The Walking Dead: Episode 1 – A New Day Review
This game was reviewed on the PC.
Zombie games have never really been done quite right. Developers don’t seem to want to focus on what actually make zombies a terrifying, inexorable threat, and instead throw a bunch of silly gimmicks at a player in an attempt to distance their game from every other zombie shooter out there.
Not all gimmicks are created equal, however. The Walking Dead aims to create an immersive, horrifying experience by cobbling together a few old game genres and reanimating the stitched-together corpse. Mix two parts choose-your-own-adventure novel, one part text-adventure, and one part original Resident Evil and you’ve got what the developers were aiming at with The Walking Dead.
In The Walking Dead: Episode 1 – A New Day, you play Lee, a prisoner being transferred from a prison in Georgia to, presumably, another prison in Georgia. Following a meandering, but relatively interesting, conversation with the cop who’s transferring you earns a few quick glimpses into what Lee was imprisoned for, but not enough to parse out all the gritty details. You quickly learn Lee’s made a few mistakes – probably pretty terrible ones at that – but is, all and all, a decent guy.
The story naturally follows from here: The car Lee’s in gets run off the road, Lee blacks out for a few hours, is forced to de-animate the cop driver and ends up being pursued by a horde of undead – which he inevitably calls “those things,” since it’s apparently an unwritten rule we never, ever use the Zed word – only to be saved by the timely intervention of the zombies suddenly losing interest. Lee suddenly meets Clementine, the plot-hook and waif-in-distress who forces Lee to calm down and think about more than his own survival.
Although the dialogue is well written – conversations feel natural, even when people start yelling at each other – you can really see the strings behind the game mechanics during lulls. Picking one option sometimes results in a second-or-two lag which seems to skip over some of the lines. This makes the game feel like a collection of cutscenes rather than a game.
It’s not quite fair to even call The Walking Dead a game. More realistically, it’s an interactive comic. Gameplay, if it can be called that, revolves around presenting the player limited scenarios in which they are forced to make decisions. These follow familiar lines, such as choosing responses in dialogue to find out more about the environment and your character, walking around rooms with a few interactive options in order to find equipment and supplies, and other actions that will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s played an RPG in recent years.
What’s different is how inherently limited those choices are. You’ve only got one house to go into and explore, or one door to open to peek behind, or one path to venture down. In this way it feels a lot more like the controlled environments of the old Resident Evil games than something like Left 4 Dead. Although describing it in this way makes it seem a bit stifling, in practice it’s intriguing and done in such a way that it presents you with the path you’d probably take anyway (most of the time, at least).
The choices you make slowly unravel a pretty sophisticated story system. Unlike Mass Effect’s ride-the-rails-with-your-choice-of-attitude approach, The Walking Dead makes sure to make each decision count. You’re presented with scenes that give you maybe 10 seconds in which to make a decision, otherwise the game makes one for you automatically. You’ll quickly learn any decision is often much, much better than no decision at all.
The game isn’t only a series of cutscenes presenting you with difficult decisions – it also throws some action at you. Although offered in a totally non-traditional way (the only controls are the face buttons and the movement sticks) the action is laudably among the most realistic ever depicted in a game. All the bumbling, fumbling and panic-induced clumsiness so inherent to film characters can’t exactly be replicated in a game like Left 4 Dead, whose characters are, by design, superhumanly badass.
The first chapter of The Walking Dead gives only a single instance of player-initiated gunplay, and that’s mostly in a fumbling mess that only barely gets the bad guy in time. The panicked and disoriented Lee also slips in pools of blood (which later he carefully and conspicuously avoids), loses his temper at a fellow survivor whose take-no-chances attitude almost results in a 10-year-old getting prematurely euthanized, and inadvertently forces other characters to assume some disquieting things about his relationship with Clementine; you can almost hear the jaded disbelief whenever Lee says he’s Clementine’s “neighbor.”
There are definitely some strong points for The Walking Dead, but the intent of the developers can’t exactly excuse some otherwise shoddy construction. Certain scenes later in the first chapter are a confusing mess, presenting you with a pretty clear goal and the means to accomplish it, but no means with which to grab the single item you need to do it – I’d never have thought grabbing an ice pick would be so frustrating. The forced limitation of your movement and even line-of-sight hamper you in ways I’m sure the developers thought were clever, but result in making some parts of the game a frustrating, impossible mess. It isn’t even that the game is difficult – far, far from it, in fact. The end result of an interactive story is that even though the game is laudably realistic about your martial limitations, you never really feel like you’re in danger at all – but certain parts of the first chapter are extremely sparse in giving you direction.
There’s a similar mixed success with regards to production value. Overall, the art direction in the game is solid, rendering the characters and locations in pleasing comic-style cel-shading, and enlisting a superb cast of voice actors. But sometimes character’s mouths won’t move when they’re speaking, or their eyes will move rapidly and never fix on anything, or parts of their body will disappear into or stick out from walls, or a car crash results in a comical limb-flail for a few seconds too long.
The end result is a mixed bag. The Walking Dead is onto something good here. The storytelling, much more heavily based on Robert Kirkman’s comic world than AMC’s live-action translation, is spot on and the voice talent lends a lot of dramatic weight to what could otherwise be a fairly predictable story, but a lot of the elements don’t quite fit together. The action serves as an occasional thrill, but more often than not doesn’t ever manifest into something truly exciting, which somewhat nullifies the clever multi-layered approach to the story.
Overall, it’s a clever game that’s worth it mostly for the storytelling mechanics and the resurrection of a lot of semi-retired gameplay mechanics. It’s definitely a unique experience, though whether or not it’ll prove worth it in the long run is anyone’s guess.
The Walking Dead: Episode 1 – A New Day earns a 4.0 out of 5.
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