It’s hardly a surprise these days to see a comic book property be turned into a successful film adaptation, after years of blockbuster hits based on both Marvel and DC’s most recognisable superheroes. But when was the last time a comic book property was adapted into a successful TV series? AMC’s televised version of The Walking Dead, based on Robert Kirkman’s black-and-white comic series, became a huge sensation almost overnight following its première.
In hindsight, its impending success was hardly in doubt… the mere concept of a weekly series centred around the zombie apocalypse is enough to win over fans of games and graphic novels alike, but the high production values, superbly acted character drama, and unrestrained violence elevated the series as one of the highest-rated TV shows for two years running. It’s only natural that a video game deal would emerge, though few suspected that Telltale Games would be the ones to take the story to the digital level.
After all, most gamers tend to associate zombie-centric games with survival horror classics like Resident Evil or modern first-person shooters like Left 4 Dead. Yet anyone who has watched the TV series or read the comics know full-well that the shambling undead in The Walking Dead are only secondary to the characters’ plights and problems, making an interactive adventure game the perfect genre for the series.
The game follows Lee Everett, an original character made for the game who witnesses first-hand the downfall of society as the zombie infestation quickly spreads around Atlanta. Originally heading into police custody for an undisclosed crime, the police car carrying Lee soon loses control and crashes (between this and Silent Hill: Downpour, it seems drivers in law enforcement have a nasty habit of not keeping their eyes on the road), leaving the battered and bruised protagonist surrounded by Walkers (the “Z word” is never used in the series).
In the first of the five-episode series, Lee narrowly escapes the undead horde and finds himself taking care of a young girl named Clementine. From there, the two come across several other survivors, including a couple of familiar faces for fans of the series, as well as a certain farm setting that has gained some notoriety among fans (rest assured that the entire episode does not take place in said farm). The decisions made by players will not only result in different outcomes, but also the very fate of many of these surviving strangers.
When Telltale Games adapted Back to the Future, they focussed puzzle solutions on trial-and-error. With Jurassic Park, the emphasis was cinematic action through Quick Time Events. Both of these concepts had their merits as well as flaws, but with The Walking Dead, the developers were able to create a marriage of the two mechanics without any of the flaws.
Players control Lee with either keyboard/mouse or gamepad support, but both control schemes follow the same blueprint; Lee’s movement is controlled independently, while examining and interacting with objects and people is done with an on-screen reticule. The reticule itself is split into four mini boxes which correspond to a specific command (using an item, interacting with people, looking at things, etc). Fundamentally it’s no different from Telltale’s previous games, but the simplified interface makes managing these different commands so much easier than ever before.
Though the game does feature a combination of both puzzle-solving and cinematic sequences, there is far less of the former and an overall emphasis on the latter. While this may be initially disappointing for old-school gamers who like to fill their inventory with keys, notes, rubber chickens and bits of string, the game’s setting and atmosphere work much better without requiring players to cycle through every interactive piece over and over to find the right solution.
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Instead, the biggest emphasis is Lee’s relationship with the other characters. Similar to Mass Effect and Alpha Protocol, the game features a relationship meter which can result in either a closer bond or feelings of mistrust with other survivors. Instead of a point-based system, the game instead takes note of your responses, which determine how the characters will follow-up on your words and actions later on. For example, as an ex-fugitive, Lee can choose to lie about what he was doing before the zombie outbreak, even claiming a false relationship with stray child Clementine (father, babysitter, etc). Whether or not a character will believe these claims is up to the individual, but fail to stick to your story and they may start to doubt your actions later on.
As with any game, getting on the good side of these AI characters is beneficial in the long run, but being a zombie setting, it’s impossible to win every individual over. Likewise, it’s also impossible to save everyone once the Walkers catch folks unaware, resulting in a few moments where you must make a crucial decision on which character to save. These scenarios are bound to stump even the most stone-hearted players, as there is no morally correct choice, yet there is always a consequence to the action you take.
True to the source material, the game captures its bleak and depressing setting beautifully. For the visuals, Telltale has chosen to follow the original comic’s art style (sadly, a black and white graphics option does not exist) using a cel-shaded technique similar to that used in Borderlands and The Darkness II. The writing is top-notch as well, with Lee’s back-story remaining a mystery that is gradually revealed bit-by-bit to the player, usually through silent actions (an extended look at a family portrait, or a shocked expression when seeing a familiar face) or by the well written and well acted voice work.
Overall, while the first episode can be completed in under two hours, it’s a solidly paced beginning that officially sets the hype up for the remaining four episodes. It will be especially interesting to see if the crucial choices and relationships carry over, and what kind of impact they will make in the long run. The multiple outcomes also justify a second or third play-through, and seeing your choices tallied against the overall online average at the end of the episode is also a neat way to gauge how your line of thinking compares with everyone else’s.