When you think of zombies, the first thing you do is figure out how to kill them before they kill you. When you think about the Walking Dead, you know that the most dangerous thing you're dealing with in your day-to-day life isn't necessarily zombies. The Walking Dead video game, like the comic and the tv series before it, is far from your average zombie horror flick. If you're expecting a hack-n-slash-a-thon, you will be gravely disappointed. Sure, it's got some good gory guts-a-flowin', but that's just the icing on the cake. And the cake is the story of the survivors surviving despite themselves. If you're a Walking Dead fan and you're looking for a game that throws you into the world of the Walking Dead comic and is in complete alignment with the tone and rhythm of the source material, then you're in for a ride.
But as I said, don’t go looking for a Left 4 Dead free-for-all melee battle with a horde of zombies. This game is very much an RPG (role playing game) that leads you through the experiences of Lee Everett, who you control, making all of the big choices on his behalf. When the zombies do attack en masse, you are often stuck with the decision of who lives and who dies. And it’s never an easy, clear cut decision. The game puts you on a timer and doesn’t let you off the hook. If you don’t make a decision fast enough, you all die (one would guess, but I don’t know because I always made a choice). Do you save the little kid or the man who saved your life? It’s decisions like those that can shoot the story off into broadly arcing directions and will determine your fate, much like one of those old Choose Your Own Adventure books. Only in this case, a slow decision gets you eaten by the ravenous undead. Technically, regardless of whichever decision you make, you’ll survive. There are no real dead ends, except when you don’t react fast enough. I learned that the hard way during the first zombie I encountered. He attacked, I hesitated (actually, I wasn’t sure of the controls as there isn’t really a tutorial I was aware of… you kind of learn as you go), and I got bit, bled out, and died. Much of the non-attack moments are filled with cinematics that move the story along, searching for supplies, and chatting with your fellow survivors. This game leans a lot more toward story than action, but when it hits, you’re often left scrambling for safety as things go to hell rather quickly, especially when you least expect it (you should always be expecting it, by the way). Those moments spent sneaking around, dodging zombies when you’re pretty much defenseless are some of the more thrilling parts of the game.
For Walking Dead comic fans, you’ll get to see and interact with a few familiar faces from the books and you’ll discover what they were doing in the weeks following the catastrophe and just before they would meet Rick Grimes. I love the comic series, so it was fun more deeply exploring a world with which I was already familiar. However, since I knew their stories were going to go on, I didn’t fear for their safety as much when things were their most dire (kind of like watching Star Wars Episode 1 and not worrying about whether Obi-Wan or Anakin would make it to the end of the movie alive).
I think my only complaints about the game stem from the times when it became all too apparent that no matter who I had chosen to save in the previous scene, the same dialogue would have been spouted at me. Some of the characters are a little cliche, but I completely understand the need for conflict. Someone has to hate your guts or at least not trust your judgement. If everyone got a long, it would simply be another zombie hack-n-slash battle game (which I LOVE, by the way – Left 4 Dead 4 Evah!). And while I appreciated the richness and depth of the world, there were some items that were available to view that didn’t seem to serve any purpose whatsoever, even for aesthetic purposes. No, not everything has to be a “big clue”, but it would have been good if the news clips on the wall or the greeting card rack in the drug store would have been more detailed, rather than just being a trigger for Lee to mumble something to himself.
The controls for the PC worked perfectly fine for me, but as I said, no instructions for how to control your movements in the heat of the moment were available until you were neck deep in biter drool. Markers, if you choose to use them (I did), appear at specific moments that tell you where to point your mouse and click (SQUISH goes the zombie’s brains!). In all, I never ran into an issue with movement or interaction. How this gameplay translates to a console controller, I have no idea. That’s why I’m primarily a PC gamer. I like the precision it allows me.
The sound, music, and voices all worked for me, setting the tone for the story. And, yes, the SQUISH you get when you bash a zombie’s brains in with a hammer sound wonderfully grotesque. And god knows I got to hear it enough, because one or two hits just won’t do when it comes to putting down these walkers. The voice acting is superb, even if much of the dialogue in the beginning comes off as flat exposition as you try to get your bearings in these new surroundings among these new people who keep asking too many questions about your mysterious past and the little girl at your side, who, it quickly becomes apparent to them, is not yours.
The graphics are grim and moody, even in the daylight, with heavily drawn lines around some characters and objects, to give it a very faithful connection to the comics the game is based on. The characters aren’t “real life”, but they aren’t cartoony either. It felt like I was playing the comic and, to me, that’s alright.
The story isn’t all that elaborate or innovative, but where can you actually go in a zombie apocalypse without making it into non-stop horror or exhaustingly campy. Thankfully, it doesn’t get close to either of those extremes. How fast the story unfolds depends on how quickly you can make it through the series of questions you’ll need to ask and answer throughout your journey to save yourself and the little girl that has trusted you to take care of her until you find her parents (what are the odds THAT will happen?). What becomes glaringly obvious soon after you’ve met up with a ragtag group of survivors is that the game isn’t just about making hard decisions or playing the role of the main character… it’s a puzzle game. It all comes down to the order in which you execute each of your tasks to achieve the singular result. In those situations, it becomes very clear that there is only one path to success, which allows you to know how it will end even if all of the pieces aren’t readily available to put into place to make it happen. Considering the type of game it is and its episodic nature, I’m not sure if I should be satisfied or frustrated that it took me less than 2 hours to make it through the first chapter. Yes, I’m sure many people got through it much faster, but I like to dig, explore, and touch everything I can. And although I don’t regret my who lives/who dies decisions, part of me wanted to go back and see what would have happened had I chose someone else or clicked on a door available to me that wasn’t any longer. What if we had ventured off at night rather than during the day? It’s these questions that make me think that there’s a lot of replay value in this game, even though I’m sure I’ll zip through a number of scenes that I know how they’ll play out. Of course, I’m also considering playing again and being a complete dick to everyone I talk to, just to see what happens.
In all, the first chapter of the Walking Dead game is a fun, sometimes harrowing experience. It’s got plenty of suspense and human drama. If you’d rather be flipping through a selection of melee and range weapons as you cut your way through the bloodthirsty masses searching for healthpaks, then this game isn’t for you. It’s all about balancing out the right and wrong or the big patch of gray area smack dab in between them every time you’re forced to make a decision that you know will end at least one person’s life. I do hope that now that the main character origin has run its course, the story will be able to go in more visceral directions, balancing selflessness versus a drive to survive against those who are struggling with the same issues. I’ve imagined what kind of game this would turn into if it could somehow go the multiplayer route, but I imagine it would devolve into madness pretty quickly.
If you’re a fan of the comics and how the living, breathing characters are truly the most dangerous creatures in the book, and you’ve always wondered what you’d do in Rick’s shoes (or someone in a situation much like his), here’s your chance to find out. Don’t expect hugs or stars or gold coins or 1-ups whenever you make a “right” decision, because there is no such thing as a “right” decision. But in the real world with the undead walking the Earth, having ANY choice to make about your fate in this new world is the best you can hope for.
The Walking Dead is rated ‘M’ (Mature) for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence and Strong Language by the ESRB.