Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The Walking Dead

Post-Launch Review
The Walking Dead
Developer: Telltale Games
Released: April - November 2012 (episodes)
Played: story complete in 11 hours; 400 Days DLC complete in 1.5 hours


The Walking Dead is an episodic adventure game set in the same universe as the comic of the same name. You play as Lee (a convicted murderer on his way to jail when suddenly zombies), who rescues a young girl named Clementine. Lee and Clementine join up with some other survivors, and struggle with infighting, food, bandits, and of course the zombie horde.

At Launch

The Walking Dead was well received. Episodes 1 to 4 averaged review scores in the low to mid 80s, while episode 5 was several points higher. Critics were very impressed with the mature and dark story and the emotional connection with the game's characters. The only criticisms were occasional technical issues, including save-corrupting bugs across all platforms that destroy the player's progress.

Post Launch

There were patches for some technical issues for specific episodes, but not everything has been resolved. Telltale has been issuing refunds to some players.
A DLC pack titled 400 Days was released. 400 Days is a short set of optional stories unrelated to the main game, but which help set up Season Two.
Season Two has begun and is available for purchase.

The Good

So Many Feels
This game is absolutely fantastic at making you feel emotions. Episode 1 starts of relatively unexceptional for a zombie story, episode 2 is a little predictable but has some emotional moments, and episode 3 on are just CRAZY. There are plenty of times where I felt some major guilt and regret over certain actions, and some of the characters and twists are genuinely shocking and suspenseful. Emotionally, this is one of the hardest-hitting games I've ever played. There were tears at the end of episode 5.
Clementine (and other characters)
The character writing for this game is pretty great. Everyone is pretty well-defined and you get a lot of information pretty quickly from only a few interactions. Most notable is the fantastic achievement of creating a little girl - Clementine - who is not only not a nuisance, but will actually make you care for her and want to protect her and teach her to do the right thing. I second-guessed myself and changed a lot of my default game behaviour because I knew Clementine would be watching what I did. For example, at one point the group finds a car with its lights still on, and packed full of food. Most of the group is all "score, free food!" but I didn't want to touch it, because what if it belonged to someone and they had walked off for a minute and now Clementine is learning that stealing is okay and what kind of pseudodad would I even be?!
There are a lot of decision points throughout the game, and most of them are on a timer. The choices can have major consequences, like which characters live and which die; or they can be more subtle, influencing someone's attitude towards you. And the timer makes things more stressful - you have to choose quickly, and if time runs out, Lee doesn't say anything, which can also have significant meaning.
Every choice felt important as I played through the game, though a look at the plot summary on Wikipedia shows that there are some things that will always happen no matter what. The game does a great job of hiding this, and everything that I experienced felt like a logical development from my choices. I want to play the game again to see how differently things turn out if I choose to save or side with different characters than I did.
The game's art direction makes it look like a comic book - which is fantastic, because the source material is a comic. Heavy, high-contrast black lines define features on characters and objects, and the colour looks like it's painted in. That style doesn't follow through as much to the environments, though, and I wish it did - it would help with some of the muddy textures and performance concessions that had to be made. But yeah, the game looks pretty nice overall, with a strong style.
Simple Controls
Some people (like my dad, who didn't grow up with video games) don't do well with complex control schemes. The Walking Dead's controls consist of move and click on stuff, so it's very accessible to just about everyone (but don't take that to mean kids should be playing it - there's plenty of violence, language, and mature subject matter).

Player Stats
At the end of each episode, you're shown how your choices stacked up against other players - for example, "you and 58% of players let Ben go". It's neat to see which choices were split and which had a strong majority.
400 Days
This optional DLC is a short pack that tells brief, self-contained stories of a handful of survivors, only tangentially to the main game - you'll see a couple of images or references you'll recognize, but no direct links.The stories focus on setting the characters and scene for a single hard choice. They're all quite powerful except for one - Russell's - which I felt was weaker because it felt more like a series of small choices, without a big moral dilemma. Wyatt's and Bonnie's stories seem like they do the same thing at first glance, but it's actually just more subtle: I didn't realize I had made a significant choice until the notification came up, which would normally irritate me, but it happened in the heat of a moment in a time-constrained scenario, so it worked for me. Shel's was the most powerful: faced with the outcome of a previous choice, you're forced to make that same choice again, but with much higher stakes.
Anyway, the DLC wraps up with an epilogue: the survivors have all come together at the same campsite 400 days after the zombie apocalypse began, and a woman named Tavia tries to recruit them to join a "safe community". Depending on the choices you made, the various survivors will decide whether to join Tavia. The most interesting part of the epilogue is that it's pretty easy to guess that Tavia is talking about Woodbury, from the comics/show. I don't know for sure if that's true, but it's an interesting implication for season two!

The Bad

The game sometimes hangs during cutscenes. Fortunately it's never during actual gameplay, and it seemed to happen almost exclusively in episode 1, so it doesn't stick around forever. But it could hang for such a long time that I thought the game had crashed. After the massive technical problems with Telltale's Jurassic Park game, I almost wanted to quit after the first major encounter with the problem, but it got much better pretty quick. Annoying, but fairly harmless.

Disappearing Controls
I'm not sure if this is a problem anyone else experienced, but for the very last three dialogue decisions of episode 4, I couldn't push any buttons to say anything, so Lee just stayed silent. Maddening, though this is the first I've seen of this issue, and it didn't reoccur in episode 5.
Unskippable Bits
The Walking Dead was released as five episodes over the course of a few months. Strangely, the game forced that structure on me, despite buying the game late and having every episode installed before I started playing. What do I mean by that? Well, every time I start an episode, there's an unskippable "Previously on The Walking Dead" montage, which doesn't care that I played through the preceding episode just two minutes ago. After each episode, I get a "Next time on The Walking Dead" - also unskippable, even though I'm going to start the next episode right now - and unskippable credits. I would have watched this stuff all the way through if I'd been playing each episode as it came out, but when I have the whole game and just want to play through it all, I really wish I had an option to skip the montages.

The Verdict

Recommendation: play it.
Holy crap, so many feels. This is one of the best-written and most emotional games I've played. I didn't experience any major bugs or problems, but I hear they're there on every version, so keep an eye out for those. The Walking Dead was a much better experience than the last Telltale game I played (Jurassic Park) and absolutely deserves to be played if you're a fan of strong stories and characters. And definitely get the 400 Days add-on, because it's also very strong, and the choices will carry over to Season Two as well.

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