Review: The Walking Dead: Episode 1

I’m almost a little ashamed to admit it as big a fan as I am of the series, but my first experience with The Walking Dead wasn’t the comics.  While all of my friends were raving about how great it was, I was…well I forget what I was doing at the time.  It doesn’t matter – what started as me deciding that I was going to watch one episode just to ‘check it out,’ turned into me being thoroughly engrossed in the series; enough to turn that one episode into an entire season one marathon on Netflix.  I dutifully tuned in every Sunday night as well to check out the adventures of Rick Grimes and company as well, eagerly anticipating the next episode each week.

When Telltale Games announced that they were working on an adaptation of The Walking Dead, I was a little skeptical that it would be as great as the television adaptation was.  While I never played their Back to the Future titles, and Law and Order (an absolute all-time favourite series of mine) sits in my queue, I had played Jurassic Park.  While it wasn’t terrible, I felt that it wasn’t exactly a shining example of what they could do with such a beloved franchise.  Telltale could do better.

Despite my skepticism, I forked over the cash for The Walking Dead on PC and gave the first episode a whirl, fingers crossed.  This kind of thing couldn’t wait for a review code.

The first thing that you’ll notice about The Walking Dead (TWD) is the visual style.  If you’ve ever played a Telltale Games title before, you’ll know that they each have a very distinctive style that sets them apart from other games.  The games more often have a lighthearted and charming animation.  Not cutting edge, gritty photorealism, but the bright colours and attention to detail here are a nice change from the muddy brown filter that seems to permeate the market.  It sounds cheesy, but it’s almost as if the comic panels are coming to life.

Telltale isn’t particularly known for making M-rated games.  It was one of the reasons why people were so skeptical about the game’s quality when it was announced.  The Walking Dead just isn’t the same without violence and gore, if you’re not going to include that, then why bother?  Correspondent Gary Whitta, a writer with the game stated in an interview with IGN that the staff felt uncomfortable writing certain elements into the game, and that because they felt uncomfortable, all the more reason to.    They pushed to make this game one of their most gruesome adventures yet – and it shows.  The kind of gore and violence TWD features isn’t anything new to horror gaming enthusiasts – or even many gamers at all – but it’s assuring to see that Telltale isn’t afraid to use it.

The game’s story begins slightly before and runs concurrent with the comics, following different characters.  While you might question the logic in that, it actually works out for the better.  For starters, the game is more accessible to people who have never read the comics or watched the television adaptation.  You don’t have to know who Rick Grimes or Shane Walsh are – it doesn’t matter.  For people who have read and watched the series, it shows events from a fresh perspective, starting at a defining point in TWD’s timeline: the outbreak.

Additionally, many of the people you will come across are still in panic mode.  They haven’t come to accept or even begun to understand what is happening.  One character you happen to meet laments to you about seeing a grown man shoot a kid right between the eyes.  Another discusses the horrifying story of almost having their child snatched away from them by monsters.  Another is just waiting for their mommy and daddy to come home and rescue her and others refuse to believe what is happening is really as bad as it seems.  Their world is coming apart at the seams, and it will be most interesting to discover how these characters learn to cope not only with these new circumstances, but with each other.

While Rick Grimes was in the relative safety of a coma in a hospital, Lee Everett and his not-so-merry band of travelers were struggling to stay just out of death’s reach.  The game begins with a ride in the back of a police cruiser where you learn about Lee, a man convicted of murdering his wife.  So far, everything seems normal and it’s in these moments that you get a feel for the controls.  The game allows for you to turn on or off visual cues, but by default they’re left on.  Getting used to the PC controls was a little bit difficult, but once I got the hang of them they became like a second nature and worked out pretty well.  For those not interested in keyboard and mouse support, the PC version has Xbox 360 controller support as well.  There’s no option to change your configuration though, which was…to say the least, a bummer.  This tutorial lasts briefly, as a zombie meanders out into the street in front of the cruiser and puts the car off the road.  Lee wakes up in a bit of a haze, not having a clue on what’s happened all around him.

Needless to say, you won’t be bashing zombie heads in all the live long day.  The game actually encourages you to avoid confrontation and does a pretty good job of reminding you that you’re not Superman, and you’re not invincible.  Combat with the undead is not designed to be easy.  Puzzles, while not overly difficult and exploration supplement a lot of the gameplay.  How well does this work out?  In one particular area, players were tasked with finding a way into a room without becoming lunch.  With zombies everywhere, it’d be easy just to say find an axe (which was RIGHT THERE ON THE WALL) and start axing, but TWD doesn’t work that way.

To ascertain which route you should take, you had to peek over a wall.  Expose yourself for too long and some nearby diners would spot you.  The game gives you some visual cues to tell you if you’ve exposed yourself for too long, and you’d have to hide again.  One of your teammates has a gun, but shooting it would only attract more zombies – and there are only so many bullets.

Use your head, or wind up dead.

In addition to the puzzles, the game encourages you to talk to people.  Lee is the de-facto leader of the group, and as that leader you need to talk to your team, ensure that they’re okay.  If they need something, let them know that you’re their man, perhaps one day they’ll return the favour?

"Uhh...hurry up dude."

Another major aspect of the game is making choices.  By default, the game will notify of you of when you’ve made a decision that will impact gameplay and you’d be surprised about how often your choices will.  Some of these decisions are pretty simple, such as telling someone your name, but others are fairly deep, requiring a lot of thought and resulting in some serious consequences for Lee down the road.  These are agonizing decisions, and it’s a testament to the powerful storytelling that Telltale has been able to deliver.

These decisions are a recurring event in the game, with four major decisions resting on your shoulders in the first episode alone.  After each decision, I found myself wanting to go back and see just how things would change if I had chosen a different option.

A New Day is only part one in the five-episode series.  If the first episode is anything to go by, the game should offer quite a bit of play time and have plenty of replay value.

There were some issues I had with the game, such as quite a few invisible walls that I kept running into when trying to explore certain areas.  There wasn’t as much freedom of movement and exploration as I would have hoped for the title as well.  I didn’t experience too many graphical issues running dual ATI 4890s, however I did experience some popping sounds with the audio, as well as some issues with the volume levels.  Overall, not huge problems, but I do hope that Telltale manages to patch them, because they do mar an otherwise excellent experience.

The Walking Dead represents a bold change for Telltale Games. It’s far different from their previous work and I’m glad it turned out as well as it did.  If this first episode is any indication of what’s to come, we’re in for an amazing ride.  With its unique visual style, powerful narrative and engaging gameplay, it was a title I enjoyed playing not only as a fan of the series, but as a fan of gaming in general.

And just like every Sunday night, I’m already waiting anxiously for the next episode.


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