November 21, 2012

Review – The Walking Dead

Filed under: Reviews — Tags: , , , , , — Jason Westhaver @ 8:47 pm

Review The Walking Dead
Mere words cannot adequately describe what it’s like to play Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead. No game has ever taken me on such an emotional roller coaster; no game has ever made me shed as many tears; and no game has ever made me feel like such of a piece of shit for doing what I thought was right.

This is the epitome of interactive storytelling; the level of artistry we have spent decades searching for, and the most human game I have ever played.

Based on the comic series created by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore, The Walking Dead is the story of life after the zombie apocalypse. While that may sound like a played out cliché, the series has always set itself apart by focusing on the human side of the story, rather than the traditional joyous killing sprees and high body counts. Unfortunately, in the case of the TV adaptation by Frank Darabont for AMC, they’ve decided to exploit this drama and bastardize the story into a run-of-the-mill soap opera.

Telltale has shown their intelligence and resolve by avoiding falling into the melodrama trap and creating a work of fiction that is genuinely moving, without being positively cartoony.

Review The Walking Dead
Although The Walking Dead is an adaption of prior work, it is not an adaptation of the original story. Rather it is its own tale, set within the same world and featuring two brief cameos from established characters. This may come as a shock to fans who were looking to spend time with Rick’s gang, but it’s actually quite a smart move and allows Telltale the freedom they need to do what the game does best; get under your skin.

As the game begins players find themselves in control of Lee Everett, a convict on his way to prison, and experiencing the very start of the outbreak in Atlanta. Following an unsurprising car accident, Lee finds himself free and with no idea of what’s going on. Seeking shelter in a nearby house he encounters a young girl named Clementine, whose parents were out of town when everything went to hell and are presumed dead. The two form a bond and set off in search of safety. From here on out the story is largely left up to you.

The game always makes sure you end up in the same locations with roughly the same situation as other players, but the people you meet, your relationships, and how the event actually plays out is almost entirely determined by the decisions you make. It’s a ballsy move to put that much power in the player’s hands, but it has paid off in spades here.

Review The Walking Dead
During the course of the game you will be faced with many choices, and while some are simple and carry obvious ramifications, most are deep, complex, and the results may not always be immediately clear. This is not a mainstream moral choice system where the only options are as binary as saving a city or sending its inhabitants off to the showers; this is Sophie’s Choice.

Sometimes no matter what you do, someone is going to get hurt. You just have to hope you made the best of a bad situation. The lack of a clear moral option, especially in the later episodes, places a great deal of weight upon the player’s shoulders, and sooner or later you will have to face the consequences of your actions. It may be something immediate, like losing face with a member of your group, but it could also be something that doesn’t come up for two or three episodes, and when it does you may not like the results.

Review The Walking Dead
To add a bit of context to your decision making, and to see how others fared in those same situations, Telltale has included online statistic tracking. At the end of each episode you’ll be presented with a screen showing what decisions you made and how they compared to the overall player base.

At the end of the final episode you will also be treated to a screen showing exactly what impacts you had on other characters lives. It may seem like just a neat little feature at first, but I found that it often made me question my decisions further. If only 10% of the player base sided with me, did I really make the right choice? Am I better at coping with stress than they are, or did I let fear get the better of me? If nothing else, the game will certainly raise questions about just what kind of person you really are.

For all of the control you’re given, at its heart The Walking Dead is still very much a scripted story. While you may not experience events in the same way as another player, you will experience them nonetheless. It’s a testament to the skill of the series’ writers that they were not only able to find a balance between freedom and linearity, but also that they were able to write such a moving and compelling story within that format.

Again, it’s hard to say much about it without delving into spoiler territory, but I truly believe The Walking Dead to be one of the finest stories a videogame has ever told. It grabs you, pulls you into its world, makes you fall in love with the characters, and then punches you in the gut until you’re a complete wreck.

Review The Walking Dead
Credit also deserves to go to the game’s cast, without whom the experience would be incomplete. Although all of the cast is superb, special attention needs to be given to Dave Fennoy (Lee) and Melissa Hutchinson (Clementine) who do an amazing job of creating a pseudo father-daughter relationship that comes off as incredibly genuine and draws you deeper into the experience. I’d also like to draw attention to the voice work of Gavin Hammon, who has been somewhat overlooked over the course of the series. His character Kenny may not be the most popular member of the cast, but the sheer range of emotions the character experiences has to make him incredibly difficult to portray, and Hammon never falters no matter what the challenge.

As with all adventures games, progression is blocked by a series of puzzles. Fortunately, as the game is based within a relatively real world, most puzzles simply require common sense to solve, and many are as easy as finding the right tool within a specific area to complete a certain task.

However, there are still elements of the choice system present in these situations, and how you handle them could result in more walkers being called to your area, difficulties within the group, or something completely unexpected. Combat also rears its head, though it primarily consists of clicking on enemies with weapons and mashing a button to break free when you are grabbed. The only exception is Episode 4, where some fights take place from the first person perspective and you have to line up the iron sights to shoot. It’s no first-person shooter, but the segments are handled really well, and I kind of wish there were more of them throughout the series. All in all, the adventure game aspects of The Walking Dead aren’t anything that’s going to wow a die-hard Myst player, but they do well enough and are in line with Telltale’s other offerings.

Review The Walking Dead
Despite the excellence in execution of The Walking Dead’s story and gameplay, the experience is not without its faults, especially in the technical category. Simply put, the Telltale Tool game engine is old and in desperate need of a major upgrade or full rewrite. The meager updates made every time a new game is released just aren’t cutting it any more. Graphical glitches, frame-drops due to background loading and even the regular load times are just not acceptable in the modern gaming world.

Fortunately this game is strong enough to make them a non-intrusive background point, but that almost certainly will not be the case with Telltale’s future endeavours. Aside from the aforementioned technical flaws, there are a few occurrences throughout the game where the choice being presented, often in dialog, may not trigger the exact response you were intending. This is obviously down to the difficulty of predicting human nature and tends to not be a big deal, but it may be something you experience and could have been corrected with slightly less vague options.

Review The Walking Dead
It has been a grueling seven month stretch of episodic releases in the series, waiting patiently for each new episode to emerge, but in the end it really was worth it. This is single-handedly the most mature game I have ever played, and the unabashedly adult way they handled the story made it all the better an experience.

No punches are pulled, the bare facts of an unfortunate life are laid upon you, and all you can do is deal with it. I’ve never had a game make me question my own morality before, but I’m glad it did. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about myself and just what kind of man I really am.

This is the kind of deep introspective experience that is normally reserved for great works of literature, not a mere videogame. Hell, I even cried at the end because I was so deeply emotionally invested in the characters, and that’s not something that’s happened since Metal Gear Solid 3 actually made me pull the trigger to kill someone I really didn’t want to.

It’s an overwhelmingly powerful experience, and one that I feel every gamer, not just fans of adventure games, The Walking Dead, or horror in general, needs to experience. This will undoubtedly be my choice for Game of the Year and Telltale deserves every accolade they are about to have laid upon them. The game is a pure masterwork.

Telltale Games

Telltale Games

PlayStation 3 (PlayStation Network), Xbox 360 (Xbox LIVE Arcade), Windows PC, Mac, iOS (Windows PC Reviewed)


Release Date
November 21st, 2012

*A copy of this title was purchased for review

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