eye with your character, Lee. While you control Lee mainly in the 3rd person, much of the game relies on context-sensitive mechanics to progress the action and provide you with options to solve the various situations and puzzles. For instance, in one scene you approach a motel where a few zombies are occupied and don’t notice you. Instead of the game giving you free reign to blast your way in like a berserker, it puts you in a strategic stance, offering you multiple options on how to deal with the zombies discreetly, and save a woman trapped in one of the motel rooms. Your actions have consequences however, so choose the wrong move and death could be right around the corner. That said, The Walking Dead plays much like one of those old-school “pick-a-path” adventure books, where the right decisions determine whether you’ll advance or not.
The most intriguing aspect to the game is its story and your interaction with it. Not only is the voice acting top-notch and the storytelling right from the comics, your choices will impact the story’s progression, from Episode I to V, ultimately providing a slightly different game each time depending on how you play it. Similar to games like Mass Effect or Heavy Rain, you’ll choose responses to character interaction in-game. While Mass Effect gives you unlimited time to decide your responses, The Walking Dead features a timer that quickly limits the amount of time you have, forcing your to think fast and make snap decisions. I found this to be exhilarating and immersive, while not being overly annoying. The choices you make, every one of them in fact, will impact the story in some way. Lie to someone about something and they will remember it. Say something that you shouldn’t? It may come back to haunt you. This sort of gameplay goes beyond just dialogue as well. The zombie apocalypse is a shit storm and there will be many times when you’ll have to make the TOUGH calls. You will have to save lives at some point, and usually at the expense of sacrificing others. Make your decisions wisely, as this game will remember your actions, and as stated earlier, these will affect your game throughout. Sound fun? It’s awesomesauce!
Control is simple, with either the mouse and keyboard configuration or a gamepad (I recommend the Xbox360 Controller for Windows). Either way, gameplay is tight and responsive. While not exactly a “pixel-hunt” like the old days, there will be things in the environment to interact with and both interfaces work fine to progress through the game. Having only briefly played the iOS versions of The Walking Dead, I can say that they are near-identical to the consoles and PC, aside from the touchscreen interface, which worked brilliantly during my tests although I prefer traditional control over touch.
While it would make more sense to purchase The Walking Dead as a complete series, you might be able to find Episode I for free or as a demo and try it before you buy it. As I said, for any adventure/horror fan or Walking Dead aficionado, these games are an easy purchase. Combining several different genres of gameplay with stellar voice acting and taut story progression, The Walking Dead: Episode I is shining example of adventure gaming done right. While this review was intended mainly to set the stage for the series as a whole, expect a more standard review for Episode 2, coming this week!
Fun Factor: 10 – An interactive, errie journey through the Walking Dead world, AWESOME.
Graphics: 10 – Looking like images coming to life from the pages of Kirkman’s books, this game looks amazing!
Sound: 10 – A+ voice acting with depth and feeling. The soundtrack is appropriate and the sound effects are spooky!
Control: 9 – Typical point and click, with the added “context-sensitive” combat and control makes it a blast to play.
Lasting Appeal: 9 – I see myself coming back to this series from time to time, especially with all of the different choices to make along the way.