Much to the chagrin of many of my friends I haven’t really got into the whole Walking Dead craze that seemed to sweep the Internet over the past couple years, mostly because my wife went ahead and started watching them without me. Couple that with the fact that I’m a terrible reader (I only seem to find time for it on long haul flights) I have also given the comics on which the whole craze is based a miss. I tell you this because The Walking Dead game seemed to attract just as much fandom as the IP’s other incarnations but that was most certainly not the reason I decided to play it. Instead I had heard that Telltale Games had done well with this particular franchise and since their treatment of Sam & Max was pretty decent I figured the hype was probably well earned.
The Walking Dead takes place in modern day America with you playing as Lee Everett, a university professor who’s been recently convicted of killing his wife’s lover and is on his way to jail. On the way however the police car you’re in hits an unidentified person sending the car tumbling over the embankment and leaving you trapped in the car. After looking around it’s clear that something is amiss with the officer who was driving you rising from the dead and attempting to attack you. Things only seem to get worse from here on out as you struggle to survive and protect the few people you manage to team up with.
Whilst I haven’t played many Telltale games (although I’ve watched someone play through most of the Sam & Max series) I still got the feeling that their titles had a distinctive style and The Walking Dead certainly fits in with that idea. Due to the extreme cross platform nature of The Walking Dead the graphics aren’t particularly great but the heavy use of comic-book stylization (I’ve seen people say its cel-shaded but I’m not entirely sure about that) means that it still works well. The animations and sound effects are somewhat rudimentary but this is made up in spades by the voice acting which I’ll touch on more later.
Whilst The Walking Dead is more like an interactive movie with game elements the core game mechanics are those of an adventure game coupled with a few modern innovations like quick time events to drive some of the more action oriented sections. If you’ve played other titles in the same genre like Heavy Rain then this style will be very familiar to you where the game play elements are there to serve as a break from the usually quite intense story sections. Of course decisions you make during these sections can also have an impact on how the story unfolds, something which The Walking Dead informs you of at the start of every episode.
Even for a modern adventure game the puzzles that are thrown at you are rather simplistic usually consisting of you tracking down a particular item or following the bouncing ball in order to progress to the next area. Some of the puzzles are also completely optional, as far as I could tell, as there were a couple times when I’d do things that didn’t seem to have any impact past the scene in question. For a game that is heavily focused on the story rather than the game play I can’t really fault it for this as hard puzzles usually only serve to break immersion and frustrate the player but if you were expecting The Longest Journey level brain ticklers than you’ll be disappointed.
What I was thankful for was the simplistic inventory system that shied away from having some form of combine or use one item with another item type mechanic that a lot of games like this have. Usually this just ends up in frustration as you try to find the right item combination in order to solve the problem, something that I’m not usually a fan of. Instead if you have an item that can interact with something in the world it’ll show up as an option taking a lot of the guesswork out of the equation. Sure figuring something out can be fun and The Walking Dead certainly has some satisfying challenges but playing inventory item roulette isn’t one of them.
The Walking Dead is, for the most part, bug and glitch free however I had several occasions when the game broke on me in one way or another. Typically this took the form of the keyboard or mouse simply not responding during an interactive section, rendering me unable to progress any further until I reloaded. This wasn’t usually a problem but sometimes it did mean losing a bit of progress, forcing me to replay through a section. By far the worst bug was when a particular cut scene somehow managed to double itself up with all the characters saying their lines twice over the top of each other and the animations attempting to do the same. Personally I’d put this down to the multi-platform release which means that the amount of time that Telltale could spend on QAing each platform was reduced significantly. In all honesty though I thought most of these bugs would be ironed out given the time since the initial release.
Realistically though you wouldn’t be playing this game for the game mechanics, you’ll be playing it for the story. The Walking Dead tells you in no uncertain terms that the choices you make will affect the outcome of the game and that’s 100% true. Depending on the choices you make certain characters may or may not be alive, people might react to you differently or you might end up in a situation that you didn’t expect to find yourself in. At the end of each episode you’ll also be greeted with a statistic screen which shows how your choices lined up with the greater community and the results can be rather surprising at times.
What really got me initially were the small decisions that I’d make in the heat of the moment having drastic repercussions later on, sometimes right after doing so. Traditionally your choices in these kinds of games were almost irrelevant due to the complexity of creating multiple story arcs that have some level of coherency. The Walking Dead still has decisions like that at times during the game but it’s hard to know which one is which before you make it. I can’t tell you the number of times that I found myself wanting to go back and change something because the result wasn’t what I had expected but since there’s no quick save/load function (a deliberate omission) there’s really no way to do it unless you want to play the whole episode over again. Even then you might not be able to shape the story in the way you want.
I also want to give a lot of credit to the voice acting as it’s not easy to make something fully voice acted and have it come out as well as it has in The Walking Dead. Whilst there can be some strange fluctuations in tone should you choose different types of responses (Lee usually has passive, neutral and aggressive options) the sound bites themselves are well spoken and full of emotion which is probably one of the reasons I found it so easy to sympathize with the characters. There’s been quite a few games I’ve played recently that have been ruined by sub-par voice actors so The Walking Dead was a welcome change and one that I hope more game developers take note of.
The story was one of the great examples where I could hate everything that was happening but still felt a deep emotional connection to most of the characters. The relationship between Lee and Clem is a beautiful one and whilst I won’t spoil the ending anyone who’s been through it will tell you that it’s utterly heart breaking, to the point where I was just staring at the monitor, not wanting to accept what was happening. From what I can gather though this is what The Walking Dead franchise is all about and it does a damn good job of making you care for a lot of people before putting them through all sorts of hell, taking you along with them.
The Walking Dead is a great example of an episodic game done right as each of the sections stands well on its own but together they form something that is very much greater than the sum of its parts. The graphics are simple yet well executed, the voice acting superb and the story so engrossing that you’re likely to be thinking “what if” for a long time to come after you finish it. If you’re a fan of adventure games or The Walking Dead itself then there’s going to be a lot to love in this cinematic adventure game and I can recommend it enough.
The Walking Dead is available on PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox360 and iOS right now for $24.99, $29.99, $29.99 and $14.99. Game was played on the PC with around 10 hours played and 100% of the achievements unlocked.