Game Review: The Walking Dead – Episode 1

Jonathan Szafran delivers his verdict on the first installment in Telltale’s apocalyptic zombie adventure, out now to download for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox360.

If there’s one thing you’ll take away from the first episode of The Walking Dead: The Game, it’s that Telltale are certainly getting better at telling fresh stories for already-established franchises. Their work on Back To The Future was great and they span a terrific side story, but when it comes to telling tales of the dark, mature world that is The Walking Dead they have certainly surpassed themselves. This is a deep, gritty experience that forces the player to make choices that will leave a lasting mark on your character and others.

In this first of five episodes, titled “A New Day”, players take on the role of Lee Everett, a man whose past mistakes have left him in the back of a police car at the start of the game. Over the course of the prologue things outside the moving vehicle go awry and Lee finds himself running from bloodthirsty zombies and finally being saved by a little girl named Clementine. For the rest of the game it is up to the player to keep Lee and Clementine alive, and there are many obstacles placed in the way to stop you from making that happen.

This is a side story to what happens in the graphic novel and television series, and actually begins at the start of the apocalypse while Rick is still in his hospital bed. Even though this is a new group of survivors though, it doesn’t mean you won’t see an occasional familiar face or two and the game makes these cameos seem plausible in The Walking Dead world.

There is a lot of action to be seen in “A New Day”, and there are plenty of zombies to shoot or bash in their skulls with an axe. This is The Walking Dead after all, so it is going to be pretty gory, and Telltale does a great job of bringing that grittiness to the screen. But it’s not all about the blood and violence: there is a whole lot of talking in this game.

Like all of Telltale titles The Walking Dead is at its core an adventure game, and with that comes the process of moving from one conversation with one character to another in order to discover a new detail about them or a clue about the current objective.

Telltale have expanded this system here by upping the ante and making all of your decisions affect other characters’ opinions of Lee, and occasionally giving you the choice on who lives or dies. You get one-on-one time with the characters, which in turn makes some of these decisions much harder to make.

Unlike previous Telltale titles, you cannot double back in the conversation trees and retry another option. This game takes all that away and actually pressures the player to make a quick decision by giving you four responses with limited time to make a choice. Whatever you choose you will have to live with the outcome as characters will remember what you said to them and how you said it. A conversation here will have a drastic affects on future episodes according to Telltale. This adds a genuinely exciting element, and I cannot wait to see how my own decisions will alter the upcoming episodes of the game.

You’ll grow to enjoy talking with characters, especially Clementine and Kenny, and how they react to your choices of dialogue will affect your own perceptions of Lee and how he develops over the course of the game. There are certain places that the group will go to along their way to the game’s climax that are familiar to Lee, and give the player a deeper look into who he is as a character.

Just like the new conversation system there is a new camera scheme in this game, and its works really well. Players will navigate Lee around the game’s world with one analog stick and the on-screen reticule with the other (or a mouse on a PC). Characters and objects are highlighted with an interaction point which you can hover over and choose to look, talk or so on. The only time that this changes is when a zombie is about to tear into you, and rapid button-mashing is needed to fend off the attack. This new system is much more immediate than that of the Back To The Future and Jurassic Park games.

The Walking Dead’s visuals are done really well, and since it’s a part of the comic universe, it has a cel-shaded look with thick dark outlines on characters and environments. It’s very pretty and adds to the dark, sombre story that is being told. The game runs really well with the exception of some occasional audio issues, and the odd clipping in the visuals. Besides those small quibbles, however, this is Telltale at their best – and it will be interesting to what they are going to bring to this story in the remaining four episodes.  For fans of the comic and TV series this is a welcome inclusion for the franchise, and it’s also one of the best downloadable titles you will play this year.

FMV Rating: ****

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