Game Review: The Walking Dead - Episode 1 / Developer: Telltale Games / Publisher: Telltale Games / Platform: PC (reviewed version), Mac, Xbox 360 and PS3 / Release Date: Out Now
Branching out into big name licensed titles has yielded mixed results for Telltale Games. Back to the Future quietly impressed with its loving take on the classic franchise, while the recent Jurassic Park proved to be bitterly disappointing. Continuing its trend of downloadable episodic releases, the developer now takes on another fan phenomenon, The Walking Dead.
Set in the world of Robert Kirkman’s comic series, the game introduces a new cast of characters trying to survive the early hours of the Georgia outbreak, the time period in which main series protagonist Rick Grimes rests in a coma closed away from the madness. In his stead, we are introduced to Lee Everett, a former college lecturer being escorted in the back of a police car to begin a stretch in prison. During the journey events transpire that leave Everett with a new found freedom from incarceration, but being free in a time when humanity is quite literally eating itself alive might not be the reprieve he would have wished for.
Happening across an apparently deserted suburban home, Everett comes in to contact with a vulnerable young girl named Clementine, who managed to survive against all odds while her parents remain unaccounted for after a weekend getaway. Following a close and distinctly bloody encounter, Everett is left with no choice but to take Clementine under his wing as the pair begin their journey in to a new world fraught with danger and tough choices.
Even in this first episode the sense of urgency in Everett and Clementines journey is effectively conveyed, with each new safe spot opening the tale to new influences and potential threats. Along the trip, players will encounter enclaves of fellow survivors that the pair must cooperate with, all facing unique troubles of their own. Much like the books, relationships between Everett and those met along the way make for the majority of the drama, and Telltale engineer the most out of every situation with smartly designed dialogue trees and branching gameplay paths that alter depending on the actions of the player. These encounters, wether with an enemy, friend or undead, feel totally intimate. The zombies aren't just guilt free targets, but serve as an uncomfortable reflection of the living. Each choice, often made under duress as characters look upon Everett with a range of kindness, apathy or out-and-out aggression, are promised to shape the course of the overall story across the five monthly episodes.
While the adventure format might not be the regular choice for developers to present their vision of a zombie apocalypse, Telltale uses their expertise in the genre and a genuine reverence for The Walking Dead fiction to create a tense and emotionally engaging experience that marries perfectly with point-and-click play. Avoiding numbing and unending numbers of undead, The Walking Dead focuses on low volume, high stakes enemy encounters that strike unexpectedly, providing well timed punctuation in between dramatic dialogue scenes and exploratory sections. Each character met can provide a wealth of information and fascinating backstory, and seeing your gameplay choices affect each person in such high pressure conditions - and the repercussions of those choices - is highly compelling. The games internal logic works well too, avoiding the age old genre trope of solving an obstructive puzzle through brute force trial-and-error. Theres really only one thing you’ll need to decide to do with a screwdriver while sneaking up behind a zombie. How you get there is another matter.
Every so often the amalgamation of visual styles that takes the wonderfully raw look of the comics into a full colour three dimensional environment can look a little disjointed, and Telltale's traditionally cartoonish animation style can occasionally make a serious moment feel very light when characters gesticulate or emote. Its a small concession overall however, and as the episodic series continues to roll out I get the feeling that the combination of solid writing and cleverly manipulative plotting will continue to please.