Collins’ Crypt: THE WALKING DEAD Video Game

BC takes a look at Telltale's zombie game.

I had played the first episode of Telltale's Walking Dead game when it was first released, and while I enjoyed it, I never felt too compelled to continue. Having redone a few sections of Episode 1 and discovering that my choices didn't matter much (i.e. when you can choose between Duck and that other guy, Duck is saved regardless of your decision), I figured I'd just play one of the other 30+ games I hadn't finished during those rare periods where I actually have time to turn on the Xbox. But then our Badass-in-Chief started playing and tweeting his thoughts, and I started to get the suspicion that the game had gotten a lot better since that first episode. And with the holiday weekend coming up, I figured if there was ever a time to catch up before everyone spoiled the game's surprises for me, now would be it.

Well, Devin (or the many others singing the game's praises) wasn't lying - the Walking Dead game is pretty damn good. As a fan of the comic and the show (yes, all three seasons; I agree it's better now than when Darabont was in charge, but I liked it then too), I'm not sure I'd agree that it's the best thing to bear the name, but it's a riveting, exciting adventure that makes it difficult to put down the further you progress. I can't recall the last time I played through an entire campaign over the course of a few days, and I'd even replay again despite not having any more achievements to gain - the highest honor I can bestow upon an Xbox 360 game.

In fact, one of my issues with the first episode was that the cheevos were so basic, not encouraging you to explore or go back and make different choices - I know they are meaningless, but I think the Gamerscore system is a fine way to guide you through getting the most out of your game, and makes 2nd playthroughs more enticing. But as I played through the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th installments, I realized that this was actually a benefit - it "forced" you to stick to your original choices in a way. Sure, you can always rewind if something doesn't turn out the way you want (assuming it CAN be changed - see above example), but it's weird - after a while I sort of mentally blocked out that possibility, sticking to my guns and actually ROLE PLAYING in a way I've never been able to do in other games. Mass Effect, for example; I never actually put myself in the mindset of Shepard, I just chose all the good (blue) decisions every time on my first playthrough, and then all the bad (red) ones when I went back for seconds a year or so later, so I could see a different side of the game and find myself rewarded with that satisfying "bloop" of another 20 points (it's obviously a chord-striking sound - they even put it into the sound mix of the TV's show's pilot episode). Not here; no matter what the circumstances, my version of Lee was a pretty decent guy who would fib to strangers but always be honest with surrogate daughter Clementine, even when it might have upset her to hear the truth.

(SPOILERS AHEAD!)

I'm not sure if it's possible to keep any other characters with you until the very end; it seems everyone either dies or gets separated for good, at least, in the way I played it. But Clementine is by your side for at least 90% of the game, and it's amazing how attached I grew to Lee's relationship with her, to the extent that I wrestled with a decision regarding whether or not Lee should help her look for her parents, selfishly wanting to keep her for "myself". I hope the folks who played each episode as it came out (instead of more or less back to back as I did - I didn't replay Ep 1 but played Eps 2-5 over less than four days) got that same sense of attachment; I couldn't tell if it was because I was so "into" it playing several hours a day or if it was just that well written. Their long-lasting, unbreakable friendship is one of the best I've experienced in the format, and I found it fascinating how as time went on I would find it harder and harder to make the decisions I needed to make when it came to her - that white time limit bar would be pretty close to gone by the time I finally made a call.

I also felt pretty close to Kenny, a redneck guy you hook up with early on and is usually the one who raises an opposition to someone else trying to decide something for the group. I swear, at least once per episode there comes a point where Kenny will say something to the effect of "I need your back on this one, Lee!", and I'd find myself siding with him out of loyalty, even though I didn't always agree. Despite that, in Episode 4 the bastard went against me because of the one time I DIDN'T take his side (back in Episode 1!), so he's kind of a dick. And that leads me to one of the minor issues I had with the game - the emphasis on choice and characters who remember what you say and did can result in frustration on the gamer's part when it doesn't go far enough. More than once I made a decision that I (Brian) had a perfectly good rationalization for, but the game would neglect to give *Lee* that dialogue option. Considering how "human" the game can appear to be at times, it sucks when you do something for a reason only to discover that the game programmers didn't consider that concept, and realize that the other characters in the game are going to be pissed at you (or leave the group) because you never got the opportunity to explain yourself.

It also results in some "mistakes", which I probably wouldn't think about if they weren't firing on all cylinders in other areas. At one point in Episode 4 you need a quarter, which has you find something to bust up a newspaper machine to get one, but in Episode 2 you get a handful of change to use to unscrew a bolt, so where did all of that go? The amount of ammo (or even the possession of a gun at all) also tends to get a little vague, or even downright ignored, whenever it suits the game, and on that same note it's annoying when you can't pick up a shovel or knife that's lying around when you know two scenes later you'll be empty handed and have to scramble for a new item before a zombie bites you.

Speaking of the undead, I was quite pleased with how well Telltale balanced out the action and the puzzle solving over the course of the entire game. Neither area is particularly difficult, but the controls can be a bit unforgiving during the more hectic scenes, when trying to quickly line up your cursor over the sweet spot and hit the corresponding button in time can be a bit taxing after a half hour of more or less watching the game play out in between dialogue choices. Thus, it's good that they never catered to bloodthirsty Left 4 Dead fans that were probably disappointed that it was mostly a conversation/puzzle game; even the 5th episode refrains from devoting too much of its climax to pointless zombie killing (though there is one sequence that's pretty great - Lee chopping them one after the other). I do wish the puzzles were a little more involving though; the same company's otherwise inferior Jurassic Park game had some pretty good ones, but here the only one that required a bit of extra legwork and old school adventure gaming tradition was in the 3rd episode, involving a train. Everything else was pretty basic "find a locked door, so look around for something to open it" sort of stuff. The third episode seemed to be the most puzzle-happy, with the fourth having more action than usual, but overall I'd say it was a pretty even split between the three mechanics (puzzles, action, talking).

They aren't so successful at balancing out the lengths of each chapter, however. I swear, Episode 5 Chapter 7 involves absolutely nothing beyond walking down a street (no fights or conversations). However, in the same episode, one chapter has two puzzles, a fight scene, several conversations... if you're planning to play all day, this doesn't matter, but I would assume episodic gaming would attract folks that have to play games in those brief chunks during the week that they have time to do so; 20 minutes here, 45 minutes there. So you might use up an entire session without completing a chapter, only to blow through three of them in half the time the next time you load it up. On that note, Episode 5 is only about 2/3s as long as the others; at first I thought this might be due to particular choices I have made, but many others pointed out this blemish as well.

There are a few other "glitches" as well; lips keep moving after dialogue has finished, there are a number of annoying invisible barriers, and a few occasions where the objectives were either unclear or obnoxiously committed to a certain order. For example, at one point you need to get a train moving, which means figuring out how to turn the engine on, as well as uncouple it from a stuck car. I figured I'd get rid of the car since I knew what had to be done, only to discover that even with the right tool in hand, I had to turn on the engine first, despite the two issues having no direct relation. Nothing game-breaking, but enough to annoy when you discover that you've been wasting your time. I was also a bit peeved at a few go nowhere subplots and characters that more or less Poochie themselves out of the game, likely to keep them around for the planned sequel (or "second season").

Overall, however, it's an easy game to recommend for fans of the show/comic, or just of adventure games in general. The art style is incredible, and while it may not live up to the carnage of other zombie games, they offer plenty of different ways to kill "Walkers" and a number of legitimately creepy moments (like the fight to get some food that's next to a zombie that SEEMS trapped). Also, and this is key - while the first episode had Glenn and Hershel, the only other character from the comics who appears is Lilly, a character who only appeared in three issues (and whose biggest contribution to its story was already taken care of on the show via other means). Otherwise, the game wisely goes off on its own path instead of shoehorning in other minor characters; when a mystery voice appears on a radio I feared that it was going to turn out to be Morgan or even Rick, but their identity was confined to game events - a huge relief. And for 5 bucks a pop (for Xbox/PS3 - on PC it's half that), it's a pretty good value; there's a retail disc coming soon for 30 dollars, but it's identical to the downloadable version - you're basically paying a few more bucks to avoid taking up 3 gigs+ on your hard drive (Gamestop will also have a more expensive collector's edition that comes with the compendium of the comic's first 48 issues).

If you opt for the episode version and, like I did, find yourself underwhelmed, I would definitely recommend playing until Episode 2 before making up your mind. I think this episode was the best the series had to offer, frankly, and it's also where the game's choice system really started to pay off. The gameplay itself never advances much beyond what is introduced in the first episode, so if you downright hate that style of play I doubt the rest will change your mind, but the story really hooked me in during that second one, and no amount of tapping the A button to ward off zombies or being forced to talk to everyone before a new cutscene would trigger would have kept me from finishing. It's a terrific use of the license and of point and click adventure gaming in general, and easily one of the better horror games I've played to boot.

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