Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
System requirements: Windows XP SP3/Vista/Win 7/Mac OS 10.6 (Snow Leopard), 2.0 GHz Pentium IV or better CPU, 3 GB RAM (4 GB for Mac), 512 MB graphics card, DirectX 9.0c-compatible sound device, DirectX 9.0c, 2 GB hard-drive space
ESRB rating: Mature
Release date: Available now
Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead graphic-novel series has become a cottage industry since its original publication in 2003. The television series based on the comics has become one of the AMC cable network’s most popular shows, several board games have been released, action figures by Todd McFarlane are available. You can even get drinking glasses and beer steins emblazoned with Walking Dead graphics. And now, adventure-game publisher Telltale has added to zombie lore with the first of five video-game episodes, giving you the chance to guide a troubled hero through the opening days of the zombie apocalypse.
You play as Lee Everett, a history professor at a college in Georgia. Things aren’t going well for Lee, even before the dead begin to rise and feast on the living. We first see Lee in the back of a police car on the way to prison (we don’t yet know what he did to deserve a trip to the big house). An auto accident leaves Lee with an injured leg and on the run from a group of zombies. He takes refuge in a suburban house, where he meets Clementine, an 8-year-old girl who’s been hiding in her treehouse waiting for her parents to return from a trip to Savannah. After she helps him survive an attack by her zombified babysitter, Lee agrees to keep Clementine safe until she can be reunited with her family.
Telltale has added a bit of creativity to their standard control scheme for the Walking Dead. The interface is the usual point-and-click that you would find in most adventure games, but selecting an NPC or a usable item sometimes reveals a context menu (controlled by the mouse wheel) that gives you immediate options for what you can do (examine or talk, for example). Your inventory is totally controlled by these context menus, so you don’t have to leave the screen to select an item. Also, conversation threads now can have time limits attached, forcing you to go with your first instinct instead of spending time pondering the choices. But the biggest addition to the usual Telltale formula is that decisions you make can have an effect on how the story plays out all the way through the five episodes of the series. This offers almost unlimited replayability, something that almost all previous adventure games lack. You can play Lee as a misunderstood hero, then go back and start again as a cold-hearted criminal, with the story adjusting itself based on your choices. There are even several spots where you have to choose which of two NPC characters lives or dies.
Just as in the comics and the TV series, the Walking Dead game story is more about the living than the dead. You meet and join a group of survivors, each with their own personal agendas, and the writing lets you get to know all of them, which makes it that much harder to decide which of them becomes dinner for the brain-eaters. Cell-shaded graphics give the game an excellent comic-book feel, and the music score is perfectly understated, blending nicely with the action. And there’s a surprising amount of real action here; failing to complete a series of mouse-button presses can quickly turn you into zombie food. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Telltale game without puzzles. They’re few and far between in Episode 1, and they’re all fairly simple affairs; expect them to ramp up in number and difficulty as the series progresses.
Hardcore gamers who aren’t fans of the source material could find The Walking Dead tedious, since most of the game is spent introducing you to the characters and their stories. It’s also perhaps the shortest adventure Telltale has ever released, running no more than a couple of hours; some MMO clients take longer to download than that. Meanwhile, those who love the comics and the show might be disappointed to discover that only one of the series’ core characters appears in the game, although we do visit an iconic location from Season 2 of the TV series. But we become quickly and easily invested in the lives of the characters in the game; I didn’t find myself wondering what those other survivors were doing, since I was too busy trying to keep myself and my new friends alive (and my personal secrets to myself).
Ever since halfway through their Monkey Island series, Telltale has been on a bit of a losing streak, with Law and Order: Legacies and Jurassic Park generating less-than-stellar reviews and receipts. But ironic as it might seem, it’s possible that a series about the bloodthirsty undead might actually breathe some life back into the company’s fortunes. The Walking Dead combines an involving narrative style, a lead character who’s as likable as you want him to be, and a significant revamping of the typical Telltale adventure mechanic to create an entertaining first episode to what could be the developer’s best series.