Friday, October 19, 2012

'Walking Dead: The Game' Review - A Dark Zombie Tale

'Walking Dead: The Game' Review - A Dark Zombie Tale

The Walking Dead: The Game is a five-part episodic series set in the grim, violent world of The Walking Dead comic books, which are being penned by Robert Kirkman. To this point the video game is playing like a celebration of its source material. Characters are believably fickle, action is sudden and terrifying, the potential of violence colors every scene, and you participate in a lot of truly dark and gruesome scenarios.
Boil the experience down: the Walking Dead: The Game is a series of games about broken people in a broken world where decisions are made in sudden bursts of anger, fear, and frustration. This is revealing stuff. We're not good people, the game says, because when we make choices we do so expecting something in return more often than not.

Choice is an important component in this series. Characters you interact with remember what you've said to them and respond accordingly down the line. You will also decide who lives and who dies at specific points in the story. Smart production and writing amp up the drama and tension of these moments, while the promise of the series itself makes you feel like everything you do carries actual weight.
The most engaging moments in the series revolve around choice. You consider if a person is worthwhile to your group or if he or she needs to know something. The repercussions, in some instances, of your choices appear instantly. Others don't, making you wonder if you'll ever have to deal with any consequences -- a delightful feeling to experience.
In the series, you play as a convict named Lee. In the opening of the first episode, Lee finds himself hurt and surrounded by ghouls after an accident. Unsure of what's going on, Lee takes off in search of someone, anything. Soon, he meets a young girl that he decides to put under his wing.
In the early going, Lee is more of a vehicle than a defined character. In these episodes, your decisions as Lee, whether you choose to reveal his past, buddy up with certain characters, or take control of situations, lets you express yourself in this world. As the series progresses, Lee starts becoming an actual character defined by a rudimentary moral code and his distaste for his past. As the series progresses, Lee begins to soften as he and Clementine grow closer, which is a neat touch.
This is an adventure game series first and foremost. When there is "action," it occurs in QTE segments that have you tapping or swiping contextually as a zombie runs towards you. These are gruesome scenes, but they're more than just cheap thrills -- characters will notice what you do and maybe even change their attitude towards you as a result of what you've done. This is pretty cool.
There are "puzzles," but most of the time, instead of having to put together whacky item combinations, the game asks you questions. Do you want to guard what you did? If so, how will you respond to someone who might know without you telling them? Will you let them die? Will you lie?
The much more traditional puzzle scenarios have you searching for an object and setting up a dramatic chain of events in order to find what you're looking for. In the first episode, there's an entire chain of zombie killings you'll have to take part in by interacting with the environment and setting up each kill. In the third episode, you'll be tasked with figuring out how to start a train and assembling the tools necessary to do so.
It's important to note that these touch versions feel great. Slide your fingers to move Lee, tap to pick a dialogue option, and swipe when asked during action. Technically, the series to this point runs fine on new iPad -- we've seen no audio bugs or the usual Telltale game issues like stuttering, tearing, or plain not working as intended. Also, it doesn't appear as though these ports do anything new. These are the same game(s) you may have played months ago.
With that said...

Episode 1 - A New Day

Episode 1 does a couple of things well. The first is build an incredible world. No horror in The Walking Dead is out of bounds. In sudden, terrible bursts of crimson and fury, people die or turn. Some might even give up.  This is stuff that makes for interesting drama, and there's plenty of it over the course of the two-and-a-half hour episode. You're never sure who will end up dead next or how people will respond to each other when it gets intense. Talk about tension.
A lot this episode has you figuring out who people are  and deciding what you want to say or reveal in order to control the spin on horrible situations. For example, early on, you have to kill Clementine's zombified babysitter right in front of Clementine. Once you're done pummeling the babsitter's head into pieces, you're forced to explain what just went down and why to Clementine. Illusion or not, the dialogue tree for this is expansive, allowing you to coddle the girl, tell her the truth, or obscure what happened. This isn't exactly video game-y, but it's engaging.
Writing is another area where this excels, and that helps cover up this episode's gaping hole: there's not a lot to physically do. The dialogue in particular is sharp, while the overall plot of the episode provides tons of drama, tension, and insane action. The choices you'll make are, for the most part, rather grey, which is always a nice touch in a game with a world so screwed.
One particular constituent part we enjoyed, whether inadvertent or purposeful, is that we got to define how people perceive Lee. We kept his secret from people by deciding not to talk about it when prompted or lying when directly asked about it. When a character suddenly said they knew what we did, we actually made a conscious decision to get rid of them. You don't get to do this in many games, so it made a positive impact.
Another thing: we appreciated the pacing. A New Day moves as a pretty steady clip. You see several different areas and the action comes in dramatic bursts. The adventure game "puzzle" sections actually felt a bit sluggish compared to the rest of the episode, but the important thing is that they're not stupidly thrown in. These sections have impact on story progression; they serve a larger purpose, in other words.
It'll be interesting to see how our choices impact the larger story. That's our one, true gripe of Episode 1. You see glimpses of how things pan out, but you never really get a sense of how many things are going to change. For a game that constantly reminds you that people care about what you say and has you choosing who lives and who dies, it needs to deliver. We'll have to wait to see if it can.

Episode 2 - Starved for Help

Walking Dead Episode 2 starts with a bang, an intense scene that mirrors the themes and conflicts you'll see throughout the entire episode. It asks what's important to Lee, and then it has him prove it in the most awful and savage way possible.
Starved for Help is all about how far Lee is willing to go, not only to protect himself, but also his group. It's also about the people you're with, how they want to function in and interpret their screwed reality. You'll make hard choices with collateral emotional damage that can never be undone. If you play it out like us, you'll shatter people.
For all the violence, bone, and viscera being thrown around in this episode, it's weird to peg the script as the reason we kept moving along. Starved for Help is small in scope and scale and just teases actual movement to come, but it works well within its creative confines, fleshing out characters, creating tense situations, and delivering a scenario that is as bizarre and terrible as anything else in The Walking Dead proper.
And once again, we toyed with the idea of protecting Lee's past, opting to let a person die who knew his secret. It'll be interesting to see if this ever pans out, if, at some point, there will be no-one left who knows what Lee has done.
Choice is as important as ever in this episode, and you get some immediate pay-offs, but Starved for Help ultimately doesn't prove that any choice we've made so far has impacted the larger story. We're still left wondering, for example, how our actions are informing the relationship between Lee and Clementine. Or if Lee is changing as a result of some of the more... emotional decisions we've made so far.
If there's something we'd knock in this episode, it'd be the lack of video game-y stuff. The dialogue wheel's options still feel as engaging as ever, but there's a notable lack of adventure game action in this episode; the puzzle sequences are easily solvable and there's points in this episode where you really don't have any agency at all.
That said, Starved For Help is still incredible. The pacing is brilliant, the scenario is seriously warped and entertaining, and its attention to developing relationships will keep you making interesting decisions and thinking about the small, immediate consequences of your actions.

Episode 3 - Long Road Home

It's weird. You'll pop more brain caps with bolts of metal in Long Road Home than in any other previous episode of Walking Dead: The Game. Shooting sections are frequent and one in particular lingers, allowing Lee to rake in an obscene number of kills. But Long Road Home is more impactful on an emotional level than it is satisfyingly visceral. For once, you'll be forced to explore the relationships of every party member -- good, so-so, or just flat-out broken -- and deal with the consequences of some of your actions.
For instance, the fact that Lee is a murderer in the law's eyes is confronted, whether the majority of people who knew about his past are dead or not. Also, the bond between Lilly and Lee is hopelessly disconnected in Starved For Help. How she reacts to Lee and her world after the events of that episode are fully explored in Long Road Home in a satisfying, intense, and wicked ways.
This episode takes place in much more realistic confines. After discovering a traitor is sneaking pills, an event forces the crew to leave the motel. A solid chunk of Long Road Home takes place on a working locomotive after yet another devastating event. The goal being to reach Savannah, Georgia.
It's hard to nail a theme for Long Road Home other than "moving on," but the one thing this episode in hits, er, home, is how all decision making is now being informed by this new, terrible reality. In brilliant flashes, rash decisions are made and the consequences are immediate, and for the most part, wretched. Credit to Telltale for strengthening ties to the point where scripted behavior even has the slightest impact emotionally.
Adventure game "action" segments come back in a big way, but unlike in the first episode of the series, they fail to serve up tension on a platter. Most of the stuff you'll "do" are simple, almost busywork kind of puzzles that eat up time and otherwise feel flat in comparison to the actual dramatic moments.
But, oh, those moments -- they're why we play. You'll lose people this episode. You'll probably do a few terrible things, too. But you might also gain a new friend. You can no longer ignore Clementine, as the ties between the girl and Lee are strengthened through a couple of forced, yet touching scenes.
Long Road Home doesn't answer our larger question about the long-term consequences of playing Lee as we do. Yet, it's still an amazingly impactful episode with tons of great emotional moments that we're afraid to even be vague about, as evens hints would spoil the fun. The conclusion in particular is one of those "Oh my god what how is this oh no" kind of things that have us absolutely stoked to see Episode 4 when it hits.


Overall, The Walking Dead appears to be delivering on the comic book's vision, but it's also executing on things that we rarely see in video games. Its people feel like actual people and we're making tough choices as we explore this world as Lee. Fantastic writing bolsters an overall package that feels like something Kirkman would pen. Puzzle sections are also good; they might feel slightly out of place, but they serve the story in smart ways.
We just wonder now if any of our choices will truly matter as the series progresses. That's a question we'll have to keep asking over the next few months.
It's arguable that this is a video game. Aside from short puzzle sections, you're mostly just answering questions and building relationships in a world gone bad. That's kind of what The Walking Dead is all about though. So, if you're fond of The Walking Dead and want to play something that takes that source material seriously, and tells a great story while it does it, this game is definitely it. If you're looking for something much more involving from a joystick perspective, you might want to look elsewhere.

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