Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Graphic Horror: Game Reviews

By Brian M. Sammons

Not a lot in the way of horror gaming this month, but here is some zombie action based in everyone favorite undead apocalypse; THE WALKING DEAD.

THE WALKING DEAD: Episode 1, Telltale Games, Rated M, Mac, PC, PS3, Xbox 360, iPhone

Based on the hugely popular comic book and TV show, this new game seems to be a sure fire hit. I mean, who doesn’t love zombies these days? Yes I know that there are some people out there who are tired of the shuffling dead, but you know what I mean. Add to that the respected pedigree of Telltale Games, the fact that is on every platform imaginable, and that TTG is delivering it in episodes (yep just like the comic and TV show) so that the time requirement is minimal and the price is negligible and I can’t think of too many zombie loving gamers out there who wouldn’t get this. But, is it actually any good? Yes it is, but it’s not actually all that great of a game. Let me explain. In this introductory episode of TWD you play as a man called Lee. Lee was a college professor who was on his way to prison for murdering a state senator who was boning his wife, when the zombie apocalypse hits. Through a series of events, Lee escapes custody and is on his own in a world where the dead walk and want to eat you. This takes place during the early days of the zombie uprising, when comic and TV show lead character, Rick the cop, is still in a coma at the hospital. Through Lee’s adventures you’ll run into some familiar characters (two of the survivors from both the TV show and the comic book make guest appearances in this episode) who may or may not have familiar faces. Without giving away any secrets, one character looked nothing like the actor who plays him on the TV show. I can’t remember if he looked like the comic book character or not. As Lee, you’ll run into other survivors, have to battle the undead, and make some pretty tough choices. As an example of the latter, let’s say that maybe two of your new found friends just might get attacked by hungry flesh eaters at the same time; who would you attempt to save first? Rest assured, not everyone you meet in this game is going to make it to the next episode.

OK, that’s the general overview of this first chapter; now let’s get to the specifics of a game. THE WALKING DEAD is far more of an interactive story than what many, myself included, would usually consider a game. The vast majority of the game is dialog between the human survivors, but hey, the same can be said about both the comic book and TV show. This is NOT a typical run and gun zombie frag fest. When your character must perform an action it is of the look around your environment, find the interactive hot spot, and click a button kind. Yes, in the grand tradition of some of the earliest video games, this is a good old fashioned point and click adventure. Even combat has been reduced to “move cursor over zombie’s head and click button to kill it.” A little bit of variety is added to the mix with the introduction of quick time events, but that’s the only slight deviation to the core point and click mechanic. No big surprise there, as that’s sort of what Telltale Games does. Still, I wanted to point that out as some younger gamers may not be down with that old school aesthetic. As I said before, mostly what you do in this game is talk to other people, and the good news is that TWD does that well. Not only is it well written for the most part and the voice actors do a capable job, but the choices you make in this game seem to really make a difference in how things play out. For example, let’s say you talking to a guy named Ted and you chose to lie to him. A message might pop up in the corner of the screen that says “Ted knows that your lying.” That means Ted may be icy towards you later on. Get caught in too many lies with Ted and who knows what will happen. Later in the game perhaos Ted and another survivor named Bob get in a fight, if you back Ted up you’ll get a message that says “Ted will remember your loyalty.” Furthermore, not only what you say, but what you do will change things. Again, let’s say that you have to choose between saving two people, well if someone dies then don’t expect to see them in latter episodes. This could lead to some nice moral quandaries. Do you save the guy who was very friendly and nice to you, or do you save the other guy just because he seems to be better and killing zombies? Now this is only the first chapter of a five episode game, so you can’t really see how this will work yet, but it will be interesting to see if Telltale does take all this into account in how characters react to you in future episodes. It has the possibility to offer some really cool and unique story telling if thoroughly followed up on. I really like this idea and I hope it works out.

Now for some things that’s not too great about this game. First, let’s go back to the dialog and choices, not everything is golden with it. To keep things simple it only ever has a few choices to pick from, and sometimes it is missing options that I would say and do. For example, let’s just say that “hypothetically” one of the other characters screws you over in a major way and all but leaves Lee to be eaten by zombies. Surviving it, there is no option to later call the guy out on it, kick his ass, boot him out of the group, or – what I would do – shoot him in the face. Yes, leave me to die to zombies and if I make it out alive, I’m gonna kill you. Take that as a warning for all that read this. Anyway, here your character is just forced to go “oh well” and take it like a chump all for the sake of shoehorning in a rival into the group for drama I suppose. Now I know games can’t possibly have all the infinite options a player may want to explore, it just seems that this game has far fewer options than most. Then there is a slight technical issue that causes the game to freeze up for a second or so between scenes loading in. I’ve played this on both the PC and the Xbox 360 and the same screen freeze problem was in each version. Now that is a minor gripe at best, but then this game isn’t a graphical, action heavy powerhouse either. To me it just seemed like lazy coding or corner cutting. That said, this game doesn’t look bad. It actually has a nice comic book-like art style, the colors and bright and vibrant, and there are some nice gory zombie smack downs in here for the lovers of such things. My favorite involved a claw hammer, a woman’s head, and the resulting mess the two make. Mmm, tasty.

Lastly, this first epoxide is relatively short, between two to three hours max. Fans of epic sized games may be a bit disappointed in that, but fans of pick up and go, bite-sized games will love it. And with its point and click interface, this game seems perfect for all the mobile devices out there. The really good news is that, as I hinted at before, the price is but a pittance at just five bucks. So pass on your next Starbucks venti mocha chocha latte whatever and you can buy this game instead. But should you? So far, with just seeing Episode 1, I’d have to say yes. The story was pretty good, the characters well defined, the art was pretty, and the zombie bashing was fun.

THE WALKING DEAD: Episode 1 gets 4 hammers to zombie faces out of 5.

--Brian Sammons