The Walking Dead is a 2012 video game based on a popular comic book series that at present is also being adapted into a hit TV show. The game is developed by Telltale Games, a California based studio that specialize in making downloadable point and click adventures. Their previous work include resurrecting Lucasarts franchise Sam & Max, for a modern day generation, along with numerous titles based on well known movies (Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Wallace & Gromit etc.) At first glance you could be excused for thinking that The Walking Dead is just another example of Telltale following a formula that works, but thanks to some stellar writing the game elevates itself into being a release that many agree was 2012’s game of the year.
As with many Telltale projects the game is broken up into episodic chunks, which is a neat sales model when done right (take note Valve, when are you going to release episode three of Half Life?) I like how you get to try out the first part, for a low price, before deciding on whether to invest more cash on the remainder of the story. It sure beats paying full price for a game, from the offset, only to then discover your purchase is a load of poo. As it turns out I loved episode one so much that upon completing it I immediately downloaded the next four installments. Once I consumed those I went on to visit Comixology and bought all the Walking Dead graphic novels on offer. It’s that damn good.
The game’s protagonist is Lee Everett, an African American university professor who is convicted of murdering a senator who was having an affair with his wife (a politician embroiled in sleaze, surely this story is pure fantasy.) When the story begins Lee is in the back of a cop car being driven to the slammer. The pig driving the automobile should have kept his eye on the road because the cop car in question ends up getting into a nasty crash. Lee emerges from the vehicle’s wreckage, a free man, but incarceration may have been preferable as the city he is in is currently being ravished by a zombie infestation. Before long Lee teams up with an adorable girl named Clementine who he vows to protect from the undead dangers tormenting them. The immediate goal is to escape the carnage and ultimately reunite Clem with her parents.
Given that this is a an adventure game you can expect some puzzles involving the use of items you pick up, but it is nowhere near as taxing as the point and click games of yore. The brainteasers in question are fairly straight forward, such as following a manual to start up a train or loading up a radio with fresh batteries. The simplistic riddles work well as you don’t want the compelling story to get interrupted by long pauses were you are stumped and forced to consult a guide in order to advance the narrative.
With the puzzle aspect getting relegated to performing rudimentary tasks the focus of the game ends up landing on your interaction with other characters. As the story progresses Lee and Clementine join forces with other survivors forming a ragtag group that don’t always see eye to eye. By using multiple-choice answers you can leisurely converse with your companions whenever the coast is clear. The same mechanic is applied for making life and death decisions, when disaster strikes, but in those instances a timer will force you to choose quickly preventing you from pondering too much on what is the best option to take.
It’s the ability to influence the story via these selections that make the game so much fun to play. Different players can expect to have a distinct experience depending on how they tackle the challenges they come across. Whether you choose to be diplomatic or a selfish jerk determines how key events pan out and influences who lives or dies. The composition of the group that makes it into the final episode will therefore vary drastically depending on how you react in certain situations. Yes, in the short term it may be tempting to eliminate a hostile character, but be aware that your teammates remember your actions. The disruption you cause by being rude to someone can bite you in the ass later when you need their assistance with something (gripes this reminds me of office politics at work.)
Some critics have accused the choices you make as being nothing more than smoke and mirrors giving players the feeling of freedom in what is a linear game. They cite the fact that the game only has one ending as an example and how certain characters will die no matter what you do (so in a sense all you are determining is the manner in which they meet their demise.) Although they have a point, I think the game is just being realistic. When you are surrounded by a horde of zombies it doesn’t matter whether you act like a saint or dictator, you have to accept that someone is going to die. Given the limited scope a downloadable game has, I didn’t feel cheated by this revelation unlike say the conclusion to Mass Effect. In that game promises that your actions over the course of a trilogy would wildly change the finale proved to be nothing more that false marketing spiel.
In terms of presentation I was impressed by the overall package. The visuals are great, especially when you consider that Telltale like to keep file sizes to a minimum in order to facilitate quick downloads. The graphics are very good for a mobile game and have an art style reminiscent to its comic book roots. The characters have expressive faces that, in conjunction with some fine voice acting, do a brilliant job of conveying what the cast is feeling during the emotional rollercoaster they are aboard on throughout the five episodes.
Control wise I found the touch screen to be suitably responsive. Certain genres of game don’t work on mobile devices, but adventure games are a perfect fit for the medium. Tapping the desired area of the display handles both movement and dialogue choices. Despite the zombie setting action moments are rare, but when they occur they are handled via quick time events, which is just fine. You may for example have to swipe across the screen or tap furiously on the iPad to wrestle yourself free from the clutches of a brain-feasting corpse. Thankfully if you screw up and die the game restarts you from the beginning of the encounter so less dexterous players won’t find themselves getting penalized too heavily.
There’s not a lot else for me to comment on without giving away spoilers. I would strongly recommend downloading The Walking Dead even if you don’t class yourself as a hardcore gamer. The writers deserve the most praise for making the game a success as it wouldn’t have garnered the praise it has had it been a bog standard adventure with a mediocre plot. Much like the comic books I couldn’t put the game down after getting hooked on the plot. I would literally finish a two-hour episode and immediately start loading up the next part.
Even though I feel that zombies are oversaturating pop culture at present, there’s no denying a good zombie tale can grip you like nothing else. It’s not so much the appeal of battling the undead, but rather seeing the depravity humans will sink to when society crumbles. Even the player will not be immune to performing horrific acts just to survive. I would find myself gloating with satisfaction at exacting revenge on an evildoer, only to then feel shame when Clementine’s puppy dog eyes looked at me in disappointment. The comic book is great, but I have to say the game is more engrossing as you are engaging in the terror as opposed to passively watching it all unfold. The Walking Dead succeeds in making this jaded gamer get emotionally attached to the story and characters like nothing else before it. If you don’t feel the same by the time the end credits roll I would suggest checking your pulse… you may well be dead just like a zombie.