The Walking Dead: Episode One – A New Day |
I love adventure games. I grew up with them. One of the first games I ever played was Zork on a TRS-80 and when graphic adventure game around there was Leisure Suit Larry, and that triggered a cascade of events that had me moving to Oakhurst to work for Sierra Online. When Sierra closed up shop and LucasArts shifted all their focus to Star Wars it looked like adventure games were destined to become just a footnote in gaming history, but thankfully, Telltale Games has been hard at work to keep the genre alive with their tried and true formula of episodic adventures.
The Walking Dead now joins the library of fan favorites that include titles like Sam and Max, Back to the Future, and Jurassic Park. With each new series, Telltale makes subtle tweaks to the design and adventure formula, slowly evolving the genre, making each series unique, not only in story, but in gameplay as well. The Walking Dead is the ultimate evolution of Telltale’s work; the pièce de résistance in their growing library, and I’m not just saying that because I am a huge fan of The Walking Dead comics and TV show.
The first thing you need to know is that this new adventure series is based on Robert Kirkman’s Eisner-Award winning comic book series and NOT the TV show, but more importantly, the game doesn’t try to recreate what we’ve already experienced in those other works. This is a parallel story with a new lead character and a new group of survivors that are trying to survive the same zombie apocalypse; although fans can expect a few crossover nods with existing characters and locations like the appearance of Glenn and a visit to Hershel’s farm in the first episode.
The Walking Dead game introduces us to Lee Everett, a convicted killer on his way to prison when his police chauffeur hits a “walker” (zombie) hobbling across the highway. The police car smashes through the guardrail, tumbles down a hill and crashes into the woods below. When Lee wakes up the nightmare begins. Soon enough, Lee will find himself the unlikely protector of Clementine, a young girl whose parents were away on a trip when her babysitter got turned into a walker. Their initial adventure takes them to Hershel’s farm and ultimately to Macon where Lee tries to reunite with his family.
Telltale has done a great job of creating an all-new type of adventure game that puts an innovative spin on their traditional formula. For the most part, you have full control over Lee using the WADS keys or a gamepad to move around the levels searching for collectible items and people to interact with. Conversations take place with the traditional dialogue choices, but often you will be on a countdown timer to choose your response…or not. Silence is also a valid option and often the appropriate response, assuming there is an “appropriate” response. The Walking Dead is all about making decisions, some of them life and death, and then living with the consequences of those choices, making this more of a psychological experiment than a video game.
The Walking Dead offers two interface styles, Standard and Minimal. Standard will put up hotspot indicators around the levels showing you where you can interact with people and objects. It will also give you real-time feedback on the conversational choices and actions you take, so if you lie to Hershel the game will let you know that Hershel suspects you, or if you give an energy bar to one of the children the parents make a note of your concern. It’s like having a window into the internal workings of the game engine because, unlike most other games, The Walking Dead evolves in real-time with the decisions you make. Even the previews for the upcoming episode are dynamically generated based on your previous choices. It’s important to note that this textual feedback is purely observational and in no way provides hints or spoils your experience. The Minimal interface removes all the feedback and hotspots turning this into a pixel-hunt adventure from the old days.
Controls are great whether you go with a mouse and keyboard or a 360 controller. You can move Lee around while simultaneously tweaking your view ever so slightly – this is NOT a 360-degree adventure game. You can pick up items which are stashed in your inventory bar on the left edge of the screen and when appropriate, they will appear as options when interacting with their proper counterpart; i.e. a key with a door or a battery with a radio, etc. There are also plenty of intense action sequences that will require you to rapid-tap the Q button followed by the E or hastily aim your wavering cursor over a walker and clicking to strike when it lights up. I was surprised how intense some of these got for not being some elaborate QTE sequence like in Jurassic Park.
Lee will be forced to make some really tough choices, some quite literally, life and death, and I was surprised how much I was getting drawn into the story. The game gets profoundly emotional and gut-wrenching at times - like one scene at the motel . As a gamer I love to explore all avenues to their conclusion, especially in a branching narrative such as this, but for the first time I really didn’t want to go start a new game and make “the other choice” just to see what happens. This was MY story and I want to see it through all five episodes using my initial gut reactions rather than try to pick and choose my optimal path. I did enjoy the post-game metrics that shows how my choices compared with everyone else who had played the game and made those same difficult decisions.
Visually, The Walking Dead is quite literally a living graphic novel, with a distinct cel-shaded vibe I haven’t seen attempted since XIII back in 2003. You could easily take screenshots from every scene in this game and assemble your own comic and it would sell for a premium price. I was blown away by the subdued colors, the shading and attention to detail with the thick black outlines on characters and objects. There were subtle lighting and special effects overlaid on the backgrounds that really made this game pop off the screen. The GUI is minimal, only appearing when you are near an object or person, so you are never taken out of the game with awkward menus and such. The blood and gore is excessive and often quite horrific but nothing fans of the show or comic won’t be expecting, and the art style takes a bit of the edge off.
As equally flawless as the graphics are the sound, music and voice acting. From the moment you hear flies buzzing around the opening title screen to each and every line of perfectly delivered dialogue to the stirring music that accompanies and emotionally drives every scene and situation in the game; you will be totally immersed in one of the best aural experiences in modern day adventures. Turn this up, turn out the lights and enjoy the show.
It took me 2.5 hours to finish the first episode of The Walking Dead. There is nothing terribly difficult about the game, and most observant adventure gamers with any knowledge of how the genre works should find their playtime in the 2-3 hour range as well. There are three save slots, so you can always go back and replay the episode to explore the “road not taken”. The PC version is available on Steam and other digital outlets for $25. This gets you the complete season, although you will have to wait as new episodes are trickled out over the coming weeks, but for five episodes and 10-15 hours of quality gaming, that is an incredible value for an incredible game.
This is easily the best game Telltale has ever released and what is hopefully a turning point for adventure games and the adventure game genre. Admittedly, I am a huge fan of The Walking Dead, which makes me extremely critical of the subject matter, but Telltale has expertly crafted an emotionally driven narrative with seamless gameplay mechanics to create a “Choose Your Own Adventure” graphic novel that comes to life with amazing graphics and phenomenal voice acting. And now I find myself waiting for the next episode of the game with as much fervor as I do each new TV episode and upcoming season.