The Walking Dead: Episode 1 - A New Day Review

Zombies are no stranger to video games; in fact, one could easily make a convincing argument that they have been overused in this medium. Despite this, every now and then a game comes out that takes a tired and stale idea and revitalizes it in a unique and imaginative way. The first episode of the Walking Dead is one of these games; it’s a breath of fresh air for zombie titles that recaptures their untapped potential. It’s shockingly brutal yet genuinely emotional, and although some small issues will impact your experience, "A New Day" is still a great game.

 

Zombies don't need their eyes to rip flesh from bone.

 

By far the standout feature of the Walking Dead is the way it handles player choice. This may only be the first episode, but already, the standard has been set very high. The game does an excellent job of creating a plausible zombie apocalypse and making you face the troubles that such an event would cause. Choice has become a staple feature of many games; numerous titles claim to give you hard choices that alter how the narrative plays out, and The Walking Dead makes the same assertion. It is a bit early to tell if this is the case, but there are enough interesting ultimatums – and heartfelt consequences – in this episode alone to indicate that the Walking Dead will live up to its claims. The first episode will not take you long to beat, but it doesn’t really matter; it’s a mere 400 points on XBLA and provides the player with a enough diversity to make a revisit worthwhile.

The Walking Dead is yet another Telltale adventure game, but it’s different in some key ways. The most noticeable difference is the game's aesthetic. The Walking Dead sports a comic book art style – an obvious design choice in regards to the source material. The visuals make for a pleasant looking game in spite of some muddy textures. The other differences from the established formula are far more interesting though. The Walking Dead is not just a point-and-click adventure game. Of course, playing on 360 means there is nothing to click with, but the console interface works to the extent that you won’t be missing a mouse. The Walking Dead feels like a modern adventure game though, forgoing the aged point-and-click formula. Telltale makes great adventure games (for the most part), but their structure was slightly archaic. Titles like Sam and Max and Tales from Monkey Island were very enjoyable and well written (much like the Walking Dead), but the classic puzzle design felt stuck in the past, alienating players not familiar with the genre. "A New Day" almost entirely forsakes puzzles, and is better for it. The gameplay depends on the situation. Although the The Walking Dead shares more in common with Telltale’s Jurassic Park, Walking Dead takes the promise of Jurassic Park and uses it to great effect.

 

Lee begins the narrative in a police car after the murdering a state senator sleeping with his wife.  

 

Jurassic Park was clearly influenced by Heavy Rain, and the same could be said for the Walking Dead. Heavy Rain was an excellent example of what a modern adventure game could amount to, and Telltale were wise to pay attention. This influence doesn’t mean that Walking Dead is just a bunch of zombie-avoiding quick time events. QTEs do surface but not regularly. They don’t make up the core gameplay like in Heavy Rain; they merely complement it instead. Heavy Rain's feeling of consequence makes the jump to The Walking Dead well; both games do an capital job of using their gameplay to force difficulty player choices that have a genuine impact. The Walking Dead does have a dialogue system – a very good one that includes a time limit that gives even the slightest decisions a sense of urgency. While some of your decisions come from how you converse with the characters you meet, larger decisions work their way more organically into the gameplay.

Another standout feature of this episode is the pacing. The game has a good amount of brutal and exciting action, but it is the outcome that makes the experience so good. The intensity's aftermath follows with some downtime, and while talking to survivors may not match the immediate thrill of sticking a screwdriver through a zombie’s eye, it is the quiet moments that stand out the most. The excellent writing fleshes out the characters and the world in a way that makes them believable and immersive. Sadly, this feeling of immersion can be undercut by some falters. 

 

Well at least you no longer have to tip the babysitter. 

 

As previously mentioned, the game has a great dialogue system; however, it isn’t always well utilized. The protagonist usually embellishes on the dialogue option you pick (like in Mass Effect), and sometimes the small bit of information you are given isn’t a good enough indicator of the end result. This can make for some engagement-breaking moments when the character says something you did not expect him to say. This is especially irritating due to the way other characters react to what options you pick in conversations; a mistake on your end caused by a lack of context could jeopardize your relationship with a survivor. On top of dialogue issues, the core gameplay also suffers. The Walking Dead avoids a lot of the problems the adventure game formula can bring, but some of these are still apparent. You don’t have to scan environments to the extent you expect from a point-and-click adventure, but this mechanic does surface its head. The game occasionally descends to just hovering the cursor around until you can press a button, and these few moments get in the way of what is otherwise an immaculately paced game.

"A New Day" shows a great deal of promise. The difficult choices you have to make are set to have large consequences in episodes to come and already have a great impact on this installment alone. Zombies may be played out, but the Walking Dead embraces all that is great about them and uses them exceptionally well. It’s an emotional ride full of standout moments, and it’s a ride worth taking. If the other episodes can measure up to this one, then the Walking Dead series will be one of Telltale’s finest.
 

Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: April 25, 2012
Number of Players: 1
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, PC, Mac

Josh Kowbel's picture

I look forward to checking this out during a sale (yeah, I'm stingy). On a recent Giant Bombcast, Ryan and Patrick were talking with Gary Whitta about player choice and its outcomes. It sounds like the plot only gets more gruesome from episode to episode. I'm interested in seeing a future flowchart of all the possible decisions.

christothefirst's picture

I can't wait for the next episode. The choices are labeled as "tough decisions" and Telltale did an excellent job of capturing the emotion of choosing one of the options. I am excited to see how my decisions in this first episode change the way the fifth plays out. This really does seem to be a much higher quality game compared to Back to the Future and Jurassic Park. 

Adam Page's picture

Pity the PC version doesn't let you actually enjoy the benefits of episodic content, for all we know the next few episodes might not be as good if Telltale's rapid production process is anything to go by

John Tarr's picture

Does this game follow the same storyline as the comic and show? The Walking Dead is one of the few comics I've read, and I was pretty surprised by how closely the show duplicated what the comic layed out, almost as closely as Game of Thrones.

stephenage's picture

@John Tarr, I don't know to be honest. Being a discerning English man I havent had access to the TV show and never got round to reading the comic. The story in the game is good, but I have no idea whether it parallels the comic.

Adam Page's picture

@John Tarr

The Walking Dead incorporates plenty of characters from the comics and a couple from the show according some of the interviews I've seen. Kirkman has had much more of an input into the direction than the show apparently, but it's more of a Enter the Matrix style side-story in that universe rather a re-telling of the narrative from the show and comics (but it a good way apparently).

NightShroud's picture

@john It follows the comics. Not the series.

Josh Kowbel's picture

@John Tarr:

The show went completely off the rails in relation to the comics. I couldn't watch more than two episodes before calling it quits. I enjoy the comics infinitely  more. 

NightShroud's picture

Oh I like the show, I like how they handeled Shane. What I hate about the show is how they handeled Lori and Carl. But like Kowbel I love the comics. I am in europe so I have to use questionable sources for the comics :p

Maybe I'll do a blogpost about the universe.

stephenage's picture

@NightShroud, this game has made me a fan of the universe. So I wold like to read that!

Kcire's picture

Excellent review sir!

stephenage's picture

@Kcire, thank you very much sire.

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