Game Review: The Walking Dead – The Game
The Walking Dead: The Game blows pretty much any expectations that I had for it out of the water. It is easily one of the defining storytelling experiences of 2012, and MUST be played: for Walking Dead fans, and gamers, alike.
*Writer’s Note: This article is for “Season One” as a whole of The Walking Dead: The Game, covering all 5 of the initial episodes. While great care has been taken to avoid any spoilers, be wary that there may be SPOILER ALERTS.*
Had you maybe asked me about The Walking Dead: The Game being such a potentially huge success about a year or two ago when it was first announced, I probably would have shrugged you off and said, “You crazy!” (Not maybe in that exact tone or phrasing…but something along those lines!)
And yet, a full year later, a downloadable-episodic game based off of a wildly popular comic book/TV series/entertainment license is now, in many gamers’ and critics’ eyes, what may be the Game of the Year in 2012. Even against a wave of stiff competition from mammoth releases this year – Mass Effect 3, Halo 4, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Assassin’s Creed III, and the list goes on – The Walking Dead: The Game is truly the only experience this year that I can recall being so engrossed in that, once I completed the latest episode, I was actually quite sad at the fact that I had to wait two months until the next installment.
While obviously that is no longer a problem with all 5 episodes now being available, both digitally and in a retail disc release, The Walking Dead: The Game nevertheless kept me hooked all along the way in its exciting, thrilling, and yet at times heart-breaking story. Even though it’s quite a departure from the typical zombie-apocalypse-game formula – Left 4 Dead, this is not. Resident Evil, this is not – the story of Lee and Clementine’s struggle to make it out of the zombie hell-hole they’re forced into is one that I just kept wanting to go back to, against all (insane at times) odds.
Adapted from Robert Kirkman’s long-running Image comic series, The Walking Dead: The Game indeed feels ripped straight from the pages of the exceptionally good comics, albeit it uses the source material more as a foundation to tell its own original story. Taking the format of a point-and-click adventure game of similar variety to Telltale’s previous series, like their Back to the Future, Sam and Max, and Strong Bad games, The Walking Dead successfully utilizes this genre and applies it well to Kirkman’s lore in its focus on story and character development. While it includes some great nods to the comic’s storyline (with cameos by comic veterans Glenn and Hershel, along with a fairly beefy role for the eventual Woodbury resident, Lilly Caul), Telltale’s game series instead presents its own take on The Walking Dead universe, and developing an original, brutal tale.
Following recently-convicted Lee Everett as he is being escorted to prison in a cop car, following the acts he commits while discovering his wife was cheating on him, Telltale wastes no time in getting to the nitty-gritty of the zombie apocalypse that sets off The Walking Dead. Suddenly thrust into a world defined by flesh-eating corpses and a survival-of-the-fittest mentality for those not infected, Lee soon encounters Clementine, a young girl in the Georgia suburbs surviving with her parents nowhere in sight, who he soon takes under his care to protect and reunite with her family. From there, across each of the 5 episodes, the cast only grows from there with a diverse range of personalities, with meeting those like the hot-headed but hard-working family man, Kenny, to tech geek Doug, nervous and young Ben, to the tough and strategic Molly…even as some of these characters come and go much in the typical fashion that defines The Walking Dead, they all at least have such distinctive traits and personalities, and each gets their own time in the post-zombie apocalypse spotlight.
The real beauty of the series, again much like the comic series (or even AMC’s TV series) is that because the story is stretched out in the “zombie movie that never ends” format that Robert Kirkman so stresses and defines in The Walking Dead, the characters are allowed to be developed and fleshed out over the course from episode-to-episode. In this way, the game is allowing you to truly connect with each character’s strengths and flaws over the season, and even more so, making their deaths have an even greater impact just by virtue of the time that has been spent with them. (Of course, the deaths of some characters might be more deserving than others, but really that’s just left up to player judgment/likability of other characters, now isn’t it?)
More of a zombie game by way of Mass Effect or Heavy Rain than of your typical first-person-shooter or action game variety, The Walking Dead: The Game borrows the DNA from those two games in particular by way of the essential gameplay element of “choice”: Lee is YOURS to mold into however you want him to be. Whether he becomes an all-effacing leader meant to try and help all those that he can in his group, or to become a more strategically-minded survivalist that can measure his losses, The Walking Dead: The Game becomes tense not just for the zombie outbreaks and attacks – of course, there are plenty of those across all 5 episodes. Instead, it’s almost the smaller, more intimate moments of survival and panic that define how The Walking Dead: The Game challenges its players in truly stressful situations, all with an impending timer ticking down, and forcing your hand to make the more difficult, but necessary, choices.
In these instances, these decisions literally can mean life-or-death – faced with two characters in danger, you only have time to save one: who do you choose?
Faced with an abandoned car filled with food and supplies in the face of your starving group, do you take the supplies or leave them, in the chance of maybe screwing another survivor (or survivors) over? In possibly one of the most gruesome scenes of the whole season, you are faced with a man whose leg is trapped within a painful bear trap, as a zombie herd steadily approaches: what do you do to save him…or don’t? Who do you take sides with to form alliances and help in times of danger…and who do you hurt or anger in the process?
Notated by small messages like “(Insert name) will remember that you helped them,” or “You lied to (Insert name)” after every decision you make, and tightening the pressure screws by forcing a time-limit to make the matters worse, The Walking Dead: The Game is unapologetic in that it forces you not only to make these stressful game-changing decisions under the clock, but then makes you OWN those decisions. While Mass Effect, or even Heavy Rain at times, gave you a fair leniency in dead time to allow you to think, “What would happen if I made this call?”(or i.e. hopping onto a browser to look at a Wiki to see how the changes affect your game, or reverting to a previous save if things go South), The Walking Dead makes no time for that: you’re in the moment, you have to choose, and you have to live with those decisions…and the game is all the better for it.
While The Walking Dead: The Game is noteworthy and exceptional for this attention to storytelling and its fantastic presentation, it is of course not a flawless game. While digging back into its roots for creating great point-and-click adventure games (see Telltale’s Sam and Max or Back to the Future games as examples), The Walking Dead at times stumbles when it comes to gameplay elements that sometimes don’t particularly mesh well with the core gameplay which, most of the time, works extremely well. In trying to incorporate some “twitch” or quick-time event-style elements (such as a few forced FPS moments, or events with very short time windows or successful completion), the results of some of these situations and events can feel a bit at times cheap or illogical, especially in the context that these are literal life-or-death events that can have game-altering consequences…and it can be frustrating at failing some of these due to poor game implementation and explanation. The same goes for some of the game’s puzzles, which oftentimes aren’t particularly challenging or brain-taxing, but more along the lines of just pixel-hunting until you find the right area to click, or just brazenly searching and clicking until you find the next area to progress through.
Likewise, for a game so consistent in telling a tense and exciting story, and for strongly developing and fleshing out its wide band of characters, at times the player choice can create some drastic inconsistency with the characters. Much like what I like to call “LA Noire Syndrome,” one minute Kenny can be complementing you on helping his young son, Duck (“Thanks for saving my boy, Lee! You done good by my family…”), the next decision he could just chew you out for a minor infraction (“**** YOU LEE! THAT WAS A ****IN BAD CALL YOU ****!”…etc), causing at times some moments of bi-polar frustation both from player choice and some odd characterization. In the same way, some of the later characters introduced (such as Chuck, the homeless man, or newfound couple Omid and Christa, all introduced at the tail end of Episode 3) at times feel underutilized or underdeveloped, given little to do compared to some of the more central conflicts or storylines surrounded by more fleshed-out characters, like Lee, Clementine, Kenny and his family, Lilly, etc.
While the game features incredibly strong art direction and a fantastic graphic-novel style that perfectly emulates Kirkman’s series and Charlie Adlard’s Walking Dead artwork, technical blips do affect the game in sometimes distracting ways. From the game freezing and pausing momentarily as it “thinks” and calculates your decisions, to downright framerate drops in the previously mentioned shooting segments (i.e. Fire a bullet = game comes to a halt!), the issues that do come up are indeed odd considering that, while the game looks fantastic, it’s not a particularly graphically-intensive or processer-demanding game. In my experience playing all 5 episodes, I only had one crash during an episode and other than that, nothing too completely game-breaking, but the technical issues are indeed a distraction. Luckily though, they’re only minor for the most part.
All in all though, these elements are easily ignored, especially in the fact of how Telltale successfully brings together The Walking Dead formula for easily one of the best gaming experiences I had for the entire year…even in the event that the first season’s conclusion pretty much had me choked up on the brink of tears. With all of your decisions collecting to a heart-breaking finale, Lee and Clementine’s story was one that, with each new episode released along the way, I just couldn’t wait to hop back into…even if most of the time they faced insurmountable zombie-plagued odds.
And likewise, with the promise of Season Two of the game series to come at some point later this year, and including the possibility of importing your save file/decisions and story points from the first series, the stakes seem like they’ll be raised even higher, and the story will only grow even more intense.
And my excitement for a new tale of The Walking Dead just grew even more unbearable.
Bring it on, Telltale.
(Review based on Xbox 360 version of the game – Retail Downloadable Episodes on XBLA)