Zombies are the new World War II. You can’t swing an undead cat without hitting a developer working on a new zombie game. Telltale has defied the formula with their treatment of The Walking Dead.
Telltale’s game isn’t a first person shooter, it’s an adventure game. It is a game focused first and foremost on story, with a dash of light puzzles and a little bit of action. It is that rarest of breeds: a licensed game that doesn’t suck.
It’s based on the comic book, not the TV show, and manages to be superior to both. The plot runs parallel to the comics, with cameos from characters like Glenn and Herschel. Like all of Telltale’s games, The Walking Dead is episodic, the fourth episode of five just released on Steam, PSN and XBLA. The iOS release of episode four is due out soon. An episode takes about two hours to play through the first time.
The story puts Lee, the main character, at the start of the Outbreak on the way to prison in Georgia. From the very first episode, the game introduces a key element. Your decisions matter. Characters remember what you say and do from episode to episode. If you anger a character in episode one, they’ll still be cheesed in the next episode. If you fail to save someone, they’re dead for the rest of the series. The game does have a rewind feature that allows you try different options, but rewinds overwrite your save. This gives the game some replay value, traditionally a weak spot in adventure games. As you play, you’ll be solving light-weight puzzles, which typically revolve around having the right object or performing an operation in the proper sequence. This isn’t Maniac Mansion; even gamers unfamiliar with the adventure genre should be able to work the puzzles in just a few minutes. The action elements will pit you against the living and the dead. It isn’t Left 4 Dead either; melee takes place via a combination of quick time events and your mouse. Gun combat is exclusively mouse based, which is unfortunate.
A word about the mouse in The Walking Dead. Its horrible. I tested the game under OS 10.8 and Windows 7 on two different machines with four different mice, and the mouse always played like I’d dipped it in maple syrup. Adjusting mouse sensitivity makes no difference. This has caused at least a half dozen deaths over four episodes. The action scenes are exacting; you often need to hit a point the size of a quarter on the opposite side of the screen in seconds. It is very frustrating, but death starts you a few seconds back where you can try it again. You’ll do it, too, because the story really is that good.
The characters are human. No übermensch carrying a division’s worth of artillery – every character is someone you could meet on campus tomorrow. They aren’t immune, and anybody could die at any moment. Only the characters from the comic have plot armor. The story is engaging and shocking. Throughout the first four episodes, the most common phrase among my friends on the plot was “I never saw that coming.” The blend of puzzles, action and character drama feels right.
The only improvement Telltale could make in the storyline for a second season would be to remove the canon characters. The story doesn’t need them, and the only predictable element in it would be removed. They’re just fan service. Telltale has not announced a second season yet, and there are signs this game has been a difficult one to develop. It was originally slated for a monthly release schedule, but every episode has run late. Lets hope that won’t stop them, because The Walking Dead is my top candidate for Game of the Year 2012.
This is an absolute must buy if you’re a fan of the adventure genre, appreciate a good story, or are into the comic. It’s also great for gamers who don’t have time for a 40 plus hour epic, and have to take their gaming in small doses. Wait for the inevitable Steam sale if you’re a little worn out by the deluge of zombie apocalypses.