The best known zombie series running gets one of the best comic/tv-to-game adaptations ever put out.
I was a huge fan of Telltale's Back to the Future series, at least early on. But as things wore on it felt like the developers got too far away from the tone of the franchise, strange considering they had nailed it perfectly from the outset. The Jurassic Park game that followed had me, and many others, worried that Telltale had entirely lost their touch (for reason we needn't bother with here). Luckily, any fretting was needless. Telltale Games have come back with not just one of the best Walking Dead products around, but one of their best games to date.
The TV Show Could Learn A Few Things
You begin The Walking Dead - Episode 1, known as "A New Day", in the back of a police car on your way to prison. You play as Lee Everett, a seemingly calm and pleasant man with a cloudy and unclear past. Suffice it to say, Lee never actually makes it to prison and instead wakes up in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Depending on your view The Clink, things either got or way better...but I digress. When you take control of the action you're in full on survival mode, and even though things play out in typical Telltale adventure game fashion, this is easily their best playing and most thrilling game to date.
The Walking Dead: Episode One is a deeply engrossing game, primarily because it keeps a running tally of your choices. This isn't just relegated to moral decisions or binary actions, but even minor threads of dialog like where you're from or what's your relationship with a little girl that you come across. All of these things matter. That doesn't necessarily mean everything pays off during the course of this brief, two-ish hour episode. Instead, you're likely to see results further down the line in future episodes. Telltale is also smart enough not to telegraph these moments. You'll simply engage in conversations and sometimes a prompt will come up informing you that someone will remember what you said or how you said it. It's such a small mechanic but it pays off in a big way, immediately making you more invested in what to reveal to others about Lee.
The reason this works is two-fold. First, the story and characters are excellent right from the get go. It's somewhat amazing, and amusing, that the game managed to tell a more compelling story in two hours than the TV show did all season. Of course, the developers had the comic book to work from as well and some familiar characters do make appearances throughout your journey. But what sells it all is the voice acting, which is simply the best that Telltale has ever produced. Even small side characters sell the universe that they're in; you know who they are and what they're feeling in just a few words. If the entire season keeps to this level of quality then I'll confidently say this is Telltale's most accomplished storytelling to date.
But this being a game story can't be everything, and in the gameplay department The Walking Dead is hit and miss. Timed button prompts pop up during the more tense moments of zombie survival, which tend to be too simple to elevate your stress levels, though they get the job done. Unfortunately the basic point-and-click action on consoles is frustrating at times. Just walking around a small store, full of characters, I had a hard time lining up the right clickable area with ease. Usually it's because the game requires you to hover over the icon in an unintuitive place. Fortunately, this never happens when your life is at risk.
And of course I couldn't review an adventure game without bemoaning at least some of the contrivances that we've mostly come to expect. In this case you have to ignore some inconsistencies with what will and won't attract a zombie's attention. During one of the more in-depth action sequences you're tasked with silently eliminating five zombies. You're expected to believe that smashing a window is too loud while crashing a car into a brick wall is perfectly fine. Aside from that you get the occasional aimlessness of trying to figure out how to proceed, but these things are never so bad you don't want to continue.
The Walking Dead: Episode One is a wonderful chunk of storytelling from Telltale and something that any Walking Dead fan should check out. The tiny two hour length may turn some of you off, but at just $5 for the episode (PSN & PC users can purchase the season for $20), it really shouldn't. The common point-and-click staples might hold this back from luring in any new types of players but those willing to take the chance will be kindly rewarded. If the next four episodes manage to keep the story consistent, and hopefully improve upon the action, then we could be in for a real treat. Here's to hoping...
Final Score: 90%
Astonishing -- An exceptional accomplishment in gaming that has only a couple minor flaws that are easy to forgive because it's just too damned fun. A standard we wish all games could achieve and something everyone should try.