Review - The Walking Dead Episode 1

Posted on April 26, 2012 - 1:05pm

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The folks over at Telltale Games have been steadily releasing point-and-click adventure games such as Sam & Max, Monkey Island, and Back to the Future since 2005. Their latest offering is The Walking Dead, a zombie-filled apocalyptic thriller, popularised recently as a TV show. However, despite the critical and commercial success of the show, the game takes more inspiration from Robert Kirkman’s original graphic novels. Instead of bringing you into events from the television series, you play as Lee Everett, a teacher who is accused of murder on the brink of the infection that brings civilization to its knees. The first episode is titled ‘A New Day’ and introduces Lee and a cast of characters (including some that Walking Dead aficionados will recognize) as they band together to survive. Future episodes will follow Lee’s unique story, though you will sometimes meet characters or visit places that tie in to existing Walking Dead lore, such as Hershel’s farm.

The first thing you notice about The Walking Dead is the stylistic visual touch. Telltale presents the game with a kind of faux cel-shaded look, strangely reminiscent of the surreal film A Scanner Darkly or the game Borderlands. Thick black outlines accentuate everything and give the game a distinctive comic-book feel, which is very apt given the source material. The visuals also highlight decent character animations, and despite a few unfortunate ‘uncanny valley’ moments, the survivors all look great. The undead can look a little lackluster when compared to the protagonists, although zombies that get up close and personal are sufficiently ghastly. The game’s locales are well crafted too, with details that help convey a sense of chaos – a blood stain here, a battered car wreck there – that all adds to the mood.

One of the best things about The Walking Dead is the voice-acting. It’s way above average for a video game, ranging from good to excellent. There are a few flat lines here and there, but as a game which relies heavily on story, it needed some superb performances from the cast, and they’ve definitely achieved that. Overheard radio broadcasts and messages left on answering machines add depth and background to the story, and events which are heard but not seen help craft a tale that extends beyond just what’s on the screen.The music is appropriate but not overpowering. String instruments groan ominously to build tension or shriek loudly in times of peril – just what you’d expect from the genre.

However effective the visuals and audio are, how you find your experience with The Walking Dead will depend entirely on whether you enjoy the sort of ‘interactive movie’ genre which Telltale seems to be leaning towards. The gameplay itself comes in a variety of different styles. There are dialogue choices to be made as you go through the story. These build relationships and alter how people treat you (both at that moment, and later on in the game). When you have close encounters with zombies, there are button-mashing/quick time events, and the rest of the gameplay has you control Lee directly – this comprises the ‘puzzle-solving’ section of the game.

The dialogue choices come with a twist: you are given limited time to decide which option to go with, and this amount of time seems to differ depending on how heated the moment is. In times of calm, you can think more carefully about what to say, whereas in heated arguments, the timer runs out much faster. This is a very effective way of both maintaining pace and increasing the tension you feel while making decisions. These choices aren’t just there for you to choose how your own version of Lee will act, as they have direct effects on events further down the line, some of them fairly major. On top of this, during the action sequences, you are often forced to make a decision between two lives – saving one person over another. The decisions are tough, thanks to the combination of voice acting and smart, concise writing. Each character feels important – there are no ‘red shirts’ in this game. It will be interesting to see if Telltale can make these early decisions from Episode 1 count further down the line.

The only part of the game that falls a tiny bit flat is when you take direct control of Lee. You’ll control Lee’s basic movement, as well as an on-screen reticule used to interact with the game objects. There are no real puzzles here to speak of, and once you obtain an item, anything you can use it with gains an additional icon, making it blindingly obvious what to do. A setting at the start of the game decides if you want a ‘Standard’ or ‘Minimal’ interface – if you don’t want to feel like the game is completely holding your hand, you’ll definitely want to use the minimal setting to turn off the floating white circles that highlight every interactive object on the screen. Some of what you’ll inspect in these parts adds flavour to the story, and these sections are broken up by interaction with the other survivors, but you’ll wish they were just a little more challenging.

The Walking Dead is a good example of what can be done when you combine the interactivity of video games with a cinematic styled narrative. This type of game is not for everyone. It walks a line between two mediums, which some may find disconcerting. However, fans of the source material and those who enjoyed other ‘interactive movies’ like Heavy Rain will no doubt enjoy it, and the choices affect the game’s outcome enough to warrant a replay or two. It looks and sounds great, the storyline and characters are engaging. While it’s not particularly challenging, you’ll want to find out what happens to Lee and the others after playing through Episode 1.

8 / 10

(8s are great games that have something holding it back from excellence, or some features aren't as polished. The game is still extremely worthy of playing.)

Dave Herrington is an aspiring writer, movie enthusiast, failed superhero and gamer. He writes from his house/cave near Oxford, England, and enjoys watching just about anything in good company. His favourite thing ever is Calvin & Hobbes, and hopes they never make a movie out of it. Or else.


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