Giant Bomb Review

240 Comments

The Walking Dead Review

5
  • PC
  • PS3
  • X360

The Walking Dead's first season is nothing short of a masterpiece of modern horror gaming.

Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead comic series has proved a remarkably pliant property in recent years. The comic is still going strong over 100 issues in, and the TV series loosely based upon it, despite some serious second-season hiccups, is finding new life in its third season. All this, despite an overwhelming sense of malaise related to all things zombie in pop culture these days. Granted, zombies are pretty much everywhere, and while they make for serviceable villains in just about any context, there are only so many ways you can stab, shoot, bludgeon, beat, kick, squash, crunch, or set alight the undead. They're always going to be screeching, gurgling ghouls who want to eat you, and the thrill of killing them can really only take you so far.

Lee Everett is as completely realized a playable protagonist as I can ever remember playing...

This is what makes Telltale's The Walking Dead such a marvel. Seemingly aware that the mere act of killing zombies is hardly enough to capture anyone's attention nowadays, lead writer/directors Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin have smartly focused the game on the human story of the zombie apocalypse. This is certainly in the tradition of Kirkman's writing of the comic books, but this Walking Dead tale is arguably even more gripping than Kirkman's own works. This Walking Dead puts you right in the middle of the fray as society buckles under the weight of the dead rising, and forces you to make tough decision after tough decision not only to survive, but to help others survive as well.

Split up over five episodes, the first season of The Walking Dead puts you in the shoes of Lee, a convicted murderer who may or may not actually be all that bad of a guy. You don't know, because the game is purposefully vague about your back story, perhaps so as to allow some malleability in how players see themselves. Lee is you, but Lee is still a character who speaks, emotes, and has his own distinct personality. That his dialogue choices in nearly every scenario allow for a range of responses means you can mold Lee to your play style. He's essentially a silent protagonist with a voice, if that makes any sense at all. That his voice can be so easily adjusted to your own style is a compliment to the writing, which is as mature and thoughtful as anything I've played in recent memory.

Over the course of the five episodes, Lee is joined by a variety of other survivors of the zombie apocalypse, some of which stick around for the duration of your journey, and some who simply appear for an episode or two and then are dispatched, either of their own volition, or by way of some grisly demise. One character who is a constant is Clementine, an eight-year-old girl who Lee stumbles upon in her otherwise abandoned suburban home early in the first episode. When you meet her, Clem is just a particularly vulnerable survivor, completely alone and terrified. Her parents were out of town when the outbreak hit, and until you come upon her, she'd barely had any human contact. No matter how you play Lee, it becomes apparent that this child is going to become your responsibility.

And what a wonderful, heart-wrenching responsibility she turns out to be. It is with no amount of exaggeration that I say that Clementine is one of the most fully-realized, brilliantly written child characters ever put into any kind of entertainment medium. Children are often impossible to write, given their innocence, capriciousness, and general inability to understand the world around them. Make them too dumb, and they become a shrill annoyance. Make them too clever, and they become cartoon characters. Clem is neither of these things. She is a kid who is at once capable, but deeply unsure of herself. She, like Carl from the Walking Dead comics, is forced into a situation where she must grow up entirely too quickly. That her upbringing into this ludicrously dangerous world is your responsibility is a gamble by the game's writers that brilliantly pays off. Not only do you want to protect this girl, you want to help her every way you possibly can. When that safety is threatened, it's not just Lee's on-screen anger that resonates. You feel it too.

What you have to do to keep her safe becomes increasingly grotesque and horrifying as the season wears on. Much as the comic rarely shied away from making characters do terrible things to survive, the game forces you to make constant life or death choices that can easily result in characters you like dying terrible deaths.

...but the real gem of this story is Clementine, a character I cared far more about than I ever thought possible in a game.

Choice. It's an interesting buzzword in gaming that too often boils down to a meaningless, binary path selection. If I choose A, I get this ending, and B, this other ending. The Walking Dead has these moments, but more often choice comes in the form of smaller decisions that nonetheless can have grave impact on your ability to move forward. Even your choice of tone in dialogue with other characters can have an effect on how other characters react to you in subsequent episodes. You can be the selfless hero, the selfish dick, or some amalgamation of the two. Regardless, those choices will add up over time.

Of course, the main story is always going to play out the way it's going to play out. While you can affect endings, who lives or dies, and how people interact with you, the truth is that the larger scope of the story is very much out of your hands. After all, this is a work of fiction, and as a result your choices still have to work within the machinations of the game's (apparently huge) script. In a sense, The Walking Dead is almost like an examination of fatalism. You can choose whatever path you like, but in the end, the larger world around you is going to do what it's going to do. All you can truly hope to affect is how you get to that end, and how you spend your time with others who may or may not be fated to survive.

Those choices prove a remarkable source of tension in a game that already has plenty of walking, slobbering, biting sources of tension. Ultimately, The Walking Dead treats its zombie antagonists the way the comic and TV series has--a deadly nuisance. Zombies are sentient weeds to be plucked, or simply walked around. That makes them no less dangerous, mind you, and the game certainly has plenty of breath-holding moments featuring Lee and other characters struggling against hordes of the undead. But more often, the tension comes from interactions with other people, be they fellow friendly survivors, or unfriendlies who regrettably cross your path. The choices you're forced to make in how you deal with these people is The Walking Dead's greatest fount of dread and terror. Even simple dialogue choices often left me pondering far longer than I ever expected.

To dig too deeply into the individual choices you will make is to dig up too many potential spoilers. Suffice it to say, each episode requires some tough thinking, and no matter what you choose, not everyone will survive. In this regard, Telltale's traditional episodic structuring is something of a blessing. Trying to play the entirety of season one in a single sitting is an incredibly draining experience. Emotions run high throughout each episode, which individually clock in between 90 minutes to three hours apiece. Each story is like its own individual tale, spun as part of a larger anthology. The second episode, for instance, is practically a self-contained story featuring multiple characters who never reappear, but nonetheless have a great deal of effect on what happens afterward. The writing and voice acting remains sharp throughout. Though some episodes are certainly better than others, there isn't a bad one in the bunch.

What's interesting is that very little about what makes The Walking Dead so special comes from the act of actually playing it. There's no secret sauce here that differs from Telltale's other point-and-click adventure games, save for the copious amounts of blood everywhere. You're still exploring environments, solving light puzzles, and occasionally engaging zombies that get a bit too close. But those mechanics are simple, generally uninvolving, and only occasionally frustrating. If anything, the choices and dialogue trees are the core of The Walking Dead's gameplay. Everything else is just necessary machinery to make it go.

Zombies are always a looming threat, but it's the living people you've really got to watch out for.

Sometimes that machinery does falter, though only rarely. Though the game's cel-shaded art style looks terrific on every platform, the console versions of the game are definitely prone to frame hitch-ups and occasional crashes, at least in my experience. I did most of my playing on the PC, which generally seems to be the best version, though some players have reported issues with saves wiping between episodes on that platform. I never experienced this myself, but it's been reported pervasively enough that I feel it warrants a mention. This is one of those cases where I feel the quality of content is worth the risk of potential technical hurdles, no matter which platform you choose to play on.

Yes, The Walking Dead really is that incredible. Relying so heavily on the writing, atmosphere, and emotional content of a game to carry you through a five-episode season is a risk that has paid tremendous dividends for Telltale. The Walking Dead is no mere interactive story. It is an immaculately paced, painfully affecting story featuring some of the most lovingly crafted characters ever to appear in a video game. From the very beginning, The Walking Dead sinks its teeth in and never lets you go. It's a journey in the truest sense of the word, replete with tragedy, heartache, tension, fear, and even brief moments of catharsis. Calling The Walking Dead a work of entertainment almost seems like a misnomer, considering the heavy tone and general lack of sentimentality in the writing. This is a sad game that will weigh heavy on you long after you've completed it--it even wrung some honest tears out of me on a couple of occasions. But you'll suffer through the emotional swings because they're ultimately worth it. No matter how depressing, gut-wrenching, or flat-out horrifying The Walking Dead gets, you will want--nay, need--to finish it. It's just that good.

Alex Navarro on Google+
240 Comments
Posted by Rickty

Excellent review, loved this game!

Posted by giant_frying_pan

Now make Jeff play it so he can't deny it GOTY like Red Dead.

Edited by MarkWahlberg

I know people get annoyed with company's constantly trying to commercialize IP's, but this seems to be one of the few instances where it really worked out. The original books had been more or less burnt out last I checked in with them, but then this comes along and by all accounts is vastly superior. Very cool stuff.

Posted by crusader8463

I really liked it, but some of the parts where people died felt forced and like there was no reason for it other then the guy writing the story felt like it was time for someone to die. Still love the game and can't wait to see what they do for the next one.

Posted by leejunfan83

it's not a game it's a QTE

Posted by Jackhole

So ... game of the year?

Posted by MooseyMcMan

I agree, it's very good.

Moderator
Edited by Hitchenson

GOTY.

Only game to ever strike an actual emotional reaction from me, it's spectacular.

Posted by Slayer78

Thought I had played this game for the last time in my life, due to Brenda, but when I finally got past the cunt I started loving the game again. Finished act II, about to start act III, and will do so as soon as I've finished Dead Island. Oh, and a nice review of course..

Posted by JZ

I stopped playing after ep: 3 not because I don't like it, but because I'm afraid of being yelled at by the characters for what I did in #3

Posted by Rem45

Excellent review keep up the good work!

Posted by Trilogy

@Hitchenson said:

GOTY.

Posted by meaninoflife42

I don't think I've ever had quite an emotional experience as I did playing this game. GOTY.

Posted by VarkhanMB

@leejunfan83 said:

it's not a game it's a QTE

Regardless of the degree of involvement this game requires, it's still the best way to experience the Walking Dead fiction.

Posted by Itwastuesday

Good review. Also, what a piece of shit! We see the hoodie.

Posted by mlarrabee

I was hoping that game would turn out.

Time to go download the final chapter.

Posted by Nightriff

Completely agree with everything you said Alex, going to be tough decision for me between Walking Dead and Journey

Posted by algertman

QTEOTY

Posted by namesonkel

Why Alex?

Posted by Sooty

@giant_frying_pan said:

Now make Jeff play it so he can't deny it GOTY like Red Dead.

Red Dead shouldn't get GOTY anyway for being dreadfully repetitive with too many "Ride shotgun with this guy!" moments.

Posted by Nightriff

@JZ: What did you do JZ? WHAT DID YOU DO?!

Posted by Little_Socrates

An amazing package, and it will remain one of the most important games ever made.

As one of the people who has experienced serious technical issues with the game, though, I'm perhaps a little less enthusiastic than a lot of people. I literally could not complete Episode 3 due to a technical error experienced by multiple people on multiple platforms that was never patched, my brother's save was wiped just before Episode 4, and my friend playing on the PS3 has to wait upwards of 15 seconds at times to see the next shot in a cutscene before waiting again for the camera to change.

The technical problems are not a gamebreaker. It's still absolutely worth playing on any platform, and everyone should probably play it. But, uh, people should probably understand that Skyrim and Fez have both been several times more functional among my peers.

Posted by Shtinky

@leejunfan83 said:

it's not a game it's a QTE

It's an Adventure game; they're more like interactive movies than traditional games, but they're still games.

Posted by PhantomGardener

@namesonkel said:

Why Alex?

Why not?

Posted by Shtinky

@Sooty said:

@giant_frying_pan said:

Now make Jeff play it so he can't deny it GOTY like Red Dead.

Red Dead shouldn't get GOTY anyway for being dreadfully repetitive with too many "Ride shotgun with this guy!" moments.

That was not as bad as Brad denying Saints Row of GOTY in favour of Skyrim.

Posted by jozzy

Really happy with how this turned out, I loved playing through it and it's definitely in my top 3 for the year. I view it more as an interactive comic (storybook?) than a game though, there is not much "game" and what is there is pretty bad.

Posted by Metal_Mills
@leejunfan83 said:

it's not a game it's a QTE

Who cares? It's an amazing game.
Posted by TheHT

I feel kinda bad only paying 15 bucks for the whole thing. Still, 6 stars.

Posted by Video_Game_King

First, I thought Patrick wrote the Wii U article, and now I thought he'd reviewed The Walking Dead. WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH PATRICK, MR. NAVARRO!?

Posted by Giantstalker

Oh, so it's an adventure game? That's all I needed to know.

Posted by VisariLoyalist

got to admit I expected patrick to review this

Posted by Happenstance

Easily my GOTY. The only other game this year that comes close for me is Persona 4 Golden and as thats a remake I think Walking Dead deserves it more.

Posted by solidlife

I hate myself for not playing this game and watching all the spoiler videos for each chapter. I will definitely be playing the next one spoiler free!

Posted by thesage

My favorite game of this generation.

I've never felt so emotionally attached to characters in any form of media: books, movies, TV, games. I feel like this game somewhat changed me and made me rethink myself. I seriously spent minutes on pause screens after making big decisions and just contemplating those decisions over and over in my head and wondering if I'd actually be that type of person in real life.

Posted by ArbitraryWater

I agree, although the thing that will prevent this otherwise fantastic piece of fiction from being my GOTY is the part where it's barely a game.

Posted by BasketSnake

I've only played it about an hour but I just don't care about the choices I make. I act it out as Kenny Powers would have. I'm arrogant and I only care about myself and I will sacrifice anyone to stay alive. That's how I find enjoyment in this. I will keep on playing and hopefully it grows on me. I love the tv show.

Posted by MichaelEM3

Excellent review, Alex.

Everyone that cares about the potential for storytelling in games as a medium seriously needs to play The Walking Dead. It's that important, and that good.

Posted by haggis

My only problems with this game have been technical. I just had my episode three save wiped after installing episodes four and five, which really sucks. Also, I'd have liked the option of inverting the controls, especially for the (infrequent) shooting sections, where my instincts caused some frustrations for me. Otherwise, it's damned near as perfect an adventure game as I've played. It focuses on the personal drama and less on the action (although there's plenty of that), and manages to be smart without being ham-fisted. I wasn't completely convinced by Clementine's voice acting--sometimes (especially in Episode 1) it came off as just a little too articulate.

It's probably not my game of the year, but it's probably in second place.

Posted by Legend

GOTY?

Edited by CaLe

I enjoyed it thoroughly. But it won't stick with me like you said it would, Alex. Nothing sticks with me, apart from that time I got my heart broken and never recovered from it. Maybe that's why nothing else sticks with me. You've opened a wound Alex, a wound I fear will never close again. It's all your fault.

INCONSOLABLE SOBBING, BLUBBERING, AND WHIMPERING.

Posted by Shaanyboi

@Sooty said:

@giant_frying_pan said:

Now make Jeff play it so he can't deny it GOTY like Red Dead.

Red Dead shouldn't get GOTY anyway for being dreadfully repetitive with too many "Ride shotgun with this guy!" moments.

agreed...

Posted by Maajin

I think everyone praising The Walking Dead as game of the year should look really hard at the way Telltale handles player choice and payoff, and then look back at Mass Effect 3: a fantastic game that did probably the best it could within it's limitations.

Don't get me wrong TWD is probably my game of the year. But it showed me very clearly, like Mass Effect 3 and Heavy Rain before it, that the ILLUSION of player choice is way more important than the choice itself.

Edited by Pozo

@leejunfan83 said:

it's not a game it's a QTE

Aren't broad statements fun?

Yes this game has QTEs. And yes, they are used for the "action" moments, such as fighting off a zombie, but to say the entire game is a QTE is pretty unfair.

The Walking Dead is a point and click adventure at it's core. It's like saying that Sam and Max or Monkey Island is nothing more than an inventory management game.

I really think that games like The Walking Dead, Heavy Rain, Asura's Wrath and even Myst should be looked at a bit differently, and not be compared to traditional gameplay heavy games. They are still games, and should not be scoffed at because they do things differently.

Games like these are not replacing traditional gaming, they are just another addition to the broad range of what a game can be. Sorry for the rant.

Posted by andrewf87462

Definitely my GOTY

Posted by gla55jAw

Top choice for my GOTY right here.

Posted by darkjester74

I don't see how any other game can compete for GOTY. Its pretty much a done deal.

Many congrats to Telltale, TWD is nothing short of a triumph in story telling.

Posted by Atwa

Easily my favorite game of the year, even one of my most favorite games of all time. 

Posted by nick_verissimo

Having read every issue of the comic and watched all of the tv series, I can honestly say that the game is best version of the three. It's remarkable what telltale did with this game.

Posted by benji_18

Beautifully put Alex. Well and truly a masterpiece, one of the best from the last few years.

Posted by joshthebear

GOTY