Game: The Walking Dead: Episode One – A New Day
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Available on: Xbox LIVE Arcade, Sony Entertainment Network, PC & Mac, iOS (Reviewed on Xbox LIVE Arcade)
With a long-running comic book series, a television series adaptation and even a role-plaiyng board game, The Walking Dead is one of the hottest entertainment properties around right now. The series, created by comic book scribe Robert Kirkman, deftly combines traditional horror and suspense elements with personal drama and tragedy, the franchise has built up an avid following across the different forms of media it has been ported to too.
So it came as no surprise then when it was picked up for a video game adaptation, especially due to the fact that the combination of zombies and games certainly seems to equal success, just look at the Call of Duty Zombie Survival mode. Maybe, what was a little surprising, was that the development team who took the reins is that of Telltale Games, a company better known for cerebral puzzle and adventure games. How would they go about making a survival horror title? Or would the game lose some of the gore and action elements that the story is famous for?
Rather than re-hashing the same story that has already been told twice, both in book form and on-screen, Telltale worked in co-operation with Robert Kirkman and their own team of writers in order to craft a new story that takes place in the same area of America that the source material does, and in which the events run concurrently to one another. Whilst some fans might be a little disappionted not to be controlling Rick Grimes, for example, this method allows the team to explore a lot of the backstory and flesh out the world of the series a lot more; and you can expect cameos and cross-overs from the main story arc to appear in the games too.
In this first episode, we control Lee Everrett and are thrown straight into the action after a car accident. Lee has been convicted (we don’t yet know if he is guilty or not) of murder, but as he is being transported by a police officer they hit an unusual looking person who is wandering on the freeway, and skid off the road, crashing into the woods. Lee awakes to find that the officer he was with appears to have been dragged from the car and killed – but how? As we explore the area and discover what has happened, Lee has his first encounter with the Walkers – re-animated corpses, or zombies. In his attempts to escape them, Lee discovers he is not alone in this situation, and comes across a young girl named Clementine. Clementine is alone and scared, and the two team up to try and find some help and make sense of what is happening. The pair become fast friends and the game does a good job of fostering a sense of caring in the player; you feel yourself wanting to protect Clementine and caring about the relationship.
From there the episode develops as you might imagine. The pair come across more survivors and experience further terrifying encounters with the undead, but what makes the game so unique and successful is the fact that almost everything you do in the game will dictate how the story progresses. A lot of the title is made up of choices and conversations trees, and what you choose to say to certain people will be remembered and make a difference, with particular actions you choose having a big effect on the world and people around you. You must be careful what you choose to reveal or say to different people, as these things could help or hinder you in the future. Making this even more difficult is the fact that the game only gives you a set amount of time to make your choices, leading to a sense of stress and panic, which suits the theme of the game very well.
Dialogue options are all laid out like the four points of a D-pad, and can be activated by that pad or by using the corresponding face buttons on your gamepad, so it all works very intuitively and snap decisions can be made easily. Aside from conversations, you control the movement of Lee with one stick, and the targeting cursor with the other. The cursor works in the same way as a traditional adventure game cursor and you can look at, pick up or use items from your inventory with different environmental elements.
This isn’t a traditional adventure game though, and whilst there are some simple puzzles and fetch quests, the emphasis does shift more towards the action, and you will certainly have to test your reflexes at times. It isn’t quite jurassic Park: The Game or Heavy Rain territory here, where your evey move is a quick-time event, but those kind of interactions are included. When a zombie is bearing down on you, you must often move both sticks to position yourself and aim your targeting reticule at the enemy, before pressing a face button. For instance, if you are holding an axe, and a zombie is coming at you, you would therefore move the cursor over the undead minion and press the button that corresponds to the axe, to slice its head off. This might sound a bit complicated, but the technique works, and the difficulty which you might experience at times actually emulates the kind of panic and stress that someone in a zombie apocalypse would most likely suffer from.
Putting aside the gameplay mechanics for a moment, the game looks very impressive. Drawn in a slightly cel-shaded style, the designers have done a good job of mirroring the style of the comic books that inspired the game, and the heavily shaded characters and environments really work well in the dark and foreboding world that has been created. There is a certain amount of gore, as is to be expected in a game with subject matter such as this, but because of the stylised graphics, the imagery is never too explicit or disgusting, it is suitable to the story, but not over-powering (despite one scene featuring a hammer and the head of an unfortunate zombie). Audio too is handled very nicely. The music is grim and eerie, the sound effects are squelchy, as you might expect, and the entire voice cast provides capable delivery. Lee and Clementine in particular are acted very well, and the emotional bond that builds between the two is evident through the vocal performances.
The episode does seem slightly short, but this is partially because you will find yourself glued to the screen. Even if you intend just to play a little, it is inevitable that most gamers will get hooked by the game world and play the whole thing through in one go. The whole episode will last you perhaps two-three hours, but the real value in this package is the fact that you will want to go back and try different dialogue options and choices, to see how the people and story react differently. You can easily pick a chapter from the eight included in the episode and rewind the action back to that point, if you want to change a certain decision. This means that you won’t be stuck with a bad choice if you make a mistake. I only wish that the cutscenes were skippable after you have watched them once, as you could become a little irritated if you’ve played the same section more than three or four times, being forced to watch the same cinematic.
However, that is a minor gripe, and one of the few that there is to pick with The Walking Dead. Some minor slowdown issues are present, but nowehere near the extremes that made Jurassic Park: The Game almost slow down to a standstill on PlayStation 3. Although it is short, you will find yourself re-playing it again and again, and the single episode is offered at a very low price. This will no doubt lead to many people taking the plunge and buying future episodes, as it is such a small investment to make, and the risk is so low.
Players who take that risk will be rewarded with a striking game that will immerse you in a scary new world where zombies roam. You will care about the protagonists and find the decisions you have to make truly difficult, how could you choose between two characters who have been developed so well that they are both empathetic? You will have to make these choices and live with your decisions. The “next time on The Walking Dead” clips at the end of the episodes will only whet the appetite for more Walking Dead all the more, and even these change depending on the different outcomes in the previous episode.
VERDICT: Telltale Games have created a title that fits perfectly in their tried and tested series format and, like a good TV show, you will keep on wanting more. There may be a little too much exposition here, and not enough action, but this is often the case with the source material it is based on. This solid first effort is an encouraging sign for the other four episodes, and Telltale normally hit their stride even more further into a series, so we can expect even bigger and better things still to come. The dead are alive and kicking, but you can join the fight and kick back, with your every move really making a difference to your individual experience.