Review by GreenHammer
"Possibly the best game of 2012; Certainly the most important"
Telltale Games has made a name for itself in the past few years with a slew of games based off of popular licensed material. As a good deal of the company was created from ex-members of LucasArts, it should come as no surprise that these guys are the current masters of the "point and click" adventure games, which are seeing a bit of a resurgence for the first time since the 1980's. Although Back to the Future, and Jurassic Park, were met with varying enthusiasm, Telltale has it's first bona-fide great game with The Walking Dead. It will certainly re-define what we think of adventure games. It may re-define what we think of games altogether.
The adventure genre can be a tough nut to crack for some gamers. It doesn't lend itself to amazing feats of hand-eye coordination, and it doesn't involve grinding experience points or equipment. The thrill of conquering a difficult boss is exchanged for the thrill of unlocking the next part of the story. For any adventure game to work, the player must care about the characters, and the world they live in. The Walking Dead achieves this as well as any game I have ever played.
Nearly every character - from the fantastic lead characters, to some of the more minor characters who only show up for an episode or two - leave an indelible mark. These are realistic, flawed characters, who say and do things that feel completely organic to the situation they are put in. Even when certain characters veer on the edge of stereotype, they are usually given a speech or moment that either flips your opinion of them, or helps you see where they are coming from. You will grow to care for these characters, and the relationships you have developed with them, so it makes it all the more tragic when they succumb to the vicious world around them. It's not a spoiler to say that there is a lot of death in The Walking Dead. Anyone who has read the comic, or watched the TV show, knows that there are very few happy endings in this post-apocalyptic nightmare. You are forced to make difficult decisions throughout the five episodes, and more than once, it will involve whether certain characters live, or die (or worse). These choices, are the fundamental things that set this game apart from the other "morality" games of this generation.
Some games - like the sublime Mass Effect, or Infamous, series - engage the players with "difficult" moral dilemmas. In these games there is almost always a clear cut "good" or "bad" way to answer. The Walking Dead is the first game where these morality choices are practically indistinguishable. I, personally, pretty much always take the "good" or "paragon" path when I play a video game. However, there was more than one time where I wasn't sure what was the "good" path, and I immediately regretted the choice I made, or felt like a total bastard for making it. It's extremely rare for a game's themes to penetrate into the way you actually play the game, but The Walking Dead truly does make you feel like you are morally decaying in your quest for survival. It's a testament to the writing that you never truly feel comfortable with your decisions, and more often than not you will pay for them in the later episodes.
At this point in a review, I usually highlight the negative points of the aspect I'm critiquing. After racking my brain, and picking some nits, I decided there basically weren't any. Your characters go on very personal, exciting journeys that you feel 100% involved and invested in. If there was one complaint, it would be that some of the characters in the later episodes don't get *quite* as much development as some of the earlier ones, but I'm being very picky. This is one of the great video game stories in recent memory.
Grade: 10/10 - a high mark in video game storytelling.
Like many of the progenitors of the genre, The Walking Dead isn't particularly deep when it comes to gameplay. In fact, the gameplay here might be less involved than it is in some of those other stalwarts. The puzzle solving is minimal, to non-existent, and even the basic tropes of the genre (walking around, looking at environments, picking up items, using items) are not all that extensive. Instead, a large portion of your time will be spent on asking and answering questions, and making decisions; all done with one of the four action buttons. While this might seem boring to some, I personally never got bored. I wanted to ask and answer questions, and learn more about the cast.
To make things interesting - and really play up the non-stop tension of your situation - you are, at times, forced to make these decisions under the duress of a time limit. There were times I definitely wished I had more time to think about a particular choice, and I loved the fact that the game pressures you like this. It's so easy to generate tension with action and jump-scares (don't worry there are some of both), but it's so much more satisfying when it's done in this style.
If all of that sounds boring to you, rest assured there are a few different aspects to spice up the gameplay. There are some very light first person shooter-esque moments, and at times your dexterity will be tested via aiming your reticle at a certain spot. This aspect of the gameplay is a bit of a mixed bag, and sometimes a little out of place. But it does accomplish its goal of breaking up some of the monotony of dialogue, so I won't fault it too much. As mentioned above, there is some very light puzzle solving, but it generally comes down to picking up an item at one place, and using it at another. Pretty basic stuff.
Grade: 8/10 - there's not a lot of "gameplay" here, in a conventional sense. You're mostly just playing an active part in the storytelling, which is absolutely fine for this style of game.
You might be wondering, after listening to all of the raves I have given out, how this game got a 9 instead of a 10. Well here it is. The tech specs for this game are actually, kind of embarrassingly bad.
First, the good: The graphics are a joy to look at. The cel-shaded artwork gives a ton of personality to the characters, and effectively evokes the comic book series. Each character's facial expressions absolutely correspond to, and enhance, what they are thinking and feeling. Of particular note is the animation being done with the eyes. It's very refreshing to see sprites sketched to look as close to normal as possible, without the need for exaggeration to provide character. The females in the game thankfully avoid the usual exploitation that, sadly, comes along with so many female characters in video games. The zombies aren't terribly detailed, but they are effectively creepy.
The sound design is fantastic. The music is evocative, and never overpowers any scene. The sound effects, from the shuffling of zombies, to the roar of a train engine, to the squishing noise that accompanies braining a zombie, are all top-notch. As good as these aspects are, they all pale in comparison, to the voice-acting. This is some of the best voice-acting in a game I have ever heard. Of particular note are the two leads. They're just all-around fantastic.
Unfortunately, that's where the good ends. The game has - putting it mildly - hiccups. If I were not putting it mildly, I might say it's broken. There will be large portions of the game, where the frame rate will drop, and the game will freeze up. This is only for a couple seconds at most, but it's still beyond frustrating. This will lead to things as minor as the audio track losing visual synchronization, or awkward jump-cuts, to something as major as not giving you enough time to react to an event. It is beyond frustrating, and truly mars what is otherwise a near perfect game. It's so bad, that I thought that I might have just had a severely scuffed up or scratched disc - "Gamefly!!!" (shakes fist at the heavens) - but after cleaning it multiple times and going online to see that other people were having the same problem, I had to come to the conclusion that it was just a fault in the programming. This might have something to do with the disc version of the game, and maybe it isn't as present on the digital copies, but on the version I played, it was a huge glaring problem.
Another technical aspect that, frankly, just seems like laziness on the part of the creators, is that there is no option to invert the y-axis. For a player who has used an inverted axis for many, many, years, it took a long time trying to condition myself that up was up (crazy, right?) Thankfully, the game isn't too concerned with precision controls, so this wasn't a game-breaker. But it could have been. In this day, you should never be releasing a game without the option to invert the y-axis.
Score: 6.5/10 - the skipping and graphical hiccups are too much to bear. The game looks and sounds great, it's just a shame it doesn't always play great.
For a game that has so "many" branching paths and difficult decisions, it might come as a surprise that there isn't a ton of replay value. Sure, you can go back and traverse a different branch of the story, but you'll quickly discover that there isn't a ton of variance in the plot, regardless of your choices. The level of variance never goes much more than "replace character A with character B," but even then these characters still go through almost identical beats. No matter what decisions you make, these characters are going to end up where they're supposed to end up.
Some players are really bothered by this aspect of the game, but it was never a huge deal for me. I played my story the way I wanted to play it, and made the decisions that I felt were right at the time. To go back and make different decisions for the sake of making different decisions just never made a ton of sense to me. The allure of the game is to mold your main character, and insert him into these crazy scenarios while staying true to the character and yourself. Anything else seems mechanical, and against the ethos of what the game is all about.
Score: 6/10 - I could see revisiting the game just to replay the story, or to get primed for the inevitable second season. But there, isn't a reason to go back to collect anything, or see large chunks of game that you might have missed.
The Walking Dead is a game that will, and has, redefined the gaming landscape. Putting aside the renewed interest in the adventure genre, it has established episodic storytelling as a lucrative business practice that gamers are more than willing to invest in. Not only has the episodic structure proved to be fiscally viable, it has actually helped the creative process. The creators were able to receive feedback from the choices we made in one episode, and manipulate the story in future episodes, so that nothing ever became too predictable, or black and white. It will be interesting to see how other developers approach this facet of game design.
Most importantly, for those of us who grow tired of the same old first person shooter, or tired multi-player experience, the popularity of The Walking Dead has shown that there is a market for developers to tell mature, character driven, single-player games. I cannot wait to see what Telltale Games has in store for the already confirmed second season. Let's just hope they can clean up a lot of the technical hiccups this time.
Score: 9/10 - for what it's worth I would rank the individual episodes like so: Episode 1 - 9/10; Episode 2 - 8.5/10; Episode 3 -9.5/10; Episode 4 - 8/10; Episode 5 - 9.5/10.
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 01/30/13
Game Release: The Walking Dead: A Telltale Games Series (US, 12/11/12)
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