Friday, May 4, 2012

Review: The Walking Dead Episode One

There's a moment in the first episode of Telltale Games' The Walking Dead that sums up the unique experience. While our hero, the enigmatic newcomer Lee, is chatting with a series regular (both comic and TV), tension mounts as friendly conversation turns to inquisition. As I stumble to respond without hesitation I let slip a crucial bit of information about Lee's past. In that temporary lapse in judgement I forever changed two characters' relationship as well as the course of the game. That's what this short bit of adventure does so well; create engaging characters through brief but emotional dialogue. I've only logged a few hours with The Walking Dad's first (real) foray into video games and the second episode can't come soon enough. And I haven't even mentioned the zombies yet.

 They're walking, and they're dead. Are you following this?

Sticking to what they do best, Telltale Games delivered an outstanding modern day point-and-click (PNC) adventure. Right from the start we are introduced to Lee, handcuffed in the backseat of a police squad car. After a few minutes of conversation and one shuffling zombie  accident later, the story kicks in right around the time Rick Grimes is waking up in the comics/TV show. Following the standard tropes of a PNC, Lee explores his way out of and around the now crashed cop car via a context sensitive cursor. Not long after we're face to face with a hungry and crawling zombie, and Telltale's real achievement shines. That same cursor transforms into a crazy, shaking mess of a target reticule and controlling that target is the only way to finish off said zombie. It’s a fairly consistent and innovative control scheme that allows for a fair amount of variety without over-complicating actions.

 Pictured: Complicated action.

That variety is apparent as each chapter of the episode switches from traditional exploring to timed dialog pieces, and of course, frantic zombie-smashing attacks. The pacing between these moments is spot on, never feeling too slow or too short on action (too bad the same can’t be said of the TV show). It was hard to put the controller down over the entire run of the first episode, even during conversations. The writers really captured the essence of the comics by focusing on developing characters in these moments, and by allowing players to reveal Lee in the eyes of the supporting cast. Like the first intense I mentioned earlier, having slipped up my backstory I caused other characters to think twice about blindly trusting Lee. Of course, they care a little less when I’m saving their bacon.

The kid on the right seems happy. Of course, he's the one with the gun.

Of course the writing isn’t everything, but it is supported by the gorgeous art style. Clearly drawing inspiration from the artwork of both Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard, The Walking Dead doesn’t skimp on facial animations. While at times a bit exaggerated, the expressions do compliment the comic book-style cel-shaded characters quite well. It’s a solid look that pays respect to the source material. On the same note parts of the musical score, while original, drop hints of the show’s opening theme. Serious effort went into creating this game as a part of the Walking Dead universe, and not just a side story.

It’s hard to go into too much detail without spoiling the story, but for a short episode there is a significant amount of replayability. Key turning points either subtly hint at or outright tell you of an impending choice (I think options to shut off hints helps), which certainly affect the outcome of the game. Particularly, who lives and who dies. Again, spoiling the fun isn’t my cup of tea but after completing the episode you can review your choices, compared to other players online. Basically a moral leaderboard, it definitely is an interesting motivation of run through the game again with new choices.

For 400MS Points/$4.99 this is one of Telltale’s best efforts to date. Tight controls, solid pacing, and a great art direction guide a fantastic addition to the Walking Dead universe. I’d highly recommend checking it out now, and getting super excited for the ‘Next Time, on The Walking Dead’ trailer.

*Completed full episode via Xbox Live download, approx 4-5 hours*

Credit: pics from The Walking Dead Xbox Marketplace


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