Nukezilla Review: The Walking Dead (Xbox 360)
Back when I gave my impressions of the first episode of The Walking Dead I talked about how this was a crucial game for Telltale. Now that it has been both a critical and a commercial success, it’s clear that they’ve done what they needed to do.
For as long as they’ve existed Telltale has been wrestling with some important questions about adventure games. How can they be made more accessible to a wider audience without making them dumb? How do you deliver episodic content without compromising on quality? Can adventure games provide a sort of challenge that isn’t traditional inventory puzzles?
The Walking Dead feels like the start of a proper answer to all of those, if not a complete answer. It marks the first time they’ve broken free from a traditional puzzle structure in a way that feels truly successful. The usual scavenger hunts, item combinations and lateral thinking are largely missing, replaced with dialogue choices, the occasional timed event and very little else. At first it might seem like they’ve taken out the game. But you’d be wrong to think that.
You come to realise that the game is alive and well, but it’s happening in your head, whenever you have to make a difficult decision about what to say or do. Of course, then you will eventually realise that your decisions don’t make a huge difference to the plot. Whatever you choose, the story is going essentially the same way through the five episodes. Even the hardest choices will have little impact on the where you are by the end of chapter five.
But you still care, and the reason is that no matter the precise details of the plot, by making those decisions you are defining the protagonist Lee as a person. You are changing, sometimes in quite subtle ways, how other characters will react to you in the future. It’s not plot-shattering stuff, but it feels important and somehow appropriate for a game where the story deals in so much despair and hopelessness. You may not be able to change where things are going, but what you can do is grab hold of that one small aspect of the story, the story of Lee, and own a small part of it.
You’ll care when you have to decide on whether to do something while the girl, Clementine is there to see – not because you think it will change very much, but because you care what she, as a character, thinks of you. You’ll care about whether you lie or tell the truth, not because you expect it’ll come back to haunt you but because that is the kind of person you’ve decided to be, and your principles are all you have. That is a remarkable thing for any video game to achieve: for you to feel strongly about your choices not because of mechanics of reward or some sort of binary morality meter that you can track, but just because the writing and characters are good enough to make you want to respect them.
The only problems that are too big to ignore are many of the the same things that have been complaints in almost all previous Telltale games. The engine seems to be showing its age especially on consoles, with frequent long loading times, and the occasional visual glitch or slowdown that makes me wish they’d had more time to clean it up. And I often feel like if they had a little more time to work on animations, these scenes would come to life so much more.
For all there is to love about The Walking Dead (and there is plenty), I couldn’t help but wonder what it could have been like with higher production values available. Now that a second season is essentially guaranteed, and Telltale has been able to expand into bigger offices, I’m looking forward to playing a Telltale game that is as technically competent as it is successful in other areas.
This review is day twenty-six of the December 2012 Nukestravaganza