I was all set to start this review out by complaining about how damned tiresome the zombie genre has gotten, but I think that should probably go without saying at this point. We all know that the zombie genre has pretty much saturated the market for games (and movies and books), and it’s only a matter of time before we get a Twilight-esque romance between human and zombie (assuming we haven’t already — please tell me we haven’t already). So of course, one of the franchises that I blame for this over saturation got its own video game.
And, of course, it is a run-and-gun shooter that felt like a poor man’s Left 4 Dead… except, I guess. it isn’t at all. It is an adventure game from the folks over at Telltale, and it promises the sort of branching storyline possibilities that we’ve all come to love and cherish since Bioware started doing it way back when. Also it involves stabbing zombies in the head with an icepick.
The jaded part of me remains utterly unimpressed, but the part of me that played through the Mass Effect series ans is fascinated by the small ways in which my decisions would shape the fate of the galaxy was intrigued enough to go into the game with something like an open mind. The appearance of a black protagonist was intriguing, and while (of course) your black protagonist is a convicted murderer, it was a crime of passion that led to his incarceration. He just lost his temper (at least that’s what I think happened — since I made the decision to play my own past close to the vest, as a result, I am rather hazy on the details, which is a nice touch). Player-you doesn’t know what player-character-you did, nor does player-you know whether or not player-character-you is telling the truth whenever you do decide to let someone in on your secret (or whenever someone figures out your past and tells you what you did)). So the protagonist is unique, at least.
The beginning of the game is a little hard to believe — the zombie outbreak seems to come out of nowhere, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense — even the Walking Dead comics had the good sense to wake their character up after everything had gone to hell, so to be driving down the highway and be completely ignorant of what is going on is confusing at best. Obviously the prisoner might not know, but come on, you’re telling me the police aren’t aware of an outbreak? Also you’re expecting me to believe that Atlanta going under is something everyone else missed happening? Why the hell would you be transferring prisoners and routing them through Atlanta in the first place if there was a huge viral outbreak going on? There could have been a better way to start things off is all I’m saying.
Once the game gets underway, you find your raison d’etre quickly enough in a small girl hiding out in a treehouse from her (now undead) babysitter. The rest of the game is focused on getting out of Atlanta and trying to find somewhere safe to hide while you wait for the Army to sort things out (the Army will not sort things out, of course, because this is a zombie apocalypse and the Army never manages to sort out a zombie apocalypse unless we’re talking about Shaun of the Dead). Along the way you will find out a little more about your protagonist and meet up with a couple of familiar faces from the comics and television show, which include the brutally annoying Herschel’s Farm (which is probably only brutally annoying if you tried to slog through season two of AMC’s television adaptation). Along the way there are some puzzles to solve, but mostly there are conversations to have, and this is where the game really shines.
The conversation system gives you up to four responses ranging from the absolutely stoic (the game helpfully informs you at the beginning that “silence is an option,” which sometimes works very well when you’re looking to make people uncomfortable) to the downright garrulous (which either makes people trust you a lot more or, you know, causes them to trust you less because you are a convicted killer). The puzzles are not especially difficult to figure out — if you haven’t been able to solve a problem it is most likely because you haven’t picked up the proper item yet. If you wait too long, however, the game will decide to just skip over to the next thing, which caused me no small amount of confusion when suddenly I was mounting a rescue mission to an abandoned hotel with absolutely no clue as to when a rescue mission became necessary. There was an entire conversation (or several) missing from my first playthrough, and while I appreciate the game pointing me to the next step, I’m not so sure that I appreciate it doing it at the cost of knowing what the hell is going on.
Telltale has made a point of emphasizing that your decisions in episode one will have an effect on the events of subsequent episodes, with the most obvious change being who is still alive in the next episode (I went for the person who had proved to be more capable but was disappointed to see that one of the conversation options given didn’t allow me to say so). There’s a clever bit at the end of the game where it shows a sort of “next time on The Walking Dead” preview and all of the little decisions that you made come up — even a couple of decisions I didn’t expect to. The preview was enough to make me curious about the next episode, but at the same time, I can’t help but wonder whether or not the preview showed the sum total of what my decisions caused.
On the 360, the controls are pretty easy to handle. Although I would kill to be allowed to reverse the Y axis because that’s what I’m used to and I died at least once because I kept pushing the right stick in the wrong direction. The game runs smoothly, though. It bloody well ought to on this kind of hardware, of course, because the graphical style looks more or less dead on with the aesthetics of Ultimate Spider-Man, which was a whole generation of consoles ago. Telltale has gotten an enormous amount of use out of their graphical engine since its debut sometime back in 2002, and the heavily cel-shaded look does synch up nicely enough with the graphical style of the comics, but at the same time, it undermines some of the more serious moments and a small part of me wishes that things looked a little smoother.
The real question is whether or not the game is worth playing, and the answer to that I think boils down to just how sick of zombies you are. The game is solid enough, and the conversation system is interesting enough. However, we’ve all seen zombies cause the downfall of civilization an awful lot. I’d be interested in seeing Telltale work in another genre using this conversation system, but for now, there are worse fates than trying to get that annoying kid eaten by zombies, so I don’t have to listen to him talk about whatever the hell it is that he’s talking about (he’s like Carl, except somehow more annoying, which I legitimately didn’t think was possible, because Carl may be the worst character in television right now).