Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Review - The Walking Dead (Video Game) - Episodes 1 and 2

In April 2012, Telltale Games released the first installment of their episodic series The Walking Dead, based on the world of the comic and TV series of the same name. I wasn't interested at first, as I hadn't read the comic or seen the show at all (I've since watched the pilot episode of the show and enjoyed it) and zombie apocalypse settings were starting to feel really stale. However, positive feedback from others got me to give this game a shot and I'm very glad I did. Telltale has created an intense, character driven game with greater emphasis on dialogue than action. While its puzzles are very simple, The Walking Dead may be one of the best point and click style adventure games I've played.

While there are a few cameos from the show/comic, the story in the game version of The Walking Dead is intended to stand on its own. The player controls Lee Everett, a professor at the University of Georgia who was arrested for murdering a man after finding his wife having an affair. Lee is in the back of a police car heading down the highway when the zombie outbreak begins. The car crashes and Lee is freed, suffering only a leg injury. He flees to a nearby house and meets Clementine, a very likeable, very well written young girl whose parents were away in Savannah when everything went bad. Clementine serves as Lee's moral compass and becomes his reason to live.

The first episode involves Lee and Clementine joining up with other survivors, first at a farm and then at a convenience store in Macon, GA, where Lee was originally from. The farm setting is mostly mellow, but as they reach the convenience store and the group grows larger, tempers flare. Conflicts within the group provide a major draw here, with the player choosing dialogue in order to take sides one way or another or remain neutral. While the major plot events are unchanged by your choices, the tone of each character and how they treat you and each other are modified by what you choose. You're always going to end up in the same place, but you won't always be the same Lee.

The second episode begins three months later, with our group of survivors safely barricaded in a motel but dangerously low on food. They meet two brothers from the nearby St. John's Dairy who offer to trade food for fuel to power the electrified fence they have running across the perimeter of their farm. It's clear from early on that something is completely off about these people, but I won't spoil it. The sequences that follow are brutal, disturbing, and force you into some truly terrible scenarios where try as you might to do the right thing, nothing can end well. There are three more episodes coming, and I'm very interested to see where things go from here.

Between dialogue scenes, players move Lee around with one stick and aim a cursor with the other. Once you move over certain objects, you are given options with which to interact with them. Most puzzles are simply "Find object, use it here" types that don't require much work, but at least they're not asinine. There are a few combat scenes in which players must press (or mash) specific buttons in order to survive. Dying doesn't have a whole lot of consequence and barely sets you back.

I am very pleased that there's no right or wrong answer in most situations. How you choose to treat people changes the tone of the narrative, but outside of a couple situations, there's no optimal way to play. All dialogue choices feel natural, including the choice to sometimes remain totally silent. Choices are mostly made on a timer, forcing players to keep their wits and morals about them at all times. I've mostly made my choices in order to keep Clementine happy, sacrificing the good will of others and occasionally Lee's health to do so. Another player might choose to mostly ignore her. The writing is good enough to sustain this through each episode, and there are some surprisingly funny bits of dialogue scattered throughout.

At the end of each episode, your major choices are shown in comparison to those of other players. Episode 1 had a lot of variance in what players chose, while Episode 2 showed that most players made the same choices. There's a little bit of bad coding here; In Episode 1, a man tries to throw one of the group's children outside in fear that he's been infected. The boy's father is ready to fight over this. At first, I remained neutral, then sided with the father when it became clear this wasn't working. He treated me like a friend the rest of the episode. Then, in my stats and in Episode 2, I'm told that I sided against the father. This is a consequence of tracking things in a binary way while presenting more complicated choices and hurts the game's otherwise impressive illusion of freedom.

The only other complaints I have are also technical. My biggest gripe is there's no way to invert your y-axis for camera/cursor control. The controls would be fine in the PC version with a mouse, but I have trouble getting used to non-inverted controls. Another problem: My game told me it was saving, only to have me quit and find myself back 15 minutes before that save the next time I played. There's no manual save option to prevent this. In a different sort of technical frustration, subtitles can only be displayed one at a time, so if characters speak over each other one's dialogue will get cut off. On top of that, they don't always match what's being said and I've seen more than a couple misspellings (Seeing "want" subtitled as "wan't" is really hard to forgive in a professional product.)

Visually, the game goes for a comic book style of animation and looks quite good. It has a lot of grotesque death scenes, but these are clearly shot in order to pull an emotional response from the player rather to be exploitative. You see some horrible things and feel terrible about witnessing/doing them. You're often backed into situations with no clean way out, and they are designed in such a way that it's genuinely emotional. I actually felt terrible killing zombies here. It's a welcome change from games like Dead Rising with big flashy kill counters taking up part of the screen. Zombies here feel more like George Romero's monsters than the more popular wacky, zany, pop culture use of zombies in media today. The Walking Dead takes a stale genre and makes it feel alive again by, surprisingly, feeling more like a horror film from the 60's/70's, and by forcing you to be the one to make terrible decisions.

The game is currently available in a variety of formats as a downloadable title: PS3, Xbox 360, PC, and iOS. Five episodes will eventually be released, with two available now and one coming soon. Each episode is $5 a piece and felt about two and a half to three hours long. I expect to see some serious backlash against these games when the final episode is released and players all see mostly the same ending, but again, you're not controlling the story, you're controlling its tone. I highly recommend giving these games a chance if you're interested in games as narrative and can stomach some rather awful scenes.

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