Review – Walking Dead episode 1

Do you know that TV series that started as a comic book about a sheriff in a cowboy hat who shoots lots of zombies?  Now it’s a video game in which you play a totally made-up new character in the same universe as the sheriff in the cowboy hat, and who also has to fight zombies.  Will you meet the sheriff dude?  Will you discover why you are a cel-shaded character?  Will you kill zombies?

Telltale Games’ latest project of turning pop franchises (i.e. Jurassic Park and Back to the Future) into software about pointing and clicking at things for fun is Walking Dead.  Walking Dead is a far leap forward for the company in terms of devising a fresh new game mechanic to play around with.  Both Tales from Monkey Island and Sam & Max were pretty much traditional adventure games with a fixed narrative that advanced forward with every successful puzzle completed.  In comparison, Walking Dead adds a new mechanic of persistent choice that makes your character more your own throughout the series.  The choices you make in the game have direct repercussions on how your relationships with other characters and what happens next in the story play out.  Kinda’ like how it was used in Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy, if a little more simplified.

After all, the premise of Walking Dead is about how a bunch of humans deal with themselves and one another in an apocalyptic setting.  So relationships and how you choose to converse with others in the game matters.  As for the writing of the story and the choices you get, it is fairly intriguing throughout, if not predictable.

“What happens when the zombie crosses the road?”  Answer: A convict (that’s you) in a cop car gets into an accident which leads to your freedom, and then you get to safety and meet a whole bunch of characters along the way – including 2 from the comics/TV show – eventually getting holed up in a little town and figuring out how to make your next move.  It isn’t the most explosive of plotlines but there is a good bit of tension along with expletive-ridden frantic arguments between characters.  You also have to figure out whether to share your secret of being a murderer (gasp) with others or keep it to yourself.  The writing gets that much right.  Telltale has to be commended for how they slowly let on about Lee’s backstory as you play the guy.  There will be things that are shown and not told in a way only a game can, and it is quite affecting.  As it stands, Lee is quite alright in my books.  Let’s see how he plays out in the rest of the series.

There will also be some grim choices to make, and you’ll wonder whether your decisions were the right ones.  Now I want to see if these decisions carry out all the way through the rest of the game series, or if Telltale Games is merely giving you the illusion of choice.  My only gripe about this is that with each setting that you pass through in the story, there seems to be very little room for error, and one of the things that makes for good “choice” type gaming adventures is when you miss things that others might not, and how that drastically changes the way a story plays out for each gamer.  For instance, what if I find a weapon early on in the adventure that only comes into use in the episode’s dramatic finale?  And what if I hadn’t found that weapon, how would that affect the ending?

As for the actual point and clicky bits, I remain on the fence about whether Telltale Games nails it on the head or not.  See, I’m not a big adventure gaming guy, so it takes me a little longer than usual to solve puzzles, but a game that leans heavily on its narrative such as Walking Dead cannot be slowed down by needing to hunt for this or that clickable item that will lead them onto the next thing.  There was one bit in the town where I had to find keys and the solution was not an obvious one, in that Telltale Games expects you to click on every line of dialogue and bit of scenery in order to progress.   The most annoying bit was probably the section when you’re sneaking around the zombies in the parking lot of the motel, and trying to figure out where the hell the next clickable trigger for the rest of the scene was.  It took so long to solve that it ruined the intensity of the story somewhat, although the conclusion to that setpiece brought the intensity back in full.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that for an adventure games company, I feel Telltale Games has always just fallen short on the actual puzzle-making front.  If you ask me, they could do with a little more playtesting and refine the puzzles to a Valve-level of perfection; puzzles that are always solvable, but toes the line of being just the right amount of difficult that tempts you to reach for a walkthrough.   As it is now, it is very stilted, sometimes with an obscure solution, other times right in your face with the answer.  It doesn’t help that Lee walks a little bit too slow when you just want him to run everywhere as I would in a zombie apocalypse.

Don’t expect too much from the game’s combat.  Unfortunately in Walking Dead, the act of shooting or hacking a zombie to death is one-time removed by the act of clicking at a zombie such that someone other than me is killing the zombie.  It’s weird, it’s kinda detached, and yeah, it kills a bit of the fun that comes with hurting the undead.  I would imagine that if it were a third-person adventure game that you controlled both using WASD and the mouse, you could also implement a simple combat system ala Resident Evil-style perhaps.  Anyway, there are quicktime events which are always completely unnecessary, but the moments when you have to use your mouse cursor to precisely click on the weapon and then the zombie’s noggin can get quite thrilling.

For a game that is mostly dark and grim in atmosphere, sometimes cartoon zombies don’t present as horrifying a subject as it could, but you do get over the quirky cel-shaded graphics after awhile.  The characters in this game are certainly realistically drawn and they emote well enough without ever descending into Weirdsville.  In fact, the host of characters you meet so far are very well fleshed out such that you might just give a shit as to what is happening to them.  Especially Duck.  The retarded child.  I want to see how well he survives the zombie apocalypse.  And this, I guess, is the most important point that makes the game worthwhile.

Probably the only outright flaw of Walking Dead would have to be the creaking game engine.  At times, the game suffers stuttering framerates which is funny considering how low-specs it already is.  There were even a couple of times when the cutscenes froze and you’d think it was dead in the water.  Actually, there was one time when I needed to restart the entire game because it had died in the water.

In conclusion, this is definitely a fun enough game to give you a bit of a thrill, looking past the occasional clumsy puzzle and limited game engine.  Telltale Games have certainly stepped up, giving a strong focus on the gaming elements with a decent enough storyline.  It doesn’t reach the epic level of writing as does the TV show or comics, nor put a grin on my face everytime I say or do something cool, but it is good enough to keep you in suspense.  I eagerly await Episode 2.

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