PSN/XBLA Review: The Walking Dead – Episode 1



The recent episodic Jurassic Park game was supposed to mark a major leap in the creative evolution of Telltale Games. Following close on the heels of Telltale’s Back To The Future adaptation, tackling Spielberg’s blockbuster didn’t just help catapult the scale of their projects from reviving cult classic games of yore to adapting full-fledged major household name franchises, but signaled their first fledgling steps outside the comfort of their point-and-click adventure game niche.

The resulting product, which owed a huge debt to the Quick Time Event-laden ‘interactive cinema’ formula of Heavy Rain, was sadly Telltale’s weakest offering yet – a hurried, glitchy technical mess that obscured the story’s high points with a stuttering frame rate and clumsy presentation. The Walking Dead thankfully fixes every mistake the studio made with Jurassic Park and accomplishes everything that game tried to do with impressive finesse, resulting in an intense, involving bit of cinematic adventure game and a big creative step forward for Telltale Games.
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A five part episodic series that takes its cues from Robert Kirkman’s comic, The Walking Dead tells a tangential story to the graphic novels with you assuming the role of new character Lee Everett. Taking place at the beginning of the zombie outbreak, the first episode sees Lee shackled in a cop car and headed off to jail when the police cruiser is driven off the road amidst the undead chaos. Lee takes shelter in a nearby home and becomes unlikely guardian to Clementine, a young girl separated from her vacationing parents. Together the two search for help, meeting familiar faces from the comic along the way while Lee struggles to keep his criminal a secret from other survivors.

A fusion of Telltale’s familiar adventure game mechanics melded with a heavily streamlined version of the gameplay they tried out in Jurassic Park, The Walking Dead handles perfectly. For the adventure sections of the game, things are much like a simplified version of the familiar Telltale exploration gameplay found in Sam & Max or Back to the Future. You have full control of Lee as he investigates certain areas, collects items and chats with fellow survivors – dialogue trees which are pared down to an Alpha Protocol style four-choice reply wheel with a ticking timer to effectively ramp up the pressure for your gut decisions.
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You’ll use collected items on other items to solve puzzles, but there’s never the same amount of puzzle action as in Telltale’s past adventure games – collected items will be in short supply and the interface is heavily streamlined to keep the focus on character and action. If, like most people, you found the clunky of overuse of button-prompting QTE action in Jurassic Park, The Walking Dead will have you breathing a sigh of relief as it narrows and hones those mechanics beautifully. A large opaque cursor hovers over the screen and as a zombie attack section of the story breaks out, you’ll steer a fallen Lee with one stick as he slowly shuffles away from the flesh-chompy undead and aim the shaky cursor with the other to target the foe or select items in the scene. Lining it up allows you to hit button prompts to clock the zombie in the head or interact with useful objects or characters. It’s all very linear and on-rails, and the Heavy Rain lineage is still apparent, but it works perfectly, introducing some white-knuckle tension and edge-of-your-seat action moments without the horribly clunky presentation of Jurassic Park.

Story, dialogue and character has always been the driving force behind Telltale’s games and The Walking Dead is no different; the rest of the game is a great blend of focused adventure game puzzling and interactive movie mechanics, but the biggest strength is how well the story is put together and how involving, tense and well-written the narrative is. Lee’s story is an engrossing one, full of the kinds of interesting characters, high-tension drama and pathos that the comic and show aspire to while trimming all the fat and pacing bloat from the TV series. Characters from the comics/TV show appear here and there, most notably Glen and Hershel, providing a fun, familiar link to the source material for fans without being obtrusive for newcomers. Visually the game is a smooth experience, and while it still runs on the slightly featureless, cartoony Telltale engine, the developers turn it into an advantage, adding a cool cell-shading filter to make it feel a lot like a moving, interactive version of the comics. It’s lean, tense, grisly and tremendously entertaining, made even more rewarding for how your choices cause a ripple effect through the episode and on to future installments.

Similar to the branching storylines of games like Mass Effect, The Walking Dead poses plenty of minor and major moral dilemmas and allows you to shape the story depending on your gut choices. Do a clumsy job at covering up your shady past and characters might see through your lies and distrust you as a result. Choosing to help certain characters over others or take sides in an argument will have a knock-on effect as to who will have your back later on. Depending on the choices you make, alliances could form or crumble and characters might not survive to appear in the next episode. Much like Heavy Rain, there’s the great feeling that you’re actually having an impact on the story while playing it, and there’s the added fun of talking through which choices you made differently from friends and what differed in your unique, individual playthroughs. And in a cool added extra, the game throws up a percentage chart letting you know how players worldwide leaned with each of the game’s pivotal choices.
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Nonetheless, playing the game through a second time does shine an unfortunately revealing light on how little weight some of the choices actually have. A couple of the major, wildly serious decisions still result in the same consequences no matter which gut choice you made. There’s a strict, linear narrative laid out that the game can’t really steer away from too much and with the technical limitations of an episodic Telltale game, that’s understandable. How those choices play out over the next few episodes will be the real test, and the illusion of moulding the game to suit your choices is still effective, but it’s a shame that the branching plot choices only really lead to superficial dialogue differences.

There are some rather daft moments of adventure game puzzling and contrived story moments that blemish the otherwise excellent plot and character work, too. A whip-smart survivalist reporter who’s a crack shot with a pistol sets off one of the game’s puzzles by revealing that she doesn’t know what AA batteries look like or understand how to put them into an average househould store-bought radio. Another moment has you locked behind a shop security gate. There’s a house brick you need that’s clearly within arm’s reach and the gap in the gate rails looks more than wide enough to pull it through, but you’re met with an ‘I can’t reach it!’ response if you try. The dumber moments do make an impression, but they’re thankfully in the minority and the game’s shifting narrative is incredibly engrossing.

A true return to form for Telltale after the glitch-riddled missteps of Jurassic Park, The Walking Dead is a wonderfully gripping, gory and thrilling narrative experience on par with and often better than the TV show and comic it takes its cues from. Sharp writing, interesting characters and a tense, well-told story provide a great foundation for the interactive movie gameplay, which leads to some fantastic, exhilarating action set-pieces. The lack of real weight to the branching choices revealed on a second playthrough is unfortunate, but if you allow the game to sweep you away and don’t poke too much into the mechanics, it’s a fantastic bit of interactive zombie entertainment that’s sure to please Walking Dead fans and newcomers alike.

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The Walking Dead: Episode 1 is available to buy now on the PlayStation Network Store and Xbox Live Marketplace and for PC.