The Walking Dead has grown substantially since its days as another undead comic book on store shelves. The tales of human drama in the turbulent aftermath of a zombie outbreak transcended cultural barriers into a successful TV adaptation and three video games within the past two years. One of those virtual releases happens to be The Walking Dead: Assault, an episode-based, top-down arena shooter that borrows the graphic novel’s infamous black-and-white aesthetic for an action-packed retelling of the various volumes’ events.
The player begins the first episode – a reimagining of the evocative “Days Gone Bye” – in a familiar, bleak setting: the hospital. Sheriff Rick Grimes wakes from his coma alone, yet surrounded. Thankfully he’s less defenseless than in the comics, starting the mission with revolver and fire axe in hand. The objectives here: gather supplies and slay all the Walkers. As the campaign progresses, players gain another eight party members to customize their teams of four, including Shane, Dale, and Glenn. The Walking Dead: Assault also crafts a handful of new environments to elongate completion times, but series fans should recognize such unfriendly locations as the forest and campsite.
For a comic book penned in graphic 2D illustrations, the developers create striking 3D ruins of an apocalyptic Atlanta. I could not get enough of the presentation. The music that does overpower the sound effects mirrors the intensity of escalating guitar riffs in John Murphy’s “In The House, In A Heartbeat,” and the monochrome visuals exhibit a heavy noir tone contrasted by blue, red, yellow, and green hues that mark different interactive objects. Some buyers may be put off by the lack of human trauma Walking Dead characters typically undergo, but many others will be having too much fun painting the streets in zombie brain matter to notice.
It's hard not to appreciate how well the developers captured The Walking Dead's grayscale.
The 11 levels are diverse enough to keep the two hours of gameplay fresh, even if each mission only ends after killing every Walker, which feels too basic an objective to warrant multiple playthroughs. Some secondary goals range from saving a hostage before the zombies break down the derelict barricades, to finishing a stage under a certain time limit. To prevent unnecessary surprises as the survivors champion through the city’s fog of war, meanwhile, you can pinch, expand, and rotate the environment to get a better view of the surroundings. I cannot iterate how well these features work. At no time did I have to fight the game for control of my perspective.
Supplies also litter the alleys and streets; however, these materials are more than mere collectibles. Rick and Shane come free of charge, though you must purchase other survivors using gathered stockpiles. Luckily, there’s plenty of spoils hidden throughout each level to afford the next character immediately. The health, damage, speed, and ammo capacity upgrades that elevate the protagonists to near-invincible states consume funds as well, but I more than maxed out each skill by the end of the game. The developers have not stated if abilities and supplies will carry over to the next episode.
If you have not guessed already, The Walking Dead: Assault would rather focus on zombie killing than world or character building. The gameplay shares many sensibilities with the recent Borderlands Legends, including each survivor's unique attack radius and firearms, but here the interface actually registers every touch input. A single tap selects a character or swaps to a secondary melee weapon, while a quick double tap moves that hero or heroine to the designated position. To move the party all at once, a brief hold sends the party running through the environment, either into head-on confrontations against Walkers and Lurkers or retreating to better thin out the horde.
When the screen starts to get cluttered, you'll be thankful the developers stacked the characters' powers on the right side of the interface.
Recharging character abilities make eliminating zombies that much easier. Rick’s Police Training guarantees headshots for a short period of time, Shane’s special power buffs his shotgun to deal twice the damage, and Carl’s Dodge ensures the group evades all attacks. Characters also grant a passive team bonus to nearby members. Rick’s Leadership increases everyone’s accuracy, Shane’s ability boosts the party’s damage output by 25%, and Walkers are knocked back further with each gunshot thanks to Carl. This balance of active and passive skills – as well as the survivors’ varied loadouts, speed, and health – creates a nice mixture of simplicity and depth on harder difficulties.
As any Walking Dead fans should know, however, sound (and common sense) determines who will live to see the next chapter. While exploring dilapidated city streets, the protagonists’ automatic discharging of firearms builds a meter on the left side of the screen. Once the decibels peak, dozens of zombie reinforcements swarm your position. To counter, car alarms and fresh meat will distract the undead in the immediate area, allowing your posse to make a stand without garnering too much attention.
Regrettably, the two problems The Walking Dead: Assault suffers from cannot be considered minor. At random, the AI exhibits horrible pathfinding. They attempt to find the most direct route to the objective, but that may often lead them into the mutilated arms of Walkers and Lurkers. In less dire circumstances, they get stuck in mid-run animations against guard rails, fences, and dumpsters. That quickly becomes an issue once a survivor runs out of ammo. Ammunition crates do not replenish bullets for the entire group; just that select character. At least the developers work to assuage potential frustrations. Once weapon magazines run dry, that teammate automatically switches to a melee weapon, and back to his or her firearm upon resupplying.
Don't expect Michonne or Tyreese to appear until the next volume of chapters. They don't make an entrance in "Days Gone Bye."
And for the first time in any iOS game, I felt compelled to replay levels for achievements, using combinations of characters I that did not fit into my regular style of play. While they achievements may not be original, some get quite creative, forcing you to complete the final level using only three teammates, another with only melee weapons, letting one survivor eliminate zombies, attracting 50 Walkers, and more. What does pass for superfluous rewards in Assault are still some my favorite bonuses found in a portable title: Killing a designated minimum of Walkers unlocks trivia for comic gurus, and maxing out upgrades provides free background images for the player’s iDevice.
Not to be confused with Telltale Games novel take on the graphic novels, The Walking Dead: Assault recreates the look of the comics in all their monochrome glory, and gamers that need a reprieve from the emotional roller coasters of Lee and Clementine should pick up this universal app as soon as possible. Studios Gamagio and Skybound have adapted the world created by Robert Kirkman into a sharp action experience. Just don’t expect a narrative that blurs the lines between post-apocalyptic hero and villain.
Release Date: November 27, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: iOS (Reviewed)