You way be under the impression that Telltale's The Walking Dead is a video game about zombies. And while, yes, it does take place during a zombie apocolypse and does feature a whole host of gnarly, shambling, scary, brain-hungry corpses, what this game really is about is one thing: decisions. Think of this like one of those old "Choose Your Own Adventure" novels where it's up to you to make the big decisions that impact what happen next. If you're a fan of interactive stories, and have a high tolerance for grisly violence, scares. and dark subject matter, then this game's for you.
Players will learn early on in The Walking Dead that their actions have consequences. The choices you as the player will have to make are surprisingly tough, for example, two characters are being attacked by zombies at once. You can only save one of them. Which one do you pick? The character you pick will continue on with you, while the other dies immediately. The game's story is adaptable and will incorporate who you pick into the narrative. That said, there's no going back if you change your mind later as the game autosaves after each decision you make. You will often find yourself regretting some of the decisions you've made, and the game seems designed to make you do just that, twisting the knife whenever it can.
The way the game taunts your decision-making isn't the only particularly brutal thing about The Walking Dead. The violence is pretty over-the-top as well. You will have to, on occasion, beat a zombie's brains out or endure having to watch one chow down on one of your friends. Not only that, but a key component of the game is that there are children in your group of survivors, and the game isn't above putting them into harm's way whenever it can. If gore, scares, or children in peril make you uneasy, maybe you should play something else instead, because The Walking Dead pulls no punches whatsoever.
The game is full of suspense and never misses an opportunity to ramp up the tension by forcing the player to physically move the main character toward a dangerous situation, or pull the trigger or swing the hammer that ends a zombie's attack. This focus on making the player have to manually perform difficult tasks (difficult as in emotionally taxing, not mentally taxing as most of the puzzles in the game are relatively simple) leads to what is perhaps the most surprising aspect of this zombie game: how it gets inside your brain and heart. Not only did I find myself thinking about the decisions I made in the game long after playing it, but I have to admit that The Walking Dead is the only video game that has ever brought a tear to my eye while playing it. I found myself getting particularly wrapped up in the welfare of some of my friends in this story, so much so that it was surprisingly difficult to say goodbye to them.
The Walking Dead is Telltale Games' best product to-date. Telltale started out by reviving the point-and-click adventure game genre with Sam and Max, Strong Bad and Wallace and Gromit episodic games, then moved on to more theatrical fare with Jurassic Park, which played out more like a movie full of Quicktime events rather than a lot of searching for items to solve puzzles. In their Back to the Future game, players could make limited decisions that would impact the game later, such as choosing Marty's name when he traveled through time, and characters in that time period would continue to refer to him by that name throughout later episodes.
With The Walking Dead, Telltale has taken the lessons learned from their previous games and hit upon the magic formula for just the right amount of everything they'd done before. While Jurassic Park forced players to hit different buttons quickly to avoid dangerous dinos, in The Walking Dead they've simplified the controls so that players are typically hitting the same button repeatedly, making getting through fights much less frustrating. The Walking Dead also sports some adventure game puzzle gameplay, but, again, it's limited. You'll rarely have more than a couple of items in your character's possession at any given time, and instead of trying to "use" each item along the way with every other item you come across, the game only gives you the option of using an item when it will be useful. It's this streamlining of gameplay elements that makes The Walking Dead not only feel more polished but also more fun to play. Even the game's graphics are step above Telltale's usual fare with a pleasant-to-look-at 3D line-art comic book feel, reminiscent of the Borderlands series' art style.
I have only a couple nit-picks to level at The Walking Dead. First, is that at the end of episodes 1, 2, and 3, there's a "next time on The Walking Dead," which sets up the next episode as if it were a coming episode of a TV show. While that's a cute thing to do for an episodic game, I highly recommend skipping them altogether, as they often spoil the direction that the story is heading in the next episode. The downside of this is that, if you do skip them and move right on to the next episode, you don't get to see the stats of how your decisions compare to other gamers who have played. While I can understand the use of these previews for the dowloadable episodes (since they encourage players to buy the next installment), they make no sense in the recently released disc version which contains all the episodes already.
Another nit-pick, at least with the Xbox 360 version, is that I found myself often getting friend notifications (such as "SO-AND-SO is online) popping up over the text I needed to read. Normally, games move this notification bar off of the bottom center of the screen so as not to hinder gameplay in any way, but The Walking Dead doesn't. And this became a problem for me a few times in the game, when a notification would pop up while I was being offered a choice of dialogue, and since many of the choices in the game have a time limit to them, I wasn't able to read all the options before they would disappear as a result of this.
There are also some technical hiccups. While I did run into some instances of slowing, only once did it actually impact gameplay, where I missed an opportunity to make a decision because the game stalled for too long. That's pretty inexcusable, and a serious blemish on an otherwise sparkling product.
The episodes are available to download individually on Mac, Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and iOS. Telltale has also released the entire five-episode "season" (and yes there is second season in the works) on disc for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, which works out to a much better deal than buying each episode separately, and believe me, you're going to want to get the entire season once you start playing.
I've never watched a single episode of The Walking Dead on AMC, nor am I at all familiar with the comic books that inspired it, which just goes to prove that you don't need to be familiar with either of those to still really enjoy this game. Just be ready for some scares, tears and a lot of tough choices during your fight for survival during this zombie apocalypse.