The Walking Dead game review

By Andrew Yoon, Apr 24, 2012 9:00am PDT

When Telltale initially announced its plans to make a game based on The Walking Dead, fans were a bit skeptical. Telltale was best known for Sam & Max adventures, not gory action games. Fast-forward a little over a year, and fans are even more skeptical. The TV series, while hugely popular on AMC, has had a disappointing second season for fans and critics. Telltale's reputation has also been marred, thanks to the disastrous release of its Jurassic Park game. Fans rightfully have every reason to worry about the video game adaptation of the revered zombie comic franchise.

As the Xbox 360 turned on and I played the first episode of the game, I also had low expectations. Thankfully, this is no Jurassic Park. By firmly establishing itself in Robert Kirkman's comic book universe (and not the TV series), the game is a wonderful extension of the franchise. Focused on player choice, The Walking Dead invites comparisons to the Mass Effect trilogy and Heavy Rain--but with zombies.

The first episode of the game takes place as the zombie outbreak begins. Telltale collaborated with Robert Kirkman on a story that runs in parallel with the comic book series. In fact, it's considered "canon" and the events of the five-episode series will fit into the overall series timeline. Even in the first episode, you'll encounter a few familiar faces from the series, including Glenn, Hershel, and Lilly. Because you see these characters before their appearance in the comics, you'll see more of their motivations. (Hershel's attitude, for example, makes more sense in light of the events of the game.)

While cynics will call it "retconning," it's undeniably a reason for fans to play the game. But, The Walking Dead not only expands lore, it gives players a chance to participate in it. As with Mass Effect, Telltale is promising to incorporate player choice across the five-episode season. Major choices will affect who lives or dies and continues through the story. In the first episode, I had to decide whether or not to fight of zombies that have just snatched a child, or attempt to move a tractor that had crushed the leg of a companion.

These dramatic events certainly add a lot of tension to the story, but it's the more subtle choices that affected me the most. As in Mass Effect, you'll be presented with dialogue choices. However, unlike BioWare's space opera, your responses aren't automatically aligned to a certain "moral stance." For example, do you admit to killing a walker that could have been related to someone you meet along your journey? Do you lie? Tell the truth? Or, refreshingly, do you stay silent? (Responses are timed, meaning inaction is a valid option at all times.) Your responses affect the way characters respond to you, and ones you build loyalty with can become great assets in your journey. For example, a loyal partner may save you from a nasty fight you'd otherwise have to fight your way out of.

The relationships you develop are what make the game so engrossing. While many expected a game based on The Walking Dead to end up playing like Left 4 Dead, it's refreshing to see Telltale take a different approach. Because it's not an action game, every zombie encounter becomes deadly--which is far more representative of Kirkman's vision.

So, how does it play when you're not talking to people? It is still, at its heart, a Telltale adventure game. However, the controls have been adapted to make it less of a "point and click" game. The left analog stick gives you direct control over your character, with the face buttons representing contextual actions within the environment. Occasionally, there will be QTEs for action sequences, where you'll not only have to press the buttons that appear on screen, but aim the cursor as well.

The "puzzles" you find yourself in are centered around simply surviving a certain scenario. As such, the puzzles are far less esoteric than ones you might normally find in an adventure game. For example, in one scenario, you had to figure out a way to clear a parking lot of zombies in order to rescue a trapped victim. How do you break into a car without causing a lot of noise? What order do you confront the zombies, in order not to be overwhelmed? Another scenario had you retrieving a key in a crowded shopping area. How do you distract the zombies? How do you get the key freed out of a dead body?

Yes, The Walking Dead has its share of issues. Telltale isn't known for making technologically impressive games, and TWD suffers through the same stutter that plagues many of their games. However, the slower pace of the game alleviates many of the issues Jurassic Park faced, as zombies are far easier to animate than ravenous dinosaurs. Instead of failing to create "realistic" visuals, the cel-shaded art manages to capture the look and feel of the comic book universe quite well.

Thanks to its focus on player choice and character relationships, The Walking Dead is more than just a great adaptation of a beloved property--it is easily one of Telltale's best games. After completing the first episode, I am now hooked, eagerly awaiting future episodes in the season.


[This Walking Dead review is based on a debug Xbox 360 version of the game. A PR representative from Telltale Games was on hand during the entirety of the review playthrough.]

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