Sunday 13 January 2013

The Walking Dead (Season 1)

The Title Screen

I have taken care in this review not to ruin the story 

The Walking Dead is an adventure, point-and-click game by Telltale Games. Based on a comic book series of the same name, the video game was released for PC, PlayStation, Xbox and iOS. Initially released in 2012 in a bi-monthly episodic format, this review is on the first five episodes that make up "Season 1" (the 'first' game).

Disclaimer: This is definitely a mature title. It features violence, strong language and psychological themes of despair, peril and terror. 

The First Thing
What was the first thing I noticed? The mouse. It may seem small but when you start a game for the first time and feel that familiar sluggish control, it's a disappointment. It is such a shame it is the case for one of 2012's most highly rated games, from a developer with extensive experience at mouse driven PC titles.

Plot & Devices
Lee (you) is on route to prison, but the police car is involved in an accident and Lee finds himself stranded in the woods. The dead are walking and attacking any living they find; turning them into zombies too. Taking shelter in a nearby home, Lee discovers a little girl named Clementine who has been surviving all alone. Taking her into his care, the two of them must find safety, allies and come to terms with this new world; filled with evil, danger and living nightmares.


The story is the game. Every single aspect is designed to advance events or further character development. Noticeable effort has been spent on creating a strong narrative filled with detailed and believable characters. Whilst the player can not change the overall direction of the plot, many details along the way will change by choices made. Will Lee be nice or mean? Who around him will survive? Who trusts him and who hates him? Actions have consequences.

The Game
The gameplay is quite simple, and just feels like a vessel for the story. The player should expect to spend much of the game just observing events, and choosing a dialogue response when prompted. Any choice is designed to avoid being obviously 'good' or 'evil', and the player will have to use their personal judgement. A lot of consequences are unpredictable which encourages a personal playstyle. Sometimes a choice is limited by time and occasionally dialogue responses will have actions attached. There is no ability to 'save' the game, and infrequent checkpoints will auto-save the current progress.

Other aspects of gameplay are reminiscent of traditional puzzle games and requires more direct player involvement. The game will hand control of Lee to the player, who is free to walk around an enclosed area and investigate. Here items can be interacted with and simple actions performed, such as "look", "pick up", "use" etc. Sometimes there are puzzles, but usually are pretty straightforward and never stray far from "use key on lock" style. NPCs can be talked to and, as with the rest of the game, actions/conversation affect the story.

Interactive Objects (can be turned off in the options)

Due to the simple control scheme, sections with intense action are mostly dealt with by Quick-Time Events, or alternatively the player will have mouse control and must click at an important area. These moments are often quite hectic, but are not especially challenging. The intent is to unnerve the player into making a mistake, not provide a challenging task. Failing these mini events will often result in Lee's death. The death of Lee will simply restart the game at a recent checkpoint, but the death of other characters is permanent and worked into the continuing story.

The graphical fidelity of the game is not high, but features a striking art style. The Walking Dead bears resemblance to its comic book origins, and looks like a three-dimensional, interactive comic. Occasionally some art assets, like zombies, are quite obvious in their low quality; but nothing really sticks out too much. The soundtrack is solid and the voice acting is outstanding. The mouse is smoothed/accelerated and seems incapable of being disabled. The controls are non-rebindable, but are not complex as basic movement and Quick-Time Events are all that is needed. Despite the problems, I recommend playing with a Mouse and Keyboard. Playing all five chapters took me about 11 hours and I spent a lot of time investigating each item and area.

Wrap Up & Negatives
Aside from the inexcusable mouse implementation there is nothing particularly wrong with The Walking Dead as a game; although the ability to rebind keys would have been nice. However, there are a few little things that did cause me minor frustration - and one completely game breaking bug.

It is not always clear the tone of voice Lee will use for conversation, which can be irritating given that dialogue choices are so important to character development. Saying something in anger that you thought was encouraging can create unwanted consequences. It can be equally frustrating to advance story or character development by seemingly unrelated actions when trying to solve a puzzle. It is possible to 'go back' and try again, but this is discouraged by offering infrequent retry points. 

Surprise attack by a Quick-Time Event!
Some of the gameplay does not flow smoothly together. It can be a little jarring to suddenly enter action when the last 20 minutes have been spent in conversation. I feel it is unreasonable to expect players to sit on the edge of their seats waiting for a Quick-Time Event when so much of the game is story.

The game excels at linking decisions with outcomes, but occasionally presents the player with a straight binary choice; normally choosing between two alternatives or people. These are so obviously predestined that they make previous decision making feel a little inconsequential. They are also a bit too simplistic and don't incorporate logic like "I will save X because Y looks like they can take care of that one zombie". 

Unfortunately, about half way through the 4th episode, the game reset itself and I lost all of my progress and settings. This seems to be a common bug and is mentioned on quite a few forums, so I would recommend that back-ups are taken regularly. I sort of managed to fix my game by following advice I found here, but some of my previous choices were remembered incorrectly.

The Walking Dead has appeared in many "best of 2012" lists - and in my opinion, this praise is well deserved. It is truly one of the most engaging video game narratives I've experienced and is one of the few games able to legitimately claim that "actions have consequences". The NPC characterisation is nothing short of superb, with excellent voice acting and deep personalities. I definitely felt some emotional connection to the characters; Clementine in particular.

This game should be tried by anyone who enjoys a well-rounded and excellently implemented story. Although zombies are becoming a little commonplace, The Walking Dead stands head and shoulders above most other storytelling games. My advice is to try and live with any choices made; no matter how bad. It is technically possible to undo bad decision, but the whole point of this game is maybe there are no 'good' decisions in this kind of scenario. Be warned though, there are some pretty emotional moments and some events are honestly pretty horrific......but it's good. Very good.

But then there is the bug; the one that wiped out all of my progress. It's difficult to recommend a game that can do this, but I more or less fixed it and it truly was an excellent game. So, be warned.

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