There’s no denying the zombie craze that has taken over in the past couple of years. It seems like they’re everywhere with only the slightest hint of fatigue setting in as even series that have nothing to do with the undead are shoehorning them in. Most follow the route that it’s just plain, gleeful fun to kill zombies, but The Walking Dead set itself apart by focusing on something else: what happens to people when they’re faced with the zombie apocalypse. The human element is what really makes the comic and the TV adaptation stand out from almost every other bit of zombie media. It’s fitting then that it’s also this same element that makes The Walking Dead Episode 1 game so different from every other zombie game I’ve played.
Developed by the adventure game renaissance team at Telltale Games with input from creator Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead is set in the same universe as the comics and features the new character, Lee Everett. It begins on the day of the zombie outbreak with Lee being taken by a cop from Atlanta to the county jail for an unknown crime. An accident occurs and Lee finds himself having to find out what’s happening and how to survive. I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot as that’s a large part of the fun. Players are given little to no background on Lee at first and information is provided only through dialog choices, leaving it up to the player as to how much is revealed. The story takes place while protagonist Rick Grimes is still in a coma, but other characters and locations from the comics are featured. I admit that I’ve never read the series, but these nods never came across as clunky or forced; the story flows very naturally and is one of the strongest aspects of the game.
What makes it so strong is the emphasis on choice. While previous Telltale games like Back to the Future allowed the player to take their time in investigating everything, The Walking Dead rarely gives players the opportunity. The window of time to answer closes quickly, keeping you on your toes and really ramping up the tension. Just about every line is used purposefully, and the game quickly notes which of your decisions will have an effect on future events. The overall plot stays the same but personal details can create massive changes. The game allows for three separate save files to accommodate this, but I found myself more attached to my initial choices and I’m much more interested to see how those play out in future episodes.
The gameplay works much the same as past Telltale games with some slight tweaks to better work within the world of The Walking Dead. Almost every decision has a time limit that will result in a choice being made or Lee ending up dead. It creates a palpable tension that gradually ramps up as interpersonal relationships clash with the need to survive. Players move Lee with the left analog stick or WASD keys while moving a cursor with the right analog stick or mouse. This keeps you in constant motion and actually allows for some interesting actions sequences as you struggle to center the cursor over the zombie. Each encounter feels like a life or death situation unlike games like Dead Rising or Left 4 Dead where zombies can be mowed down by the dozens.
There aren’t as many puzzles as other adventure games, but I barely noticed as the character interactions and zombie fights more than held my attention. The biggest puzzle is one where you have to kill every zombie in a small parking lot without making too much noise. Scouting for suitable weapons becomes even more nerve-wracking when you only have so much time to peek before being spotted. However, there are some puzzles that fall flat, such as a woman not realizing that a radio had no batteries and then putting batteries in completely wrong. It was the one moment that really felt like it was forced.
The Walking Dead really nails the presentation with this release. Characters and setting are rendered in a cel-shaded technique reminiscent of Borderlands and really making the game feel like a motion version of the comic. It adds a lot of nice detail to everything and each character is easily recognizable. The zombies are also varied with no two looking exactly alike.
Sound design is strong with the music taking cues from the show. Though there’s not much, it’s enough to set an eerie mood and keep players on edge. It’s perfect for a game like this and the voice acting compliments it well. Lee’s is the strongest of the bunch, but each actor puts the right amount of emotion in their work. Though the game is only three hours long, you quickly come to love or hate each character simply because of the voice work.
Unfortunately, The Walking Dead also features a lot of the same technical problems that Back to the Future displayed. Scenes will sometimes get stuck while the sound continues on or, conversely, the sound will skip a bit as things play out. These problems never occurred during gameplay, but transferring in and out of cutscenes did cause the game to stutter. It never became a huge deal, but it would be nice if Telltale was able to fix these hiccups.
If you’re a fan of the comics or the show, I highly recommend checking out The Walking Dead Episode 1. It really makes you feel like you’re a part of this world without using existing characters as a crutch. The creators were obviously confident with this material and only used the cameos as a wink and a nod. Like most Telltale episodes, the actual content is a bit short but The Walking Dead solves this problem by enticing players to start again and make new choices. Even if you aren’t a fan, there are plenty of things to like about this release. By focusing on the humans, The Walking Dead sets itself apart, almost fulfilling the tease that Dead Island’s original trailer promised us. It’s a zombie game with brains.
Developer: Telltale Games
Release: April 24, 2012
Available On: PlayStation Network (PS3), Mac, Xbox Live Marketplace, iPhone, PC
Back to the Future: The Game: Like it
Dead Rising: Like it
Left 4 Dead 2: Love it
Dead Island: Meh