A compelling and mature adventure
In 2003, Robert Kirkman created The Walking Dead in order to tell a zombie story like no other. While most films and literature in the genre had a tendency to kill the heroes or see them off to parts unknown, Kirkman's work presented an ongoing story of survival. Fast forward to present day: the comic is still going strong and the television adaptation ranks as AMC's highest rated program in the channel's history. After gaining such mainstream fame, it wasn't long before a video game adaptation by Telltale Games was announced. While I believed Telltale to be a natural fit for the project, many were concerned about the prospect after playing through the lackluster Jurassic Park. Personally, I was hoping for an adventure that was better crafted than Back to the Future, which seemed to rely on fostering nostalgia rather than tell an engaging story. After playing through the first episode, the good news is that The Walking Dead is nothing like Jurassic Park orBack to the Future as the game strikes a decent balance between action and point-and-click adventure gameplay. The star of this show, however, is the strong, emotional narrative that successfully emulates the bleak tone of the comic.
Rather than retell the events that took place in the television series or put you in the boots of Rick Grimes, The Walking Dead begins at the start of the apocalypse. The player controls Lee Everett, a middle aged African American man who finds himself in the back of a police car on his way out of Atlanta. As the elderly officer attempts to engage in conversation, both are unaware of the increasing police and military presence barreling towards the city. Lee's trip to prison is put on hold after the cop accidentally plows into a zombie shuffling across the road, sending the car tumbling end over end into a ditch. Coming to some time later, Lee is alone in the woods near the brutalized - and chewed - corpse of his police escort. Something very wrong has happened and Lee must contend with a world suffering through its death throes.
In typical Telltale fashion, the majority of The Walking Dead tasks you with guiding Lee through a number of different environments and interacting with survivors, zombies and objects along the way. Items of interest are marked with a small circular icon and can be used or given to other characters. item interaction is the game's largest fault. In most adventure games, you can move the cursor over any part of the object and the cursor will change, letting you know that the item can be manipulated. You won't find that here. Instead, a bizarre design decision requires you to hunt for a hotspot on each item before the cursor recognizes what it is. I often wonder why Telltale chose to do this and the only answer I can come up with is to increase the feeling of tension during action sequences in which you are given a small window to act before Lee (or a survivor) is killed. The design works in these instances, but it gets exceedingly annoying during quieter moments.
Because this is The Walking Dead, danger lurks around every corner and inside every house. In a first for Telltale (I can't speak for Jurassic Park), if you fail a QTE or misstep around zombies, you will be killed. Death isn't so much of an annoyance because the game quickly puts you back at the start of the sequence. When Lee is forced to grapple with the living dead, the cursor switches to a U-shaped crosshair and you'll have to hunt for hotspots in order to fend them off (hint: aim for the head). There are weapons for Lee to find that make dispatching zombies easier, but their use is merely for show. You can't fire wildly around you or swing the axe like a crazed maniac. Like L.A. Noire, the weapons can only be used when the game tells you to.
It wouldn't be The Walking Dead without a heavy dose of drama and that is one element the game handles very well. At the beginning of the game, Lee comes across an answering machine containing three messages, each more desperate and unnerving than the last. After rescuing a little girl and joining up with other survivors, Lee must contend with people scared out of their minds and teetering over the edge of sanity. To make matters worse, there will be moments that require you to make a choice between who lives or dies. These decisions will carry over throughout the five episodes and the game doesn't take these deaths lightly. Survivors will either be angry at Lee or saddened and often ask, "Why me?"
The Walking Dead attempts to do something a little different with the look of the characters and environment. While not necessarily cell shaded, the characters look as if they were pulled directly from the earlier issues of the comics illustrated by Tony Moore. Most of the characters look painstakingly designed, appearing as if coloring and inking were applied directly onto the character models. I say "most" because a few members of the lead cast look incredibly detailed, like Lee, Clementine, Glenn and Hershel, while others lack the visual flourish. Despite this, the graphics are a refreshing change in artistic direction.
The Walking Dead shows a lot of potential from a narrative standpoint, but the gameplay isn't the defining characteristic. This is most certainly a game you'll want to play strictly for the story as it really doesn't offer any sort of challenges, outside of difficult moral choices. Those looking to whet their appetite for more of The Walking Dead while waiting for the next season of the show or the latest trade paperback will certainly enjoy what the game has to offer.