Blood. Guts. Violence. These are not the reasons the zombie apocalypse is such a popular point in fiction. It is the destruction of society on every level, the violation of everything we take for granted. People dying on a massive scale, then returning as monsters that need to be escaped from or destroyed. Cities brought to a halt when nobody is left to turn the wheels. Normal human beings pushed beyond their physical, mental and emotional limits. We also care because we wonder what we would do. We postulate and plan and silently rate each exit in a room for effectiveness and safety.
Maybe that’s just me. But zombies just keep on popping up in video games, and it’s hard not to view them as simulations for the inevitable. The Walking Dead seeks to do just that – simulate – in favour of direct control over where you stand, when you swing the baseball bat and how good you are at going from A to B. It is a zombie experience more than a zombie game.
The back of a police car is the first place A New Day takes us. It’s here we’re introduced to Lee Everett, a man with a teaching degree and enough secrets to justify his ride to prison. Probably. The Walking Dead will eventually be five episodes strong, but for now it begins with a simple conversation. Lee is in trouble and being transported out of Atlanta by a chatty Sheriff. During your short ride you participate in a short discussion and prepare for the many to follow, as much of the game plays out through conversations. Sheriff Well I Reckon will talk away and you can choose your responses from a list in classic adventure game fashion. Those with no desire to talk also have the option of saying nothing, which will make you seem enigmatic (or possibly just plain rude).
This is a nice, leisurely introduction to the dialogue system, with most responses being timed by a little bar at the bottom of the screen. It lends an air of urgency to even the simplest chat, and engages the player in otherwise static scenes. It also forced you to make snap decisions that might blow up in your face. Lying to a character about your past, for example, might put them offside if they find out. But then the same might happen if you tell the truth. The game reacts to your decisions and watching those choices play out will be a major reason to keep playing the series.
Before long, Lee and the car he rode out on collide with one of the shambling undead and end up in a ditch, beginning the game proper. After two violent and emotional confrontations with zombies, Lee finds himself saddled with a little girl called Clementine and a plan that amounts to little more than finding some helpful strangers and not dying on the way. This first episode introduces a lot of characters and does it quickly, as the situation demands, but Telltale are to be commended for handling it all in such a way that immediately connects you with everyone you meet.
I give a lot of credit to the writing for this. It’s treading a lot of well-worn ground here, what with all the trapped survivors of an apocalyptic event thrust together and fighting for dominance, but each person in the game feels real and important. If only in their own story. From the slightly useless farmer’s son and his fat oaf of a buddy, to the take-charge soldier and her overbearing father, each role is played to perfection by the script and the voice actors. My one exception would be Clementine, who sounds more like a Saturday Morning Cartoon version of a little girl than the real thing.
Were the sounds and writing not up to the task, the visuals could more than handle the load. The Walking Dead looks drop-dead gorgeous, and I make no excuses for that pun. Previous Telltale games have always looked fun and quirky, but this is a whole other level. The game replicates the style of the comic book in such a way that any given screenshot looks like it was ripped right from a glossy printed page. The animation is also slick, with particular attention paid to the character expressions. When someone is so scared they can feel their bowels evacuating, you can see it in their face. It’s comic, but never cartoonish. Walking around still looks a little stiff, as it does in most Telltale productions, but the pre-animated scenes are smooth and packed with action.
Not that you’ll do much walking. The vast majority of the game is either spent in aforementioned conversations or participating in quick-time events. And I love it. The quick-time events are your standard fare in that you must press this or click that to prevent instant death, but they are given a welcome twist in that many require you to aim in the general direction of the target before you let loose. It makes you feel a little more involved and ties into the chaotic urgency of the situation. I made a rookie mistake early on and fired my shotgun wide; the sense of terror I felt as Lee hopelessly clicked the trigger of the empty firearm in the face of death left a bitter taste in my mouth.
Time not spent talking and flailing madly with hammers and fire axes is all about wandering around looking for tools, solving puzzles and finding people to talk to again. The game switches up between these modes often enough that it really feels like a coherent adventure all the way through, with very little random wandering to break up the pace thanks to a zombie apocalypse keeping you contained. Do yourself a big favour, though, and play with the minimal UI. It switches off certain visual and dialogue cues that are helpful but entirely unnecessary.
At key points you will be forced into a choice by the situation. A hard choice. Generally it involves someone dying if you don’t help them, and the writers should be applauded for setting up reasonably complex decisions despite the simplicity. There were some heated arguments in my household about how bad of a person I am for making certain choices. Alone, these moments are a nice touch in a game that professes to shape itself around your style of play. But within the context of a title that uses every moment to push the emotional and intellectual weight of your actions, and which does a pretty damn good job of making you care about the lives of imaginary people you only met five minutes ago, they become much more.
Despite the gorgeous comic book aesthetic and the predetermined characters, despite the reflex clicking and the dialogue choice lists, I actually felt more in the moment than I have in many action games. If The Walking Dead can live up to the promises made in A New Day and provide an increasingly confronting and entertaining look at humanity pushed to the limit, then I will follow them to the end of the world.