The Walking Dead is an episodic survival / horror game from Telltale Games. It depicts the zombie infestation made famous by the AMC television series and the comic book series of the same name (both of which are essentially unknown to me; I watched the pilot of the television series and thought it looked a little generic -- including stealing its opening sequence almost verbatim from 28 Days Later -- so I didn't stick with it). Telltale plans for the game to have five episodes, each released about a month apart. This review is for Episode 1: A New Day only. I'll review the rest of the season once it has been made available, likely in September.
As Episode 1 opens up, you take control of a convicted murderer named Lee Everett. You're being transported away from Atlanta to your new home in prison when the zombie epidemic hits critical mass. Soon enough, the police car you're in hits a zombie and crashes into an embankment, and you're knocked unconscious. When you wake up, you find yourself in a dicey situation -- handcuffed in the back of a locked cruiser, with your police escort looking dead outside. Of course, as fans of zombie movies know, when people look dead, that just means they're waiting to jump up and eat your brains, so your escape from the situation is non-trivial. But eventually, you connect with some other survivors, including an 8-year-old girl named Clementine, and you have to figure out how to fend off the zombies until the cavalry arrives. If the cavalry arrives.
When I got my hands on The Walking Dead, I was sort of worried that it was going to be another Jurassic Park: The Game, with one unforgiving action sequence after another. But The Walking Dead is better balanced between adventure sequences, action sequences, and character development, and I found the game to be much more enjoyable to play. As an example, after surviving the car wreck, you end up at a seemingly abandoned house. You then have to explore the house and pick up some inventory objects, you have to listen to the messages on an answering machine to learn more about Clementine, the girl who lives in the house, and then you have to survive a zombie attack using Clementine's help.
The interface makes these sorts of actions easy to accomplish. You use the WASD keys to move around, you use the mouse to target objects and perform context-sensitive actions on them, and you use the Q and E keys for action sequences (mostly by pressing the Q key over and over again until you can finish the sequence by pressing the E key). Since The Walking Dead is also available on the PS3 and Xbox, you're also allowed to use a gamepad to control your actions.
The Walking Dead has a lot of good things going for it -- the writing and acting are top notch; people die and zombies pop up at unexpected moments, keeping the tension high; and, perhaps most interestingly, the game keeps track of what you say and do, and so your actions have an actual influence on how the game plays out. For example, since you're a felon, do you tell people who you are, or do you try and hide it? When somebody is feared bitten (which would turn them into a zombie), how do you react? And when two people are attacked by zombies at the same time, who do you save? All choices like these have repercussions, some minor and some major, and it'll be interesting to see how much the game is allowed to branch out, or if you'll just travel the same path no matter what. It's tough to tell after the first episode, since it's mostly just an introduction to the world and your fellow survivors, but the "coming attractions" make it look as though your choices will have a heady effect later in the game.
Of course, The Walking Dead also has some issues against it. First off, it is rated mature, and it earns the rating. There is a lot of violence done by and against zombies, and the game isn't shy about showing it. There is also more than a little profanity. The Walking Dead definitely isn't a game suitable for families. The other issue is timed dialogue. For some reason, almost every response you make is timed (even when there isn't any particular reason for it), and unlike some games where you just answer with a stance, and so it's easy to pick the option you want, in The Walking Dead you see your full response, and many times I barely had time to read the possibilities let alone pick the one I thought suited my character best. This ended up being kind of frustrating and annoying.
But overall, I liked The Walking Dead - Episode 1: A New Day a lot more than I was expecting to. Telltale Games did a nice job in introducing the characters and the world, and in giving them depth, and while I found the gameplay elements to be a little bit easy, that might be because Episode 1 is an introduction, and the difficulty will ramp up as the season progresses -- or at least I hope so; otherwise The Walking Dead might end up being more an interactive movie than a real game. But regardless, I thought the story was strong enough to support even an easy game, and so I'm optimistic about the season as a whole will turn out. The game's $25 suggested retail price looks more than reasonable.
This review is based on a digital Season Pass of The Walking Dead for the PC provided by Telltale Games.