Gamersledge Video Review: Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead
Reviewed on the PS3 version. Telltale games has had a hit or miss formula for reviving the ‘point and click’ adventure game of yesteryear over the last decade. But with the Walking Dead, they have found tremendous critical and commercial success. I have thought long and hard over the last week about how to do a spoiler-free review of this game, and have revised my review multiple times. Even in doing so, there are certain things that must be discussed. At it’s core, this is a ‘gameplay-lite’ experience. And I call it that; an experience, because that’s truly what it is. It is closer to a ‘choose your own adventure’ story than it is a traditional game. That’s not to say there aren’t control mechanics and interactivity, but it only exists insofar as to progress the story in one of several directions. In essence, this game is about choice. And its’ choices weigh heavily upon you; but we’ll get to that in a moment.
The gameplay is generally third person-control, although occasionally it is first-person. In either case, you have a cursor that you move around the screen, and press buttons to interact with the world. Conversations are quicktime events that have significance, as characters in the game remember what you say and how you act towards them. Sometimes it means people will not be there when you need them. Sometimes it means deciding a friend or an enemy. There is a timer running out when you have a dialogue tree, and you don’t have much time to make a decision. The game, through its gameplay, is constantly pushing you forward. Combine this with the story’s narrative, and the Walking Dead’s gameplay creates a palpable sense of apprehension for every choice you make. Plusses: Great to help progress story along; simple interface anyone can use, less ‘adventure gamey’ and more ‘QuickTime Event.’ Minuses: Slow, sometimes difficult to aim during timed events
I could write three thousand words solely on the story aspect of the Walking Dead. This, also, is the challenge of our site mission – to be spoiler-free in reviews. For those unfamiliar with The Walking Dead franchise, basically humanity goes to hell in a handbasket, the dead walk and bite the living. Anyone bitten turns into a zombie. Let’s just say it’s a dark place; humanity tends to not get on well with itself, and the zombies aren’t helping. The franchise spans comic books (it’s original format), a television show on AMC, and Telltale’s foray. What’s interesting is that this is set in the world of the comic books, not the TV show. What’s even more interesting is that it takes place BEFORE the comics; we actually get to see the world disintegrate around us. I will admit, I had a bit of nervousness when the game was announced. I cannot discuss the game without spoiling some of the plot details from the first hour or so of the game. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED and stuff! The story revolves around Lee, a strong, intelligent man who has been convicted for murder, and is on his way to prison. Things happen as he is being driven out of Atlanta, and he is freed, meets his first zombies, and begins to realize the handbasket is being crafted around him as the world goes to hell. Two things happen at this point: He meets a strong little girl named Clementine, who has stayed alive for quite some time on her own, and Lee finds help for his injuries. Lee also decides to take care of Clem, as he likes to call her, because her parents are most likely dead. This sounds very cliche when looking at it from the outside, but I will say that by the end of the five episodes, the relationship between Lee and Clementine is one of the most genuine and heart-wrenching stories I’ve ever experienced. The writing is smart, because you invest yourself in teaching this girl about the new world, how to survive in it, and what is right and wrong. It evokes the parenting instinct in both genders, and creates a true emotional bond; which is something we hope to see more in video games as time goes on. Telltale has nailed it, however, drawing from the rich world of the comics that they can draw from. The other person I need to discuss is Kenny. He’s a commercial fisherman from Florida, traveling with his wife and son. You befriend him early on, and much like some real friendships, Kenny can be uplifting AND a burden, many times in the same breath. What I truly like about the writers’ character of Kenny is that he is 100% human. He’s brilliant one moment, and a complete idiot the next. He’s selfish and yet helps others. He’s hotheaded and annoying, but also caring and sensitive. Whether you love him or hate him by the time you finish with him, there is no way that you will be able to not have formed a definitive emotional response to him. We talked about choices in the gameplay section, but it needs to be reiterated here, since every choice you make in the game actually affects the story in different ways. You can choose to make Lee into a caring, nurturing badass. Or, conversely, you can just make him an ass. People remember these things and respond to you differently based on what you do, so replayability of the story is high. I would liken it to a popular piece of music being remixed by two different DJs. All the high notes are there and will be the same, but the journey between those high notes is completely different. I would also liken the story to a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book, if you happen to be old enough to recall them. It is a story-driven game as opposed to an action-driven game. Trust me, there’s action in the story, but the pacing is smart enough to give you that lull between action elements to let you calm down and process what just happened — and what that means for your characters. This is the first story I’ve ever experienced where I openly wept about something that happened in a game. As a veteran 20+ year gamer, I would call myself desensitized to a point; but this game shattered my barriers, and truly created a connection. I can’t think of a better compliment to a story than that. Heavy Rain tried for it (and occasionally hit it), but this game succeeds more often than it stumbles. Plusses: Fantastic writing, great character development, characters you hate, characters you fall in love with. Choices that pain you. Things that will make you, no matter how manly you are, tear up at least a bit. Minuses: None, have you been reading!?
Part of what makes Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead so special are the voices behind the characters you spend time with. Lee, Clementine, Kenny, and all the others are voiced to perfection. I personally think it is a state of the industry today that you can expect to have good voice acting, as I remember a time not so long ago when voice acting was horrible. Dave Fennoy, (who I suggest you do not google or be exposed to many spoilers from the game) and surprisingly, is also the voice of Hulu, plays Lee, and is amazing. I also recommend not googling Dave because the disconnect between what he looks like and Lee — more particularly Lee’s voice, is staggering. It’s called acting, and it’s done well by all of the cast. Music occasionally highlights certain events, but the sound is exactly what you expect it should be; which can be a tremendously difficult feat in and of itself. The only issues I had with the soundtrack was that a walker got glitch-trapped under a car at one point, and growled on a loop throughout dialogue, cutscenes and everything else to the point it was like nails on a chalkboard, with no way to put him out of my misery. Plusses: Expertly performed voice acting, great sound throughout the game Minuses: Occasional glitches can create odd results. Your Mileage May Vary (YMMV).
Summary and Verdict
Look, the season pass is $20 for all five episodes. Each episode lasts roughly four hours. At full price, you’re paying $1/hr for some of the best storytelling the gaming industry has EVER seen. There is a reason that we are naming it our 2012 Game of the Year, joining 55 other outlets who have done so. It isn’t something we take lightly, but when you think about it, isn’t the goal of videogames in general to transport you to another place and time? To connect you with characters you don’t know, take you on adventures you’ll never have, and leave you breathless? Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead does that in spades. It is the Green Mile of videogames, and I don’t make that comparison to diminish its’ importance, but instead to tell you that the game isn’t made of Unicorns and Candy Mountains; it’s made of waking up to find you’ve had an ambush liver transplant. If you truly call yourself a gamer, you need to own this game.