Telltale Studios -- famous for refreshing proven, family friendly intellectual property as an adventure game -- takes a darker and more adventurous turn with The Walking Dead.
Before Telltale Game's latest series even begins, a disclaimer pops up: "This game series adapts to the choices you make. The story is tailored by how you play"
Like the comicbook series upon which it is based, the core of Telltale's interactive adaptation of The Walking Dead lies not in when, why, or how the zombie apocalypse occurs, but rather in the tough decisions humanity is forced to make after it is brought about.
The first episode starts with the protagonist, Lee, taking a handcuffed ride in a police car. The player doesn't have much time to learn about who Lee is or what crime he committed before the police car drives headlong into a zombie invasion. After a harrowing escape from a zombie horde in the forest, Lee befriends an eight year old girl named Clementine who has been surviving in her treehouse for a few days. From here, the player is forced to make some tough decisions.
Is an escape at night any safer than roaming the streets during the day? Should Lee break it to Clementine that her parents probably aren't coming back? Does Lee lie about how he knows Clementine, or tell the truth and risk looking like a predatory creeper?
Decisions are made using an Alpha Protocol-esque dialogue tree. Important decisions usually have to be made in a few seconds, or the situation gets worse. Interestingly enough, Telltale has included silence as a viable option for most of the conversations, but the fact that Lee is still forced to speak at certain points destroys the cool and silent "Gordon Freeman" composure that could have been created.
The bulk of Episode 1's 3 hour duration is spent talking to survivors and making decisions about what to do next. While the writing isn't always up to par--Telltale has been making "family-friendly" games for too long to have curse words not feel forced and out of place--Telltale's knack at making vibrant and emotive character animations, along with fittingly sombre voice acting, gives the first episode of the video game more meaningful drama than the entire second season of the AMC television show.
Of course, you're not going to spend the entire game talking. Though you can count the number of zombie deaths on one hand, each fight has more tension than your average Left 4 Dead zombie rush. Successfully defeating a zombie requires careful aim of a cursor with the mouse, and then feverish taps of a few keys on the keyboard. This provides just enough interactivity to make each zombie kill an accomplishment without resorting to Heavy Rain-esque thumb gymnastics.
I am sorry to disappoint the mouse and keyboard purists, but I would highly recommend plugging in a USB Xbox 360 controller if you've got one. Most of the traversal in The Walking Dead is done around a stationary camera, and walking around a circular area or turning past some corners was tougher with the WASD keys than with an analog thumbstick. I also found scrolling through dialogue options with the mouse wheel, and rapidly tapping keys on my keyboard to be awkward compared to the controller alternatives. That said, using a keyboard and mouse will not noticably hamper your experience with The Walking Dead.
The look of the game as a whole contributes to the grim nature of the narrative while still paying dues to its comic book roots. The color pallette is more vibrant than your average shooter, but doesn't veer into the territory of other Telltale games, which looked more like Pixar feature films. At times, the bold lines that outline characters and buildings look as if the pen is about to burst right through the paper.
The PC version offers high resolution textures that make some landscapes look like they came straight from the panel of a comic book, without taxing system resources too much. However, while the first half of the episode takes place in large outdoor landscapes, muddy textures and muted colors in the second half of the episode result in a visual experience that's ultimately uneven.
As I said above, I feel that the first episode of The Walking Dead creates more meaningful drama and nail-biting zombie encounters than the entire second season of the television show. The gradual reveal of each character's backstory is very well done, and creates an interesting parallel: both the player and the characters in the game are thrown headfirst into something that they don't fully understand. Combat with zombies and their gory deaths are entertaining, but this is not what is going to keep you coming back to the game.
I have played through the first episode of The Walking Dead three times (good on Telltale for including multiple save slots to make this painless) and there are a lot of decisions that drastically alter the outcome of the episode, but some of the tension is lost in multiple playthroughs when some decisions that seem important turn out to have the same general conclusion.
Ultimately, my only mark against The Walking Dead is that there aren't a lot of places where players get to use their noggin. With the exception of a scene where you must determine the right sequence in which to dispatch a group of zombies in a parking lot, the game proceeds forward in a linear fashion. Sure, you can mess up and die, but the game isn't difficult, and doesn't have any unconventional puzzle solving, like those found in Telltale's Sam & Max or Monkey Island games.
That said, puzzles shouldn't be the focus of a game based on The Walking Dead. The first episode of Telltale's interactive take on this great series takes everything fans love about the comic books and television show, and brings it to an interactive medium in a meaningful way. It is yet to be seen if Telltale will keep the stakes this high for the rest of the game's episodes, which will be released once a month until October. But I am too invested in the plight of Lee, Clementine, and the rest of their ragtag group to give up on them before then. I can't think of any higher praise for an episodic game.