Creator Robert Kirkman’s zombie apocalypse tale isn’t just chewing up comic book racks and TV ratings, it’s also terrorizing video game platforms including Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. After being released episodically via digital download every couple of months starting this spring, the game's five chapters are now being compiled into a physical “full season” disc release. The individual chapters continue to be available for immediate download as well, and at a cost of only $5 per episode there’s not much incentive to wait for the $30 standard compilation unless you have to own a shiny disc or you want the extras in the more expensive collector's edition.
I have to admit that my expectations were set fairly low for a zombie game premiering as an episodic digital download. Anybody recall any other successful and satisfying episodic downloadable games? Me either. Plus the history of licensed properties being converted to video games is littered with abysmal money grabs and lack of respect for the source material. Thankfully, that’s not the case here. While the character model graphics aren’t the greatest and the action is fairly limited in the early going, Telltale Games fully understands and honors the property with a well-written, engaging story that blazes new ground by following different characters and settings than the comic book and tv series. It’s still set in the Atlanta area, and you may notice a couple of familiar faces pop up temporarily, but the situations and majority of characters are entirely fresh, giving the game a great sense of originality and setting it apart from its forebears. You can play the game with no knowledge of the origin story, but fans will also enjoy the game’s look at what else is happening in the vicinity of the mothership narrative.
Episode One immediately introduces us to the game’s protagonist and sole playable character, a convict named Lee Everett who gets an unexpected chance at a fresh start when the zombie outbreak hits. While being transported in a police car, he winds up crashed in the woods and quickly learns to defend himself against the rising tide of zombies eager for a meal. The writers make him a sympathetic character by promptly having him rescue an orphaned young girl named Clementine, and the pair set off to search for other survivors and figure out how to stay alive. Just like in the comic book and tv series, they meet and bond with other survivors, but those survivors are constantly at risk of being picked off so it’s best not to grow too attached to any of them.
Episode Two finds the survivors holed up in a barricaded motor inn, patrolling the perimeter of the property to defend against invaders while they figure out how to provide for their basic necessities. When a couple of other survivors amble down the road with the promise of a blissful, well-stocked farm just up the road, they decide to trust the strangers and leave their temporary hotel home. They eventually learn that all is not as it seems at the happy farm, and discover that some humans are more monstrous than the omnipresent zombies. OK, a bucolic farm with secrets sounds suspiciously like Hershel’s farm from the comic book and TV series, and it actually is the same farm, but rest assured it’s an entirely different and far more horrifying scenario due to the people inhabiting it at the time.
Episode Three follows the survivors as they retreat from the farm to the relative safety of the motor inn, but with supplies still dwindling they’re eventually forced to flee for the perceived safety of the coast, putting them back at risk as they traverse the great outdoors.
Following a tremendous loss, the group arrives in Savannah, GA in Episode Four. Once there, they search for a boat while avoiding an unseen human threat and the zombies. The remaining group grows increasingly paranoid, and Lee has to grapple with how to keep them under control and protect Clementine while they continue their quest for salvation via boat.
Episode Five is scheduled to be available via digital download in November, with the full compilation retail release to follow on December 4th. Each episode takes around 2-3 hours depending on your level of exploration, making the game well worth the price of admission on a bang for your buck basis.
Much of the gameplay consists of walking around and talking to fellow survivors, which gives the characters considerable depth as we get to know them and witness their reactions to crisis situations. Those situations occasionally result in real-time event decisions where you are forced to choose who to save between two threatened characters, and your decisions ultimately influence your ongoing relationships with the remaining characters. While the eerie game is scary enough on its own, with the threat of zombies surprising you at any time, I quickly became most paranoid about how my responses to these real-time events would affect my standing amongst the other survivors later on. Even simple conversations with characters (where you choose from various responses) take on added weight when the game tells you things like “this character will remember how you answered this question”. I hope they still like me when the game is over!
As for action, the game is about as far from a run-and-gun shooter as you can get, although occasional zombie waves force you to use whatever weapons are on hand to beat them back. There’s also a bit of a puzzle element, such as when your group first methodically clears the motor inn of its former zombie inhabitants. The game is far more cerebral than trigger-happy, so if you’re looking for a zombie button-masher you’re better off playing Call of Duty's zombie levels or Dead Rising. I’m fully onboard with the approach they took with this game, finding it to be a highly engaging, atmospheric, and surprisingly well-written adventure that left me caring about the characters in spite of their slim chances of survival. The graphics and action aren’t the most cutting-edge, but the vocal talent is effective and the writing, both in plotting and characterization, is the star of the game. This is a rare example of a licensed property getting it right, and another success for Kirkman’s burgeoning zombie empire.
The Walking Dead is now available episodically via digital download on PSN, Xbox Live, Steam, and iTunes. The collected retail game is targeted for release on December 4th on PS3 and Xbox 360 for $29.99. The game will also be offered as a GameStop exclusive collector’s edition for $69.99 including a special 1000+ page compendium edition of the first 48 issues of the original comic book series, along with an exclusive box featuring artwork by comic book series artist Charlie Adlard. For more information, visit the Telltale Games website.