Let's get one thing out of the way for those who expected the worst out of a licensed The Walking Dead video game -- it's not a mindless zombie killing simulator. Far from that, the game is arguably a better adaptation of Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard's hit post-apocalyptic comic than AMC's TV series. Developed by Telltale Games, the folks who have made a name for themselves creating licensed adventure games from franchises such as Back To The Future, Wallace and Gromit, Homestar Runner, and even Jeff Smith's Bone, The Walking Dead is a solid piece of interactive storytelling that's well worth your time if you are a fan of the comic, television series, or a even of post-apocalyptic zombie stories. Though "A New Day" is just the first episode of a five part monthly game series, it does a good enough job telling a self-contained story while also setting up future episodes that you will feel content with your $5 purchase.
The official line from the developer is that the game is set within the continuity of the comic series, while Rick Grimes is still in a coma. Working with Kirkman, Telltale decided to shift the focus of the game from Rick and the survivors fans have grown to know in the comics to a new protagonist, Lee Everett, and the survivors he meets. It's a good decision, because if there's one thing we didn't need, it's yet another retelling of Rick's story. However, that's not to say that players won't meet some recognizable characters during the approximately two-hour adventure. Lee's will cross paths with some familiar faces early on in the game and players even see some of the events that shape their personalities in the comic before Rick meets them.
The game begins with Lee in the back of a police cruiser heading toward prison just before the terrible outbreak occurs. Players initially know little to nothing about his past, but Telltale cleverly allows you to control the manner in which it's revealed through dialog options in conversation. For example, when the police officer driving you starts a conversation, you can choose to act defensive, accepting, or simply remain silent. It's a nice narrative trick that both lets you feel in control of shaping both Lee's character while also revealing tidbits about his past at the proper times.
Speaking of control, the most ambitious aspect of the game is the degree to which your choices affect how the story plays out. As you converse with other characters, the game will display notifications on the immediate ramifications of your words. You might arouse someone's suspicions about Lee's past or you might perform an act of loyalty that won't be forgotten. Of course, being a game based on The Walking Dead, you can bet your walker-infested farm that there will be some very difficult decisions of the "life or death" variety as well. Telltale promises, "Your decisions will stay with you throughout the series, and their repercussions could mean that you and a friend have a very different game experience." While time will tell if this Mass Effect-ian level of branching storytelling will successfully pay off across all five episodes, I can report that there are enough direct consequences within the first episode that I felt solely responsible for in the game.
Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly if you aren't a fan of the TV series), the new characters introduced in "A New Day" are more likable than their television brethren. Lee's a complicated guy with a past shrouded in mystery. He's not necessarily the natural "leader" that Rick is and that allows for a more interesting dynamic when you encounter characters in the game. Clementine, the little girl you meet early on in the game, is everything that Carl isn't on the show. She's vulnerable and innocent, yet strong and resourceful when called upon to be. Playing through the game, I actually began to care for her and wanted to go out of my way to protect her. That's something that I can't say the same for any character on the show.
If you're sitting there thinking to yourself that there's a whole lot of talking and reading in this game, you'd be right. That's not to say that the game is a leisurely fireside chat - some of the most thrilling and tense moments in the game come via conversation. By simply giving you limited time in order to read and pick a dialog choice, Telltale has created a fairly immersive recreation of what it might have felt like to make a tough choice in the zombie apocalypse. You'll come across situations where quick decisions need to be made (sometimes in the presence of strangers) and you won't have the time you'd like to sit for a minute to assess the situation. As someone who always likes taking the time to make the "right" choices in video games, it's a pretty disruptive mechanic to my gaming sensibilities and I have to say that I kinda liked being thrown out of my element.
It's a good thing the storytelling aspects of The Walking Dead are so strong because if you strip that all away, the actual core "game" itself is very mediocre and riddled with technical issues. Most of the "twitch" action sequences in the game rely on Quick-Time Events where you'll have to mash a particular button or aim a crosshair at certain times within a cutscene. This would be fine within the context of the adventure game genre, but die-hard adventurers will also be disappointed with the lack of difficulty or ingenuity with the game's puzzles. The Walking Dead is the kind of game where if you are thorough with exploring every interactive element on screen, you'll have no problem making progress. I had no problem with this setup, as I just wanted to experience a great story, but be forewarned to temper expectations if you are looking for a more challenging or unique gameplay experience.
Playing the PC version, I also noticed various bugs popping up here and there throughout the game. The Walking Dead had a nasty habit of graphical and input stuttering during some cutscenes on my very new high-end PC. This was not only frustrating to watch, but also had the effect of causing me to miss certain Quick-Time Events and adversely affecting some narrative scenes. Scenes that allowed "free" movement with Lee controlled awkwardly with the WASD arrow keys and I noticed that his movement and animations were very stiff. It didn't help that bringing up the control settings in the main menu displayed a giant Xbox 360 controller. Touche, Telltale.
"A New Day" clocks in at a little over 2 hours of gameplay time, which may seem a little short compared to other titles, but the pricing is fortunately commensurate with that time. At $5 an episode, you're getting a pretty good bang for your TheWalking Dead buck, considering that single issues of the comic and television episodes on iTunes are $2.99 each. For those more conservative, I certainly won't blame you if you want to wait until all five episodes of The Walking Dead game are out before making the purchase, but those who want to get in on the story now will probably be pleasantly content with their purchase - gameplay and technical issues be damned.
The Walking Dead is currently on schedule for four new episodes coming out on a monthly schedule for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC/MAC. An iOS version is in the works, but is not currently released. If you have a PlayStation 3, you can take advantage of a deal by pre-purchasing a season pass for $19.99, further driving down the per-episode price (Apparently the same offer isn't given for Xbox 360 or PC owners).
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