Bringing the popular comic book (and TV show) to the world of gaming for the first time, The Walking Dead: The Video Game might be one of the best games of the year.
You are Lee Everett, murder convict, on your way to prison for a crime of passion. But that punishment is commuted when the zombie apocalypse happens, and society as we know it collapses. Suddenly, it no longer matters who you were pre-apocalypse. All that matters now is survival. Welcome to the end of the world.
Set some time before Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Grimes awoke from his fateful coma, The Walking Dead: The Video Game introduces a host of new characters to Robert Kirkman’s sprawling narrative, while maintaining the qualities that made the book (and subsequent TV show) such a hit to begin with. The truth about Everett’s murder conviction, his final fate, and that of the young girl he quickly finds himself caring for, are just a few of the mysteries you’ll encounter along the way, and none of them are in a hurry to give up their secrets.
I’m kind of in awe of how Telltale managed to capture the visual look of the comic books, and turn it into a functioning aesthetic for a video game that really works. Readers of the comic book know that it’s a black & white publication; only the cover art is ever colored. Telltale somehow translated the look and feel of that static, monochrome world into a living, technicolor nightmare (the good kind). I played the Xbox Live Arcade version of the game, and it was controlled through a simple, elegant scheme of thumbstick movement and A-B-X-Y button use. There was no learning curve, but neither was it too simplified to hold the interest of this veteran gamer. I was so drawn in by the story that I never really thought about the controls as the game unfolded. Which is exactly how good design should work.
Perfectly capturing the spirit of the comic book, every character in the game is three-dimensional, quirky, and we meet them when they’re at the worst moment of their lives, pushed to extremes. The brilliant opening sequence encapsulates the entire experience: Lee is in the back of a police car, being driven to his new prison home, when other police cars keep passing him on the other side of the road, sirens blaring as they respond to some kind of huge emergency in Atlanta. A clever conversation takes place between Lee and the cop assigned to escort him to prison, and we learn that Lee is definitely guilty of his crime, but there were “circumstances,” and he’s not really a bad guy. Soon the police radio blares out that there’s some kind of outbreak in Atlanta and the police need all hands on deck. That’s when the car slams into a Walker in the middle of the road, and crashes. We’ve just witnessed one man’s perspective on the zombie outbreak as it happens, and as he scrambles to unlock his cuffs in the wrecked car and escape the Walkers closing in on all sides, the tension is extreme. I held my breath as I helped Lee get his hands on the keys to the cuffs, find something to hit his attacker with, and make his escape while favoring a bleeding wound.
The Walking Dead isn’t a first-person or even a third-person style game. Telltale is known for building adventure games using their own 3D game engine, and this one is no different. But the graphic novel art style makes the well-worn engine feel fresh. In most scenes, you’re free to wander around the immediate area and explore. But the thrills never slow down for long, and before you know it, you’ll be on the run again with Walkers just inches away. Objectives play out much as they do in most adventure games or the non-action-y parts of standard RPGs like Mass Effect or Fallout; interact with in-game characters, learn what they want or need, decide whether or not to help them, look for something that will help them, and then reap the rewards (or feel the burn) from your actions.
But this being a survivalist adventure, every choice has potential life-and-death consequences. For example, a scene about half an hour into the game presents you with both a small boy who’s being attacked by Walkers, and a young man who’s important to the survival of the group you’re in. You only have time to save one, and the choice is yours. Save the boy and his parents will remember your actions throughout the rest of the game, and treat you accordingly, while the dead guy’s father will blame you for his son’s death and refuse to help you ever again. Most of these scenes play up the moral ambiguity and breakdown of civil law that a zombie apocalypse lends itself to. So every choice is a hard one, every decision has lasting consequences, and there’s never a “right” or “wrong” way to go.
These game parameters create an atmosphere where the stakes are always as high as they can possibly be. There’s plenty of the franchise’s trademark interpersonal human drama as well, and all of it is extremely well executed. Major kudos to Telltale for working hard to bring the comic book to life in a new medium — in a way that feels completely organic. Robert Kirkman himself served as a consultant on the game, so its authenticity may owe something to his involvement. But I can’t heap enough praise on the team at Telltale for getting every aspect of this game so right.
This being a Telltale game, it’s planned for staggered release in episodic installments. At the time of this review, only Episode One – A New Day has been released, but I expect the remaining four episodes to be equally terrific since the bar of quality is set this high. It should go without saying that this is not a family-friendly title. As a faithful offshoot of the comic book, it pours on blood, gore, extreme violence, and frequent f-bombs. (If you’ve got kids, make darn sure they’re in bed for this one.)
Telltale’s record has been hit and miss with franchise licenses. Back to the Future: The Video Game was a fun adventure that stayed true to the spirit of the films, but Jurassic Park: The Video Game — despite a good story and dazzling graphics — wasn’t much more than a movie with a teensy bit of interaction. With The Walking Dead, somehow every piece of the puzzle comes together flawlessly. One gets the sense that this was a labor of love on Telltale’s part, or maybe even that this is the truly great game that they’ve always been destined to make. Maybe the fact that those earlier franchises were nostalgic exercises, while The Walking Dead is in the midst of its heyday right now, has some subtle psychological effect on the player. Or maybe it’s just a brilliant video game.
Whatever the magic formula that brought it into being… The Walking Dead: the Video Game soars. With a smart storyline, fascinating characters, and brilliant technical execution, it’s everything that fans want it to be. And then some.