The Walking Dead: Episode 1 - A New Day (Xbox 360) Review
Developer: Telltale Games
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC
Reviewed on Xbox 360
Based on the comic book series The Walking Dead (that also spawned a television show of the same name), Telltale Games' episodic adventure follows the story of a new protagonist, Lee Everett. Convicted of a heinous crime, Everett is on his way to prison when the police car transporting him crashes, leaving Everett wounded and stranded near Atlanta as the dead begin walking the earth... and devouring the living.
Making a suspenseful and dramatic adventure game poses difficult challenges, but Telltale Games manages pretty well. Doing a comedic classic adventure game is a lot easier. Puzzles can break up the pace, so it's easier when puzzles can, themselves, be punchlines. Oh! I see... the shoehorn and the stuffed peccary... ah... that's kinda funny. With horror and suspense, the traditional model doesn't work well. In a serious horror game such as The Walking Dead, searching the environment for two batteries to make a radio work just isn't exciting. That's why it's an optional payoff: anything with a challenge risks derailing the narrative. Hence, the game relies heavily on conversation trees and quick time events (QTEs).
As much as I think QTEs are a cheap way of forcing interactivity on non-participatory sequences like cut-scenes, I appreciate how The Walking Dead approaches them. You don't just press "A" to stab the zombie to death with an awl. You align the crosshairs near a dot and press "A" to stab the zombie in the eye with an awl. Then you do it a few more times before everyone gasps with relief as the zombie falls to the ground. It's visceral, but it's still a QTE and feels forced. These events also bugged me for a pettier reason. On the Xbox 360, you can't invert the joystick axes, and I'm one of those old farts that needs an inverted y-axis to function. Trying to move the crosshairs under time pressure during these QTEs made me feel like I was operating the controller with my foot. That option would have made a world of difference to my experience.
Telltale Games' own FAQ claims that the game doesn't use QTEs, but I'm hard-pressed to call them anything else. The game also relies heavily on conversational trees. Whether this works or not is hard to say, and that's a factor of this being an episodic adventure. The game constantly reminds you that your actions have consequences, but it's often hard to tell what those consequences are beyond some text appearing on the screen to say something like "Rufus noticed you did that thing." Some dialog varied between two playthroughs. In the second, I made opposite decisions and was as much of an ass as possible, but everything ended up the same. Even when I had to choose between saving one of two characters, not much changed beyond some angry dialog. The second time I got to choose between survivors, it mattered, but I won't know if that meant more than a different character model for the final scene until the next episode.
I realize my tone sounds overly negative. I really enjoyed the first episode. It took me a little over two hours to get through, and only really broke my flow during a loading screen and when I failed to fight the babysitter zombie fast enough and I had to restart that section. The plot is intense and captured the look and feel of the comics. Everything started brilliantly, with a great sequence that introduced me to the controls and the opening of the zombie apocalypse. In fact, if the game hadn't emphasized how vital my choices were, I would have felt like the first episode of The Walking Dead was a clever interactive graphic novel, with some great adventure sequences, such as a clever stealth sequence in a motel parking lot. When faced with dire choices like deciding which survivor to save, I expected more feedback than I got. Important choices need remarkable consequences, or it devalues the impact of the choice.
The Walking Dead: Episode 1 - A New Day is a worthwhile outing for $5, and is a suitably intense interactive graphic-novel experience. The game's real failing is in overpromising during its opening moments, and failing to deliver on that promise.