My thoughts on the Walking Dead video game.
If I were to go back to the 14 year old version of myself and tell him that someday there will be a critically acclaimed zombie tv show that I would completely ignore, he would probably call me a liar. It goes to show the proliferation the Zombie sub-genre that someone who once had a zombie related nickname (Rob Zombie) no longer cares about zombies, ghouls and the infected generally. This is why I have never taken the time to check out either The Walking Dead comic book or tv show. I just can’t get my interest up for zombies anymore – it all seems so 2008. So it was with some trepidation and worry that I bought The Walking Dead video game. Telltale games are trying to take the point-n-click adventure games they’ve been known for in recent years and inject action into it, and for the price of $5, available on 360, PS3 and PC, the first episode seemed worth checking out. The game actually surprised me in a lot of ways. While the game’s action is limiting, the story is not and is both well written and varied in the branching options it offers.
The thing that impressed me the most about the Walking Dead, and why I found it a worthwhile game, was how well the story was presented. You play a man named Lee, who when first introduced is being sent to prison. At this point the zombie outbreak starts, following the canon of the comic book (I know that solely through marketing materials, the difference between comic book and tv show are lost on me), and Lee finds himself freed. This freedom doesn’t taste as sweet as one might think, however, as Lee has no time to celebrate before he’s running from zombies. From that point on the story is put into the player’s hands. They can choose whom to save, what to do and with whom to side. The choices that the players make can change the story in drastic ways. It’s similar to the Witcher and Mass Effect series, except that since each episode is only a couple of hours long, TellTale can spend more time making every choice drastic. This gives the player a lot of incentive to replay through each episode to see how things could have changed.
While the story feels open, however, the action and gameplay can be very restraining. The action sequences are not dissimilar to the games Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy, where quick-time events (button presses whose success is based on time) determine success. Even when the game gives the player more control, the attacking in the game is still centered on hitting the button at the right time. Beyond the action, the actual puzzles in the game aren’t very complicated. This feels like a conceit towards the subject matter, that by making a game out of this very serious subject matter the puzzles need to be based in that reality. You can make them harder by turning off on-screen icons that will tell you whether or not you can interact with something, but that seems like it would just make it more difficult to see the objects at all. The lighting uses some harsh shadows, which can make items and things you are meant to look at hard to see.
Despite my criticisms, the gameplay isn’t bad, it just exists solely in service to the story. It actually has a good feel to it. Moving the cursor over to click on an item in a combat sequence feels cumbersome, but only as cumbersome as trying to grab an item quickly might be in a real life version of that scenario. The game has a visceral feel, despite that phrase being overused, it actually fits the description, which is impressive considering that at its heart it is a point-n-click game. While the puzzle elements that are included in the action might be simple, the moment of having to quickly figure out what you need to do can be exciting. The game does it’s best to make even a simple task surprisingly difficult, but this didn’t create as challenging an experience as one might have hoped. I only died once while playing through the episode, and considering the entertainment such a game might put into characters getting killed (the horror aspect of the game) the game never felt threatening.
However, because there’s only one way to solve a combat situation it becomes difficult to want to play through an action scene once more, since you already know how it will play out. Another detractor from the replayability of the game are the achievements. On the one hand, the game has 200 points of achievements; you get all of them by playing through the game. Since the game isn’t difficult, I only died once which is way too few deaths for a zombie game. You’ll get the achievements with little resistance. On the other hand, it gives you less reason to play more of the game, which is antithetical to what the point of achievements are. Good achievements should make you want to play more, on harder difficulties or even based on what choices you make to give even more incentive to replay through the game. Perhaps achievements for collectibles or for making different choices would have ben good additions.
All things considered, both the good and the bad, I would say that the game is well worth checking out. There is a demo available for the first episode, however since it is only a 20 minute chunk of the game you might not get a feel for how your choices might play out. If the game sounds interesting to you, then it is well worth the $5 for the first episode. Though the $5 price tag is the great equalizer in the game. The story will keep you interested, and even a little emotionally invested, and may give you more bang for your buck if you decide to replay it. Though this is balanced by the linear nature of the gameplay, something that feels a little uneven in the game. Though $5 for the first episode, and $25 to buy the entire game ahead of time, might make it a more worthwhile purchase, if the game was a full priced title it becomes a harder sell. You could even say the game brings branching stories out of RPGs and is innovative in that way, however it lacks the branching gameplay, the different options and ways to play, that the RPG genre is also known for.