Available on: Xbox 360, PS3, PC, OSX, iOS
Version reviewed: Xbox 360
It’s been nearly a month since my last post on The Games Dump. This is because of laziness. Nothing else, just being lazy. Won’t be such a long wait for the next review, maybe 2 reviews though. I’ve become quite the fan of The Walking Dead over the years. I dabbled with the Robert Kirkman scribed comic briefly but never got around to buying the collected issues, really should do that. Mostly I’m a fan of the TV series though. Either way, I’m a fan. Just not as hardcore as some are. As such, when it was announced that Telltale games would be developing an adventure game based on the comic books I was pretty interested in seeing what they would do. But at the same time I was apprehensive of their ability to produce a game good enough for me to get past the technical failings a lot of their adventure games have. Does The Walking Dead manage to prove that good writing can hold a game up alone? Click the link to find out.
Rather than base videogame interpretation of The Walking Dead directly on the adventures of Rick, Carl, Glenn and their assorted hangers on Telltale Games instead decided to base that game in the comic’s universe but with a mostly original cast. The game follows a man named Lee Everett (Voiced by Dave Fennoy) who, as the game opens, is on his way to jail for the murder of a state senator. The police car he is in as the game opens crashes and Lee wakes up with a few slightly decomposed and very hungry people out to eat his brains. He escapes to a suburban house and meets a young girl named Clementine (voiced by Melissa Hutchinson) who has been hiding in her tree house from her zombified, and currently minus half or her head, babysitter. As the games episodes progress Lee has to make decisions that effect not just Clementine but the various people he forms groups with along the way. It’s these decisions, along with some excellent writing, that makes The Walking Dead really stand out as an adventure game.
Now I should warn here that there’s going to be spoilers in this review. I have to discuss the significance of the decision making elements and the various moments where the game proves just how well written it is so if you wish to avoid spoilers just read this. The Walking Dead deserved it’s Game Of The Year award it won at the VGA’s recently. It’s clunky as hell but as an experience it is the stuff great games are made of. So leave now if you don’t want to be spoiled. But like, comment and subscribe first though…
The decisions you make in The Walking Dead are not like the sort of decisions you tend to make in games. Many games will through you a choice in dialogue and if you’re lucky it’ll allow you to inject a little personality to your avatar but will likely not effect the world. Some games, such as the Mass Effect Trilogy and the under-rated Alpha Protocol, will let you effect the story’s events and your character’s alignment. Walking Dead does things a little differently. As one man in the midst of a zombie apocalypse you are incapable of changing the world around you. Lee is not on a hero’s quest or looking for redemption. Your choices, instead, effect how people view you, what Lee’s mentality is and, quite often, the how and when other characters will die. It’s not just a subtle little shift in dialogue either. At first it may feel like that is all that’s happening but gradually you’ll notice that character’s you have been hostile to or maybe not helped when needed may begin being hostile to you. A character could see you as a natural leader, or they could see you as someone not to be trusted. At the end of the day your choices are all about defining who Lee is and how the other survivors see him.
One dramatic example of this is the relationship between Lee and fellow survivor Kenny (voiced by Gavin Hammon). Kenny comes into the game early on and can serve to be either Lee’s most trusted ally or as a hot head that doesn’t trust anything Lee does or says. Lee becomes entwined in the survival of Kenny and his family at many points and how you act in these sequences change their relationship. As the game moves on very bad things happen to Kenny which can lead him to becoming more and more unstable. Will you be a voice of reason to Kenny in the final episodes or will you be his main antagonist? That’s up to you.
Throughout the story Clementine acts as a constant reminder of the breakdown of civilisation going on around the game’s cast. After a dramatic choice is made you’ll often find yourself having to explain yourself to Clementine. Do you want to tell her that the horrible thing you were just forced to do wasn’t all that bad? Will you admit that you’ve done bad things and risk damaging her trust in you? You don’t want Clementine scared of you after all, she is only a young girl. I genuinely found myself worrying about what to say to her in a number of scenes. During episode 3 you’re forced to make some very tough decisions, and I mean VERY TOUGH. The choice involves a bit child who is close to turning. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that made me feel this bad about my character’s actions as I had in that chapter of the game. Afterwards you have to explain your actions, or lack thereof, to Clementine. Neither route will lead to a conversation anyone would want to have with an 8 year old. As all this plays out you’re reminded that as Lee you have promised, or maybe not promised, to help Clementine find out where her parents are. I’d imagine most people played the game with some intention of being a good guy so it’s likely you’ll start to contemplate just how unlikely it is you’d be able to keep your promise.
The most important decisions you make in each of the games episodes are collated along with he decisions of other players of the game at the end of each chapter. It’s quite fun to see after finishing an episode just how your decisions and morals stacked up with the rest of the world’s. I was quite glad to see that I wasn’t in the minority that actually saved that useless cretin Ben from falling to his death. Quickest decision I made in the game. Literally, it said “A, save Ben. B drop B…” Pressed B. I’ve agonised more over what T-shirt to wear. Mostly though you’ll likely find yourself really trying to think through the consequences of your actions. You can’t sit back and contemplate these choices though as there will usually be a timer ticking away before the decision is made for you and your path of inaction takes effect. Yep, you can even choose to do nothing. I might try a play through as the most inactive protagonist since Steven Seagal one day.
The game does have a few glaring faults which can’t be overlooked. The controls are just as clunky and awkward as many of Telltale’s other games. Mostly they aren’t too bad but there’s a few action sequences where you’re asked to hit a specific button on a moving target and the cursor really isn’t up to the job. It’s clear they were trying to avoid full blow QTE sequences but it’s kinda hard to hit X to not die when the prompt is whizzing around the screen. To add to this pausing the game leads to a slow response and the appearance of loading screens between some areas manage to actually pull you out of the experience a little. The game’s first episode is also not as engrossing as anything that follows. Seeing as the game is sold in episodic chunks this could likely lead to many people choosing not to continue. I challenge anyone to not be hooked after the horror’s you’ll witness in episode 2 though. The game’s largest issue is the clunky nature of it’s controls but it’s not too difficult to cope with. Hopefully when season 2 starts Telltale will invest in developing a smoother control method.
Overall The Walking Dead is an excellent example of how much a well written, told and interactive story can be to a game. The story elevates this game beyond any of Telltale’s other games despite having very similar control methods. You’ll want to play through this despite the occasional moment where you’re forced to wrestle with the cursor. It’s been a good year for story driven games with the excellent Catherine and Spec Ops: The Line (my next game review by the way) proving that great story can be just as important as gameplay. We want great non-linear story telling experiences in out games. It seems that right now we tend to have to make a trade off in the gameplay area. But the fact these well told stories exist proves that things are changing. Some games have pulled off great linear stories with great gameplay, it has to only be a matter of time before a developer manages to marry the great gameplay with a truly interactive story. Maybe The Walking Dead season 2 will be the game to do that.