Review: The Walking Dead: Episode 1 & 2 – Tough decisions

When people first spoke of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, I immediately dismissed it and whatever ties I thought it had with the television show. Telltale’s latest adventure game is an episodic guided narrative surrounding the idea of a zombie outbreak, which seems like the worst combination that any developer can build a game around. The AMC series is carried by a lot of action and flesh eating zombies, but the game is carried by the ethical and moral situations that require your best judgement to make multiple, increasingly difficult decisions. An emphasis on cinematics has led to many ignorantly dismissing it as another “interactive movie” as it lacks the level grinding, loot collection and combo chaining that a more traditional game has. Aside from a few annoying bugs and limited variety of traditional video game mechanics, Telltale’s The Walking Dead Episode 1 and 2, provide some of the most engaging survival stories in video game form.

Before you even begin playing, a menu will pop up asking you to choose either Normal or Minimal HUD (heads up display). Normal HUD shows hints, objects of interest and if the result of a decision will affect a character. It is also possible to opt for Minimal HUD which disables all of the in game elements to make for a more cinematic experience. I chose and recommend Minimal HUD since The Walking Dead’s primary focus is on story. After spending lengthy amounts of time scanning the environment with my crosshair, I eventually enabled the option to see key objects of interest. These options alone are telling of the cinematic and story heavy experience The Walking Dead will offer

The story starts out with Lee Everett, a prison convict who unfortunately finds himself in the middle of a zombie outbreak. Due to some events I won’t mention, he comes across a little girl named Clementine, who amazingly has survived alone in her zombie filled neighbourhood. With her parents not there to protect her, Lee makes Clementine his responsibility as they continue forward to find safe haven.

From the two available episodes that I have played, each will offer a unique story arc that is about 2-3 hours in length. Episode 1, since it was the start of this episodic series, featured less of a complex structure, not veering far from the typical start of a zombie outbreak. Lee and Clementine will look to survive, then naturally will form a group with other survivors who have already seen more than you have. Episode 2 is well into their bout with the zombie hoard, giving Telltale more room to be creative. While both episodes are similar in quality, the story arc of episode 2 builds off the characters and relationships that were established with the first episode.

Some will expect to find multiple zombie (or walkers in which the game refers to them as) types or different weapons to protect Clementine, but will be disappointed. Instead “combat” consists of quick time button events which have slight variations such as, aiming a crosshair then hitting a button. The character movement, although in a 3D space, is limited to a specific path. This riveting gameplay is definitely not the core of the game, but is as far as mechanics will develop through the first 2 episodes. These button events are usually unexpected and are placed in high tense situations to break the methodical pace of conversations.

The dynamic of the game is character interaction, so the bulk of what you will be doing in The Walking Dead is engaging in conversation with your survivalist group. Unlike majority of games with dialogue wheels or something similar to one, The Walking Dead forces you to quickly pick a response before the short timer expires. This doesn’t sound like an innovation at first, but what it does is force the player to make reactionary responses instead of taking their time and to weigh the pros and cons. The use of the timer will vary depending on the situation or severity of the choice. Some of the more difficult situations will have a longer duration to think about things, some will not have one at all.

The use of the timer during scenes of urgency or panic eliminates the opportunity to slow the game down and assess the situation, quickening the pace. For instance, Lee stumbles upon a man while hunting in a forest, with his leg stuck in a bear trap. With no immediate answer on how to unlock the trap and numerous zombies closing in on them, you have to decide whether to leave him to the zombies or chop his leg off to free him. What I saw and what I imagine cannot be much different, though both are definitely equally gruesome. In retrospect, I often felt like I made the wrong decisions, but the timer and urgency of the situation didn’t help me otherwise.

You will always be second guessing your decisions, which is why the types of choices you have to make are so brilliantly handled. Telltale is aiming for a 50/50 split with each of the decisions, and most are that tough to make. At the end of each episode, the major decisions are listed along with how the rest of the community acted comparatively, most of which hover around 50%. The Walking Dead is the perfect example of how moral choice should be handled in video games. The polarizing good and evil sides that games adopt usually are decided by the player to exploit the meta-game, and not to reflect their moral personality. There is no right answer or correct decisions to the questions and problems in The Walking Dead, yet you will pick what you think is best.

Whether or not someone will enjoy The Walking Dead is completely subjective of course, people have different tastes in the type of entertainment they consume. What is not subjective however, are the bugs that come with Telltale’s adventure game. Even though my PC is more than capable of running The Walking Dead on max settings, I was having a lot of graphical issues such as freezing and stuttering. I spent an hour or so checking forums for people with similar issues, and the best solution was disabling the shadows, which according to many forum posters, is a major problem in Telltale’s games. And while the cell shaded aesthetic fits well, some of the character animations are exaggerated or jerky. Seeing a character have a wide eyed expression to a not so surprising response is weird every time. These issues can be bothersome, and I’ve been fortunate enough to not have to deal with any save game issues which many people, both on consoles and PC, have been encountering.

Although slightly buggy and void of traditional gameplay mechanics, the moral and ethical choices the player has to make during the zombie outbreak and complete story arcs, is perfect for the episodic structure. Similar to watching a great television show, immediately following an episode of The Walking Dead, you will want to see what happens next. Episodic content has been an unsuccessful model of destribution of game content, but the nature of Telltale’s adventure game is what makes it function as well as it does. The downsides to each of the episodes are the bothersome bugs that can even completely ruin the experience. It is important to be mindful of what The Walking Dead will offer, which is an experience only for those who don’t mind minimal interaction and appreciate a large emphasis on story. Given most zombie games involve the decapitation or slaughter of many zombies, this different take on an overdone scenario has left me surprised, and ultimately anxious for Episode 3.