Telltale Games already had my heart for single-handedly reviving the point and click adventure genre with its incredible Sam and Max series, following it with a slew of successful titles like Tales of Monkey Island and Wallace and Gromit. They’re also the first company to have success with episodic games, bite-size games that combine to tell a single story arc over a “season," a tactic that’s great for time-stressed gamers who want to be able to complete a game in a handful of hours.
Recently they’ve acquired some huge licenses, putting out the quite-decent Back to the Future: The Game (with co-creator Bob Gale assisting on the story) and then putting out their first total misfire with Jurassic Park: The Game. The latter is what made the idea of them doing a Walking Dead game so scary - in veering off from their familiar adventure format and trying to do more of an action title they made the mistake of relying on dreaded Quick Time Events for tension, looking towards games like Heavy Rain for a cinematic influence without fully understanding what made them work.
QTEs are certainly overused but they have their uses, allowing games to provide a great sense of panic and tension. But their constant appearances in games nowadays tend to detract from the experience and just make you wish you were playing, you know, a game - and Jurassic Park was one of the worse offenders. Add in constantly changing main characters, wooden dialogue and no sense of location, and you’ve got one of the bigger disappointments from last year. So when it was announced that Telltale also picked up the Walking Dead license it was easy to worry that they’d fall into the same problems.
They haven’t. They’ve learned from their experience and in just the first episode released a game that perfectly mimics all the best bits of the comic and TV show. It’s unlike any other adventure game out there, combining the typical exploration and dialogue-based parts of an adventure game with some twitchy and frantic “GET IT OFF ME!” zombie-splattering gameplay. But you won’t just have zombies to contend with - after all, WE are the walking dead.
The first episode, “A New Day”, kicks off in glorious fashion. You control Lee Everett, a man who’s currently sitting in the back of a cop car on the way to prison for a murder he might or might not have committed. A conversation with the cop driving lets you get used to how dialogue and aiming works, as the radio chatter and cop cars zooming past on the highway start distracting you and giving you a sense of impending doom. It makes for one helluva intense ride and unfortunately for Lee, this day’s about to become much, much worse. Today the dead rise.
It does allow him a chance to be freed of his predicament, momentarily at least. Later on he’s freed of his handcuffs and the car and looking for help, and stumbles over an eight-year old girl named Clementine who’s been surviving on her own in her treehouse. Her parents are gone and judging from the terrifying message they left on the answering machine they won’t be coming back anytime soon. With the help of a few neighbors they get on the road and end up at a familiar place for fans of the series - Hershel’s farm. Expect to run into a few familiar characters from the comic like Glenn and Lily as things get progressively worse.
While there are familiar tropes for fans of the genre as you have to explore the world, find items, and figure out where to put them (don’t expect any serious puzzles, though), the dialogue is top notch and there are some sequences of really intense action. When shit hits the fan and you’ve got zombies on top of your group you’re going to have to think fast, possibly by quickly clicking on a section of the screen or choosing to run in a certain direction. The sound design really helps amp up the tension, and one incredible section has you sneaking around cars in a motel parking lot trying to figure out the quietest route to kill zombies.
The game also gives you an enormous amount of control over what happens, even if you don’t realize it at the time. Playing through the episode a second time on PS3 I was stunned to see how seemingly innocuous decisions I made changed the entire course of story - even introducing new characters and killing off others. This isn’t just during the more exciting moments, either - since when asked a question you'll have a limited amount of time to make a response, you’re constantly forced to think quickly and react like you were actually in the situation. Everything you say matters, and people will treat you differently depending on how much (if at all) you lie to them. Even little things like conversations are different depending on what you’ve said to people earlier.
And really, while the graphics are great and the gorehounds will be able to scramble many a zombie brain, it’s the characters that are going to keep you coming back. Lee has a dark history to him and throughout the first episode you can choose to hide or reveal as much of it as you want, and there’s always the looming threat that someone might find out that you’re a convicted murderer. It makes for a much more interesting and layered protagonist than a goodie two shoes like Rick from the comic and TV show, who only has to worry about the present. It doesn’t hurt that you can choose exactly what kind of person he is - from the jerk that shirks the responsibility of looking after a kid and pulls away from everyone to the (perhaps foolishly) open, nice guy who shares everything about his past and really looks out for Clementine. Telltale has promised that your choices will carry through all of the future episodes so you have to really think about how you want each and every person viewing you... as well as which ones you want to keep around. There are a few big moments even in this first episode where your actions will directly influence who lives and who dies.
It’s exciting and quite unlike any other zombie game out there, with better dialogue and character development in its short running time (around three hours) than the comic or TV series has yet shown. Telltale has finally figured out the magic formula, and they’ll be releasing four more episodes of The Walking Dead over the next four months. Let’s hope they stick the landing.
The first episode of The Walking Dead is now available on PC, Mac and PS3, and will be out for Xbox 360 and iOS shortly. There will be five episodes in the season, one released each month.