Telltale’s The Walking Dead Review

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The surprise popularity in The Walking Dead game was something that I originally presumed to be something that everyone would forget about come the fourth of the five episode.  Not that it was bad, because that is what I remember about every Telltale game, a general decline in interest with an end product that people ended up getting a bit too excited for.  Not to put them down, I never actually played one of their previous games beyond a demo or two, with my reactions being positive.  But them bringing a game of the year?  That not only blew my mind, it made me snatch it up, and ignore my backlog just to get around to it.  And, well, I can certainly see why so many people liked it.

Telltale’s The Walking Dead Review
Release Date: Episodically from 24/04/2012 to 20/11/2012.  Retail on 11/12/2012
Platforms: Xbox 360(Reviewed), Playstation 3, Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, iOS
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games

Now, I think I should clarify some things before I go into the review.  I have no interest in the TV show, because I don’t like looking at real faces unless they want me to giggle like a monkey, or take me on a sci-fi adventure through time and space.  It’s just how I work.  And I read the comics beforehand, thanks in part to the bundle where I paid $70 for a poorly optimized disc with the game, and the first 48 issues, when they were on sale for cheaper, and probably a better condition, since mine’s spine kinda broke.  I know they’re 1,000 pages, but come on!  I should expect a solid and consistent spine with my purchases!  I also got the next 48 issues, because they were on sale.  So I’m going to compare this to the comic, since it is technically a crossover with it.

The Walking Dead: Someone Please Subtitle This, Because This is the Second Nameless Adaptation.  Is the story of Lee “Drummond” Everett.  A convicted felon and former history professor who was on his way to jail.  At least right before the world turned upside down because the dead started walking for reasons that don’t matter, so they’re never explained.  After narrowly escaping some walkers with a busted leg, he becomes the protector of a little girl named after a tiny orange-like fruit, Clementine.  And from there, he is sent into several situations where he must be the protagonist of a point and click adventure, except you can also walk, where he must make several harsh decisions about the people he meets, and determine what actions would be best for him and others.

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Which is a relatively dull description, when I admit that this is one of my favorite stories in the medium, at least out of the ones I’ve played.  Primarily because of how that last bit of making choices plays into the game.  Now, I loved the Mass Effect trilogy, using the past tense for reasons that I will always believe to be the same as to why the founders left the company.  Which is pretty much the get-go for explaining how the choices in something differ from the basic morality bar.  Well, firstly there is none in Telltale’s The Walking Dead.  Your actions only have your own weight placed behind them, and they will be referenced only by the actions of other players, long after you make most of them.

And to top it off, there is no quick way to save, so you must take full stride in your choices, and you are timed to give your answers, with only some mostly accurate responses, which break the metaphorical mold by being fully understandable what tone Lee Drummond would say them in, a good 98%, at least for me.  Which, I don’t blame the game on in any way at all.  Making every single line universally understandable is incredibly difficult, if not impossible for a game like this.  And getting only about 2% of the responses in not the tone that I intended is, all things considered, pretty damn great from a game.

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And aside from just being very stern, but fair with your ability to make choice.  Giving you a nice number of options to pick from, with the majority of them at least seeming valid.  Using the word seeming, because I’m not the kind of person to play a story heavy game, and immediately dive back in after the credits roll.  It works out as a very nice system, meaning that you do not have an infinite amount of choice, but undoubtedly enough to make some of the decisions notably difficult, seeing as how characters will call you out on being a hypocrite, and react differently based on your previous actions.  Along with my favorite thing to see in games with choices, a no right answer situation, which is the great majority of them.

To the point where the very idea of replaying this game while knowing some of the key factors that must happen.  And how, even after playing everything as safely and nice as I could, if that was the right choice, since their fates are sealed.  Even without getting into the characters of this narrative, it is all tied in such a lovely risky situation that makes me look at the ending of Mass Effect 3, and think Bioware was actually a bit too safe with it in retrospect.  And I’m one of the forty or so people who liked it a bunch.

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Going back to the comics, while I thought they were an “intense cavalcade of sorrow and relief that kept me turning to see what it’s no-holds-bar writer had the balls to do.”  But in terms of characters, I found them to lack the full amount of depth for me to care a ton about them dying, unless it was in relation to how it made other characters feel.  That, and there were just too damn many.  Here, over the course of Lee’s story, we only really get 17 or so faces that we get to know, with some of them leaving shortly after they appear.

Naturally, this helps you care about the individuals a lot more, along with the ever present option to talk to them.  And while my compassion for some did not fully develope, a lot of the mainstays provided me with more than a handful of tough decisions where I had to play negotiator, while genuinely not wanting to make people upset.  All backed up by good reasons for their actions, excellent vocal work, and facial animations that are, and I realize that I am taking a dump on all of Team Bondi’s corpse right here, the most genuine looking expressions I’ve seen in a game.  Which, if you remember my intro, you can kinda see why.  And I say that, while you can walk into invisible walls at least once every ten to thirty minutes.

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But Clementine deserves a special mention, for being the first child in fiction who I cared about enough to not expect anything from.  Now, call me an unempathetic bastard, but I use people, a lot.  I am nice to them, so they do things for me.  I play innocent, so I can make excuses.  I cry and bash my head in order to make my life easier, because people see that as something they should fix.  Yet, she manages to come the closest that anything ever did to being unconditional parental affections.  All by being a very depressed, but brave little girl who goes against stereotypes, by being considerate and understanding, while keeping her cool, even in times when she is entitled to lose it.  But I must bring up how she is Eight, but is in first grade… How does that work?  And she is closer to nine, so wouldn’t she be in third and just starting, if at all given the vague time scale?

And to wipe more of this game off of my lips.  I found the character of Lee Drummond, I will always call him that, along with anyone named Lee!  To be a strong contender for the best example of how you can just, y’know, make a character black and leave it like that aside from a few lines.  The designs and characterizations of women to be remarkable in how they avoid many of the tropes associated with that gender, by being strong and capable individuals, who dress sensibly.  Along with two of the seven or so established female characters being overweight in some capacity.  And demonstrating a sense of weakness with everyone.  Especially with the final of the five episodes, which does what I wish the comic would do, and have a very predictable, yet woefully upsetting, ending.  But I won’t say much, even though I knew how it ended in advance, and still felt goosebumps.

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But onto some of my areas of criticism.  With my biggest narrative gripe being one section where I found something that I can confidently call a plothole.  To prevent this from dragging on, in the fourth of this game’s five episodes you go back to an area that you previously were unable to escape from without the help from others, alone.  Yet, how do you get out?  Via a loading screen!  And there were even zombies around the place, but Lee Drummond just warps back and managed to open a locker that needed a combination, without putting it in if the audio is any clue.  Where he finds a recording that has someone open up a vital safe, which is apparently what they needed to figure out how to open the number based lock.  Seeing someone block the number pad and input the code.  What?  Do the numbers make different sounds as you press them?  That’s implausible, since anyone could remember the chime and open it up themselves, since the safe was shown to be opened in front of several people!

Along with things like how we’re in the same state as in the comic, just so a character from the comic can show up, since this is kind of like a prequel, but is mostly unrelated.  I mean, we know that it happened in places like Houston and Washington DC, which would’ve been kinda neat to see.  Or maybe in, I dunno, Oregon, somewhere in New England, why does it need to be in Georgia?  It just seems oddly safe for something this ambitious.

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And then there’s the time flow.  I gathered that there was a large three month gap between episodes one and two, but I am not sure how long the gap between two and three was, while the last three happen over the course of four days.  Not spoiling much, it was long enough to establish a routine job for everyone, withstand a few attacks, and to eat a lot of food.  Which isn’t an issue until you ask what time of the year it is.  Gathering what I can from the comic’s sense of time, which I think starting in August, about three to four months after the whole thing begins, there is a couple inches of snow around the outskirts of Atlanta.  But being within a 100 mile radius of Atlanta during the first half, we don’t see any snow.  And we’d be in December for sure by then.  And why would Lee Drummond lose a jacket as time goes on?  Since he only had it in episode two.  What, did he just lose it?

Still, these nitpicks are just minor hairs that I found in the story, with the rest of it being pretty damn noteworthy in its quality.  But, some complained about this being not really a game, because of how little is involved in actual gameplay.  I don’t agree, probably because I actually kinda like the gameplay here.  As stated before, this is a point and click adventure game where you actually follow very understandable puzzles, while being able to move Lee Drummond into invisible walls to stop his animations.  As well as clicking on people to get them to talk to you, and make a kid think that you’re, “Incredibly awesome”.  I kid, but I actually enjoy just wandering around the fixed camera set pieces.  It feels very welcomed as a way to cool off after some intense cutscenes where you need to plan out your decisions.

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Yet, the most common form of gameplay is making a timed choice between three responses, represented by the face buttons.  With X being a wild card in case you want the game to choose for you, which you’ll never want to use.  And then there’s the mash A then maybe another face button, events.  Which I also enjoy because they add tension and energy by using the best option for QTEs, mash A to win at combat.  Or use the right stick and A, do do some fairly decent first person shooting.  It actually does a very nice job at keeping the combat, if it were, tense, and creating the illusion of a struggle, which I’m down with, because it is a feeling that I enjoy having with zombies.

Yet, there were numerous technical issues that I had.  From a couple scenes of lag, the game not cutting back to a character, some audio clips getting cut, long loading screens that feel out of place, if not for how the lighting stylistically changes at points.  And, well, the pointer you have can feel pretty wonky, and the few FPS sections in the game feel like you’re using an actual gun, but it is made of rubber, rather than the more appropriate brick.  It is not bad, and kind of enjoyable if you don’t mess up.  But I only say that because these sections don’t even last two minutes, and I only remember about five of them existing.

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And because I want to keep this review at five pages, god help me, I adore the game’s visual style that does not follow the comic’s as much as it does follow something like Borderlands.  Although owing a lot of its very unexpected polish due to the limited number of models used in the game, resulting in all of them looking distinct and memorable.  Except for the zombies, who follow the basic visual trend, of looking like more cartoony characters from the comic, which I found welcoming.  Not to call foul on the artist of the comic, but they often look a bit too realistic for my comic preference.  Well, realistic isn’t the right word, scrunchy face is a better one.  But I naturally imagine everything being hand drawn more than I have it be be “real”.  So you’d be right ot call me a selfish bias cow who is a counter-revolutionary think wronger.

While the score can be encompassed by one single track that reminds me of the apartment theme of Phantasmagoria 2, mixed with that sad “kid was vaporized” Mass Effect 3 track.  Something that is far from an insult, because that track along encompasses the dread and misery of needing to be the guy to select the four out of ten people who would get to eat today.  Or maybe I was just listening to the stellar acting from the main characters.  With Lee Drummond sounding like we is about to sing a lullaby whenever I chose the sympathetic response.  And Clementine sounding adorably sad, well, always.

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One could say a lot about Telltale’s The Walking Dead.  I certainly have.  While it is not the most polished game in several areas, the core of it manages to be nothing short from one of the most engrossing narratives that I have ever played, owing a lot due to the lack of right answers available, and the constant reminders of needing to maintain a group.  With the worst part being how I found one narrative hiccup in something that was probably fully made, lovely shaders, wonderful preplanning, and all, within 18 months, tops.  Sure, some of the gameplay segments might feel a bit forced, and you can stop Lee Drummond mid walk to break the immersion.  But if you let it engross you, it is a depressing as all hell story, but one that make me less than contempt with the storytelling in games, when a licensed game can deliver a tale stronger than that of its license.  Gaming is a medium that would work wonders with stories like this, and while I might be rose tinted now, now it represents something that is seldom seen, but thankfully valued.  It is certainly worthy of all the GOTY awards, if only for that.

Excellent! (19/20)
An exceptional product that suffers from very few issues, to the point where they are barely worth noting for this superb title.  Definitely worth both your time and money.

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