Its rare that a television series or movie is the basis for a popular game. There are great examples out there though. Goldeneye. Riddick. Duck Tales. These are the exceptions. In truth though, often the actual gameplay of these games has little to do with the action they seek to portray. Its easy to creatively interpret a movie or series as a generic FPS or platform game. The Walking Dead does something amazing though. It takes the emotional and narrative core of the television series and creates a whole new type of game for it. It doesn’t squeeze it into a pre-existing genre. Instead, it creates a whole new genre, taking what pieces of gameplay it needs from other types of games to create something new. Crucially, it doesn’t compromise the type of action that’s in the source material to make it more “game-like”. This isn’t a title about red exploding barrels or combos or end of level bosses. This is a game about human nature, well written characters, difficult moral choices and genuinely horrifying moments of brutal violence. It is absorbing, original and (even to this jaded old cynic) genuinely frightening. The Walking Dead game may be the first example of a narrative adventure that is more exciting than its source material because it is interactive, rather than being good in spite of its nature as a game.
I mentioned the television series a number of times here, but in truth its the comic book that influences Telltale’s game the most. From the opening scenes its clear that the comics line-drawn style has influenced every aspect of the design, from the font of the title to the appearance of the characters and the world that you will explore. If you’re not familiar with the comic, the game looks most like Borderlands, but there’s a brilliant hazy shimmer throughout that makes everything look less cartoonish and more dusty and convincing. Another obvious point of reference is Telltales recent Back to the Future games, but there’s a gritty everyday realism to the cast, and the artists have obviously enjoyed crafting new characters rather than adapting them from existing sources.
These new characters are not the cast you will know from the televisions series or comic book either. Telltale has created a whole new ensemble for the series of games. The amazing thing is that despite none of these characters arising from the mind of Robert Kirkman, they all feel completely appropriate for the world that he has created. They feel familiar without being derivative, and players will quickly pick their favourites from the relatively large cast.
This favouritism will be directly tested in the choices the player will have to make. If Telltale have got one thing right, its the difficult decisions that they have forced on the player that arise from the cast of normal people being put in horrible situations. While all the predictable tropes of zombie movies appear (like having to choose whether to let a loved one live or die), there are also a number of unique and problematic situations the players will have to think carefully about to overcome. There are rarely situations where you feel like you have made the “right” choice; almost all decisions involve a degree of compromise and often tragedy. As with the best zombie fiction, the humans themselves quickly become the monsters. One particular, spectacularly nasty character will make you think deeply about the lengths that you are willing to go to help him.
The gameplay is well judged and strikes a balance between quiet scene setting dialogue, heated arguments and debates and sudden, brutal violence that necessitates quick and decisive action from the player. You move around the environment using the WASD keys in third person, looking at your character from fixed camera angles most reminiscent of Silent Hill. Meanwhile, you move your mouse cursor around the environment to select items of interest or people with whom you can interact. This Frankensein control system works (for the most part) brilliantly. In a world of dynamic cameras that frame the action so that the player can see as much as possible of there surroundings, there’s something that feels both retro and absorbing about the fixed angles used here. Early on in the game the camera angles are the most important element in setting the scene and heightening the tension. At one point, while moving away from a zombie with your leg smashed badly, the camera actually faces your avatar as he desperately scrambles away from the crawling cadaver. This is an amazing moment. You can see the absolute fear and horror in his eyes but you can’t see the enemy that is causing this fear. I jammed on the S key to move backward as hard as I could, aware on some level that I was witnessing the most genuinely frightening moment I had seen in a game in years.
To some extent this is a point and click game, but it seldom feels that way. At moments where your character is not able to move (like when in the back seat of a car) it is more like Heavy Rain with a number of options open to the player like looking in a glove box, smashing a window or talking to the other passangers. Indeed, dialogue is tackled well throughout. There are few times when you speak to the other characters face to face without moving. Rather, you choose what you want to say while building defences to a house, moving objects out of the way of exit routes or while riding in a car as ambulances, police and army speed past. This clever framing of the dialogue makes these conversations seem less like interruptions to the game and more like essential components of the gameplay. If you play with the default settings that include a HUD, there will also be prompts on screen when a character begins to trust you or thinks you’re lying and as a result there is a real benefit to following these conversations closely to make sure you are not caught out. At the start of the game you are in a police car about to be sent down for a long time, so suffice it to say your shady past is often best held back from your companions.
In crisis situations you may find yourself timed in how long you have to respond to questions. Brilliantly, you can often choose to say nothing and often this is the best solution as it leaves the others to draw their own conclusion based on their observations. Saying the wrong thing is much worse than saying nothing at all. In other words, better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool…
I played The Walking Dead by myself, lights dimmed and steaming coffee close at hand. Within moments, I was calling my friend (Thuper Nats from the site) to come over. I wanted someone else to see all of this with me. I wanted the kind of communal experience you get from a trip to see a horror movie at the cinema. When we played – her controlling and me shouting advice as a backseat gamer – it was one of the most enjoyable nights gaming I’ve had in recent memory.
Although the game gets my highest recommendation, there are a few minor caveats. As I said above, it was an unforgetable evening of horror, but it was also very much only one night. The Walking Dead game is episodic, and while this perfectly suits the pacing and character development, you will desperately want more. We clocked in at 3 and a half hours, but I think that would be much shorter if we rushed more. That being said, the game is priced very competitively, and within moments of playing this game I knew I would have to play the whole series.
The only other minor criticism I have is in the hit-and-miss lip syncing and facial animations. The stylised cartoon visuals work well in broad strokes, but the emotional spectrum that the characters go through begs for facial animation on the level of LA Noire. In this case, the high quality of the voice acting actually makes the poorer facial animations more obvious.
I am an avowed fan of games like Heavy Rain, Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy)and LA Noire, so to find the Walking Dead not only shares many characteristics with those games, but in many ways both streamlines then and improves upon them, won me over very quickly. Once I was “IN” the game, the shocks, twists and turns and atmosphere (as well as my love of zombie horror) had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish.
There’s a point early in the game where you will beat a zombie to (un)death in one of the most brutal and affecting moments I have ever seen. Not just in games. Anywhere. It was at this point that I knew Walking Dead was not fucking around. The moment when it finally gave me a cross-hair and an enemy to hit, I was as nervous as I would be in real life if faced with a gore-soaked living corpse.
The choices that will carry on to future games, the atmosphere, the engaging characters; all of that faded away as I realised one terrifying, exhilarating fact: this game series is going to make me laugh, cry and scream as much as the comic book. This is not just the best adaptation of a TV series ever made, its actually better than its television counterpart. I can’t wait to play the next one
9 Shoot them in the heads! out of 10