I’m not a huge fan of the zombie subgenre. Blame it on too much Resident Evil when I was a kid, but I’ve grown bored of them, and the constant resurgence in pop culture is annoying. The latest Zombie spree was brought about by Robert Kirkman’s ‘The Walking Dead’ a decent comic series that focused not on the zombies, but on the character’s attempts to survive. I’ve read the first volume, and I liked what I read (still need to read the rest of the series). Then there was the TV show, which had a decent first series (save the finale) and an abysmal second series that was so bad that it killed any interest in the series.
And then there are the games, or, more importantly, Telltale’s 2012/2013 episodic game. I was told, repeatedly, from many sources, that I would love the game as it had many things I liked in games – good story, choices and interesting mechanics.
So I picked it up whilst it was on sale on the PSN network, hoping to get a story experience much like The Last of Us or Spec Ops the Line – smart, well written games that force you to make horrific choices.
That’s not what I got. Not in the slightest.
Lee Everett (Dave Fennoy) is on his way to prison, convicted of killing someone. Unfortunately, zombies happen and Lee finds himself lost in the wild with nothing but his own wits and an army of the dead wanting nothing more than to eat him. He soon stumbles upon Clementine (Melissa Hutchison) an eight year old hiding from the dead in her tree house, waiting for her parents to return from vacation. Feeling pity on the girl, Lee offers to look after her, and help her find her parents.
From here, Lee encounters survivors that lead him to Hershel Greene’s (Chuck Kourouklis) farm, where he meets Kenny (Gavin Hammon), and his family – wife Katjaa (Cissy Jones) and son Duck (Max Kaufman). After an incident, the group head to the town of Macon, where they meet Lilly (Niki Rapp), her father Larry (Terence McGovern), reporter Carly (Nicole Vigil), IT Technician Doug (Sam Joan) and Glenn (Nick Herman). From here, the game becomes focused on the group’s survival, and the rest of the five episodes follow the ragtag gang as they try to survive.
The plot itself is verily typical for the zombie apocalypse genre, and takes very few liberties or risks with the genre. Later in the game, we’re introduced to other familiar staples, such as cannibals and bandits, and the story mostly follows the group as they argue as to whether to fortify an area or keep moving. As such, much of the game is about dialogue rather than action or exploration.
The dialogue system in the game consists of four dialogue choices that are attached to the face buttons of the controller, with some dialogue sequences requiring you to quickly make a choice or comment, which will affect the rest of the interaction. These make up for most of the games more stressful elements, as you have to quickly read and decide upon your answer, and have to hope for the best as to whether the next line is delivered in the tone you imagined. It should be noted that the game will pick an answer for you if the timer drops all the way down, and it’s usually based on your other decisions.
When you’re not in conversation, you can explore a little. By which I mean, you’ll have a small, pre-rendered environment to wander around, where you can interact with other characters and maybe one or two objects. Many of these areas are revisited several times with little differences, which is more annoying than anything else.
There are also the occasional sequences of combat, which is usually a quicktime event or simply clicking on the right part of the screen. There are a few shooting segments as well, but there’s not much to actually call gameplay, and almost nothing in the terms of puzzles or challenges in these sections.
This leads to my major point of contention – this is not a game. This is an interactive movie with some ‘game’ mechanics thrown in for good measure, but the actual gameplay is negligible and could have been easily removed without affecting the rest of the product. In fact, I would have preferred this if they removed the gameplay sections, as then I could focus on the story and simply enjoy that rather than have to put up with the poorly implemented game sections.
As a point and click adventure game, The Walking Dead fails as there is nothing to do, and requires little to no thought on behalf of the player. There’s no need to explore, as there’s nothing to really explore or no purpose to do so. There is no ‘adventure’, so to speak.
As for the rest of the gameplay, it’s marred with crippling bugs and problems. Clicking on objects works intermittingly, where the game will occasionally decide to cancel your action for no reason. This becomes very frustrating in sequences where you’re fending off zombies, as this will lead to instant death. For those that argue I’m just bad at this – no. I highlighted the zombie, pressed the action button and the game registered it with the flashing crosshair, and then I died because the animation never activated. This happened too often.
That’s not to mention the quicktime events that come down to simply mashing on a button for a few seconds, meaning you miss the entire action because you’re watching a gauge on the bottom screen. Or the times where you get killed because the game doesn’t bother giving you a moment to process where you have to click. Worst of all are the few times you enter first person to shoot enemies, where the controls are too sensitive on horizontal movement, whilst under sensitive vertically, making it exceptionally difficult to aim. As a result, you tend to die a lot in these sections. Basically, the game is cheap, and not fun.
As for the conversation sections, these are the single redeeming part of the game. The dialogue for all the characters is very well written, even if they tend to jump from extreme to extreme with no real warning. It can be slightly stressful to make a choice whilst the time runs down. The game also makes a point of remembering your choices, which will affect character choices and actions down the line. In theory, at least.
In practise, this is much less interesting. There are very few moments where I felt I had had any impact whatsoever on the rest of the game, but these weren’t actually all that important when you realise that it affected nothing. Characters you can choose to save seem to die in the subsequent episode, and there’s no way to change the outcomes as the game is exceptionally linear. The only major moment where the game actually seems to account for the rest of your choices is a single moment at the end of chapter 4.
As I said, characters tend to only operate on extremes. A single choice in the second chapter completely eroded any favour with one character, whilst making another become best buddies with Lee. This was exceptionally jarring as I spent the rest of the game, and every episode after, siding with the first character but one negative choice made him hate my guts for the rest of the game. This actually came to a head at the end of chapter 4, where that character had lines of dialogue that completely contradicted the rest of my actions towards him.
This all boils down to a game that gives you the illusion of gameplay, the illusion of choice, and the illusion of effect. But the reality is that none of that is present here. The game is an interactive movie that throws you the occasional bone so you can pretend you’re having an effect on the game.
However, even as a movie it has a lot of problems. It is well directed, and the graphical style is beautiful, but the animation is subpar at best. Movement is incredibly awkward, and lip-sync is terrible, especially if it’s anything more than a normal conversation. Characters trying to scream or yell are laughable in the poor quality of movement. Model glitches are uncommon, but do happen, especially with background models disappearing far too regularly. Models do have a tendency to clip through things constantly, which becomes rather hard not to notice after a while. The game also has a tendency to freeze constantly whilst trying to retrieve records of previous choices, and the loading screens are overly long and too frequent.
Audio work is just as bad. The cast all do good jobs as their characters, but the constant audio glitches prevented me from noticing that, as audio constantly looped over itself or didn’t play. There are very few background sounds, and they tend to consist of zombie groans more than anything else. Sound effects will often not play at all. The music is ok, with nothing much to say, except for the fact that the main theme is suspiciously similar to the Save Room theme from the Resident Evil Remake.
This game would have made a much better book or comic. It’s very disappointing once you realise you have no effect and the game is simply linear, and the poor gameplay and constant glitches make it a trying experience. The worst thing? I have read choose-you-own-adventure books which had more gameplay than this game.