"Long Road Ahead" is the third episode in Telltale Games' take on The Walking Dead comic book series. The first two episodes are some of the most emotionally powerful games I have ever played. Rather than simply go "bigger and better" for episode 3, Telltale opts to ratchet up the tension and character development in new ways. This doesn't lead to an episode that is better than the fantastic episode 2 on every level, but it does create another unforgettable three hours of harrowing drama that every gamer should experience.
For a more specific look at the game mechanics etc., please check out my review of Episode 1. This review will focus specifically on what has changed in Episode 3.
Telltale hasn't fixed what isn't broken in the latest iteration of their zombie tale. The walking, talking, and zombie-killing all work as they did before. One of the common complaints levied against The Walking Dead is that it doesn't take much skill or finesse to complete. There aren't any difficult action sequences that will kill you over and over again, or puzzles that will leave you stumped for hours.
"Long Road Ahead" has a few moments that rely on precision and quick reflexes, but in the end they serve as an example to why The Walking Dead doesn't need sequences like this. A surprisingly impact-less shooting gallery near the beginning is by far the weakest part of the episode. This sequence lasts for about 20 seconds and doesn't ruin the game by any stretch, but I am still puzzled as to why Telltale included it. There are plenty of games where I can shoot zombies. I come to The Walking Dead to cringe as I make an incredibly difficult decision that effects characters I care deeply about.
Character faces are as vibrant and expressive as ever, which really helps sell a lot of the heavier moments in this episode. There are a few reaction shots in "Long Road Ahead" that didn't contain any spoken dialogue, but managed to communicate volumes through facial expressions and body language. This episode takes place over a longer period of time than the previous two, so the increased change in scenery is visually appreciated, even if it drags the story down a little.
Here's where we get into the nitty-gritty. Most readers will notice that my score for this episode is a bit lower than the last, which scored a perfect 10. Make no mistake, "Long Road Ahead" continues the tradition of episodes 1 and 2 of being one of the best narrative-driven games I have played. But while episode 2 was incredibly effective on its own as a self-contained piece, episode 3 feels very much like a transition sequence between episodes 2 and 4.
Episode 2 slowly picked up speed over the course of its story, which led to an incredibly exciting and gruesome conclusion. When I finished, I was chomping at the bit to play more Walking Dead. "Long Road Ahead" has lots of downtime by comparison. This lets more character development and comic relief shine through the grim atmosphere, but I felt the story never found its stride. In fact, I didn't realize the episode was coming to a close until "Next time on The Walking Dead" popped up onscreen.
But even with a few slight missteps in pacing, The Walking Dead's third episode continues to deliver on gut-wrenching situations that prompt deep emotional reactions. The bonds between the characters develop significantly over the course of this episode. This makes the stakes incredibly high for the weathered survivors. The first two episodes portrayed characters coming to terms with the unthinkable. "Long Road Ahead" is when just about everybody starts to snap, and the standoffs created by this are tense, shocking, and genuinely heartbreaking.
Each episode of The Walking Dead is an extremely emotional experience. Nothing is sacred. There were quite a few major events crammed into this episode of The Walking Dead that simply wouldn't have fit in a story that relies on melodrama or a cheesy tugging of the heartstrings. Instead, you just hear one gunshot out of nowhere, and have to deal with the aftermath while moving on and keeping everybody safe. I had to put the controller down 4 or 5 times in three hours to process what had happened onscreen. In fact, I made some decisions that surprised even myself.
Now that Telltale Games' zombie epic is more than half done, I feel confident saying that The Walking Dead will stand as a shining example of how narrative can be used creatively in games to create a strong emotional reaction. Rather than abiding by a moral code that the game suggests, I am having a blast playing through each episode of The Walking Dead and just doing what I feel is right.
Currently clocking at 9 gripping hours of top-notch storytelling, I can safely recommend The Walking Dead to just about anybody, even if they aren't a serious gamer. The story is genuinely affecting without the use of melodrama or cheap genre conventions. The action is intense, and used just sparingly enough that each encounter with the enemy seems like a genuine threat.
I'm the kind of person who likes to try and guess the ending to a movie before it happens. While The Walking Dead had a few gameplay and storytelling misfires in episode 3, the writers and designers continue to throw even a pro like me for a loop. To be honest, I am half excited, half terrified to see how the remainder of the season will treat the characters that I now know and love.
As with all my other reviews of The Walking Dead, those of you who have beaten the game can check out the choices I made here.