It’s no secret that “The Walking Dead” bucked the norm by offering up a television series based on Robert Kirkman’s award-winning comic that was actually, well… really, really good. So how does one follow up on that kind of unexpected success? By taking the comic’s post-apocalyptic, zombie saga to the gaming world, apparently.
The first episode of “The Walking Dead” game was released this weekend on various platforms, and the project’s arrival is worth noting for a variety of reasons – not the least of which is the fact that it’s a very good game. However, at a time when a new zombie-killing game seems to hit shelves every month, the most impressive element of “The Walking Dead” might not be how good it is, but rather the way it manages to be completely different from every other living-dead game out there.
Developed by Telltale Games, “The Walking Dead” is the latest in a line of successful, episodic games created by the company that feature a style of gameplay more akin to choose-your-own-adventure stories than traditional console games. In the game, you take on the role of Lee Everett, a convicted criminal on his way to prison when the police car transporting him overturns on the highway. Freed from his shackles and on the run from flesh-hungry “walkers” (as they’re called in “The Walking Dead” universe), he eventually crosses paths with a young girl named Clementine. He agrees to help the girl find her family, and the pair fall in with a group of survivors trying to find safe haven in a world filled with shambling monsters.
As with their previous licensed titles like “Back to the Future” and “Jurassic Park,” the game progresses in a fairly linear narrative that periodically requires the player to make choices that will determine how events unfold in subsequent chapters of the story. These choices frequently take the form of conversations the player-controlled character has with other survivors, or timing-based actions (i.e., quickly hit the “A” button to kick the zombie away!) and occasional detective work (looking for clues around the screen).
In fact, when it comes down to it, there’s very little zombie-killing that goes on in the first episode of “The Walking Dead” game – and it’s a trait the game shares with both the original comic book and its television counterpart. Like all of the various iterations of “The Walking Dead,” the focus is on character development and the emotions that develop when people are caught up in such a massive, grim, and catastrophic event.
That’s not to say the game doesn’t offer a few impressively gruesome skirmishes, though. In addition to the sequences that have you lopping off, stabbing, or otherwise destroying zombies’ heads, there are more than a few brawls with other survivors that can either be provoked or avoided entirely with the right exchange of dialogue (or a well-timed punch). Despite the linear nature of the story, there’s a feeling that anything can happen among the survivors, and you’d do well to keep tabs on all of your companions.
For fans of the comic book and television series, there are also quite a few cameos by popular characters and set pieces, including Hershel (and his farm) and Glenn. It’s made clear that the events in the game occur well before Rick Grimes encounters the characters in the comic and TV show, so there’s a nice bit of back story that the game adds to the world of “The Walking Dead.”
In many ways, the episodic style of Telltale’s game seems like a natural fit for the universe of “The Walking Dead,” as all of the projects based on the series feature long periods of slow, emotional character development punctuated by sudden bursts of violence and gory action. When you’re forced to deal with a zombie (or the occasional human enemy) in the game, you have precious little time to ponder the appropriate response. What’s more, it’s made clear early on that your fate – and the fate of Clementine – will depend just as much on your decisions during these hectic moments as the choices you make when things are calm.
If there’s any negative to be found in the first installment of “The Walking Dead,” it’s that the episode reaches its conclusion far too soon. It took less than two hours to play through the first episode, and that was with one or two “deaths” along the way. Still, at $5 an episode (or 400 Microsoft Points), there’s an argument to be made that the game offers a more fulfilling experience than a $4 comic book with 24 pages of story.
For fans of “The Walking Dead,” the game certainly makes a case for being must-have material, as there’s a genuine feeling that what you do in the game plays a role in shaping the canon of the series – or at the very least, your perception of the series’ canon. More than anything else, however, the game provides an exceptionally good way to wait out the time between issues of the comic and seasons of “The Walking Dead” TV series — and hey, you can always replay the first episode of the game and rethink your decisions while waiting for the next episode to be released.
”The Walking Dead” is available for PC and Mac computers via the Telltale Game Store, and for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 via Xbox Live and the Playstation Network, respectively.