The Walking Dead – A Final Review

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The Walking Dead has been an interesting game to follow during its development and in the months since its conclusion.  It is a game that seems to draw either high praise or great derision depending upon who you ask and people’s impression of the game as a whole swing from ‘perfect’ to ‘laughable’.

I did a mini-review of the first two episodes of the series quite a while ago and never bothered to write down my final impressions of the game.  I’d like to remedy that now.

Let me start by listing the points of the game I found to be positive.  The voice acting, character interaction, and difficult ethical decisions placed before the player are all laudable.  I would imagine that the majority of the budget went towards the voice recording and having emotionally charged interactions between the actors really helps bring the game world alive.  The story is – in and of itself – a tepid zombie survival story but game manages to overcome the uninteresting setting with the smaller, more intimate character stories we get to explore.  The top notch character performances really help bring that home.  And the moral quandaries ask much more of the player than we find in most other games.  In most FPS games you’ll find people randomly shoot NPC’s just to see if they can hurt them but in The Walking Dead you’re asked to really think about if it’s suitable to take a human life, even a life that is as good as over.

For all of that, the game is severely hampered by poor game design, uninspired adventure elements, low quality art direction, many many gamebreaking bugs, and a lack of meaningful development from the decisions the player is asked to make.  I won’t go into these things in too much depth, but I will say that taken together, and further taken with Telltale Game’s response (virtually none) to those affected by bugs on all platforms I really can’t recommend this game.

The main problem is the savegame bugs which have been rife on the PC but have also been seen on the XBox, Playstation, and IOs versions of the game.  The game is designed to track your progress through each episode and tabulate your ‘major’ decisions at the end vs. the rest of the community that has been playing the game.  When you begin a new episode this data is passed onward to the next episode and the content should match your past decisions.  So in Episode 1 you can choose to save either Doug or Carly.  If you save Carly in Episode 1 then you play with Carly in the next episodes – seems obvious enough!  However, the game also allows you to start a chapter with random choices – this would be for if you own the whole game and wanted to start a new game from say Episode 3 it will just make up decisions for what happened during the first 2 episodes.  But the game had problems – mainly on PC and Mac – where decisions wouldn’t be carried over from previous episodes and random decisions would be used.  Often times people didn’t even realize these changes had taken place because the impact is generally so small – a different line of dialogue here and there – but could be much more obvious if suddenly Doug comes back to life and Carly is gone.  This led to a huge disconnect for me as I was hit with this bug on Episode 3, 4, and 5.  Basically nothing I did in the last half of the game stuck.  There were unofficial fixes for this problem posted on the forums but I didn’t make use of them as I had already overwritten my episode 3 savegame by the time I realized what was happening.  After that I was too disgruntled about the buggy state of the game to take it seriously.  Suddenly being all buddy-buddy with Kenny and not knowing what kind of example I had set for Clementine made it feel like my personal touch to the story had been completely destroyed.

The bugginess of the save system is a symptom of a larger problem with the game – lazy design.  You can see it in so many aspects of the game, from the lack of working controller support, inability to remap input keys, lazy re-use of the same limited backgrounds over and over again rather than creating just a few more interesting places to look at, poor animation and character modeling, and an engine that runs far worse than is warranted by its final output.  Telltale comes off as a hack company just wanting to cash in on the brand rather than put serious time into creating a polished piece of art.

And further damning them is the fact that the developers have had no official response to these problems.  They actually have no direct online customer service to speak of aside from e-mail.  All of their tech support is done on their company forums by individuals who specifically state they’re not employed by Telltale.  When you’ve got a GotY hit that has made you millions and millions of dollars it says something about a company that they’re not willing to pay anyone to help customers experience the game the way it was intended.

So for myself The Walking Dead went through quite a few revisions as to how I felt about it.  In Episode 1 I felt let down by the adventure elements but in Episode 2 I found I was really liking the game due to its characters and ethical decisions.  In Episode 3 I was miffed that I lost progress and found the story less compelling than Episode 2 – really not enough happened in Episode 3.  Episode 4 and 5 saw similar technical problems but finished stronger than Episode 3.  While the story and game ended on a good – not great – note, the technical faults of the product led me to feel really let down and unsatisfied with my purchase.  I won’t be picking up further Telltale games, even if reviewers are willing to throw GotY awards at them.

 

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Review: The Walking Dead, Episodes 1 and 2

                                            

     Adventure games are dead, right?  Many gamers would say so, but Telltale Games is looking to prove them wrong with their latest offering based upon the comic book ‘The Walking Dead’.   With this game they sought to capture the violence of the comics and highlight the difficult choices the characters must make.  The game focuses primarily on story told through machinima and shies away from convoluted puzzle solving.  An adventure game with mass appeal.  About the dead.

 

     For those who take offense at my opening comment, yes adventure games are still alive and well, but there is a perception that they’re dead.  At the very least one must recognize that they are much diminished from their hay day when they were regarded as AAA titles.  Today no matter how well crafted a ‘traditional’ adventure game may be it will never be more than a niche product.  This is not due to any devaluation of adventure games themselves but  because gamers as a market have broadened and differentiated themselves from the times when computer gaming was done in the basement with a $2000.00 piece of hardware.  Today the market majority are not interested in the minutia of trying to organize a complicated set of precise circumstances to take a single step forward – the hallmark of old school adventure games.  The Walking Dead doesn’t follow this traditional construction.  So for those who are looking for an adventure game of yore, you will not find it.  Telltale games is trying to reach that broader audience by making less an adventure game and more of an interactive movie with mild point & click sequences.  And I say this not to denigrate their efforts but to explain that this game cannot be appreciated (or reviewed) as a traditional adventure game.   As always we want to look for the good we can find in any artistic work and so I urge those who play the game not to criticize it on its shortcomings compared to classic point & click puzzlers.  This is an interactive movie.  For those who have played games such as Indigo Prophecy, Heavy Rain, or to a lesser extent Shadow of Memories/Shadow of Destiny you should look at this game from that standpoint.

And with that caveat out of the way, it’s also important to play this game with both the proper expectations and in the correct way.  I started this series with a traditional adventure game mindset – subtitles turned on, nose to the screen ready to do my pixel hunting.  If you go in with this kind of mindset you’re going to miss a lot – this game was also developed with the console market in mind.  As such, if you’re pressed to the screen looking for details or reading subtitles you’re going to miss a lot of what you’re meant to witness – little facial expressions, cues in the background, and even the overall action are meant to be enjoyed from a comfortable viewing distance.  The environment does not need to be dissected critically so you can comfortably sit back 4 or 5 feet (as far as those headphones will reach!) and enjoy the game.  Personally I’ve taken to playing on my HDTV from my comfy couch.

     Let’s discuss the source material and the expectations most viewers will be bringing with them.  ‘The Walking Dead’ is a comic book written by Richard Kirkman and illustrated by Tony Moore (originally) and Charlie Adlard (after issue 7).  It focuses on a group of survivors during a zombie apocalypse and their travels to find safety.  However, most people have not been exposed to the comic version of the story.  AMC began producing a version of the story for television in 2010 and found great success in telling the story of Rick Grimes and the survivors from Atlanta.  The show focused less on the zombies – called ‘walkers’ in the show and in Telltale’s game – and more on the problems of survival.  Ethical questions about when it was acceptable to kill another, the importance of inclusion and safety within a group, and the question of whether the walkers should be destroyed.  Most people who will be interested in the game will have watched the TV series – at least in part.  It’s important to note that the game tells a different story so you won’t be getting a rehash of AMC’s series and you’ll have different characters to get to know.  Also, the game is based more closely on the comic book than the TV show.  While the series on AMC gained notoriety for its realistic depiction of the hardships and moral challenges faced by the survivors the comic book is known to be less realistic with significantly more gore.  The themes dealt with in the TV show are still present but they’re driven by a comic book style with stylized killings, blood and dismemberment.

So that’s a lot about what to expect – now how does it hold up?  Does it meet the goals we should expect for this kind of game?  Yes and no, but there is a lot to enjoy here.

Episode 1 starts slow and makes a few stumbles.  It sets the stage for what we can expect from the game – cinematics and choices.  It doesn’t do so in the most elegant way possible though.  First and foremost what I noticed when I started the game is that, while it does sport some comic styled graphics, it doesn’t impress in the looks department.  This feels like an older direct x 7 game with simple textured polygons, baked shadows, projected shadow maps, and pre-created lightmaps.  Certainly we do see some HDR/bloom lighting and the occasional depth of field effect but that doesn’t change the fact that the game presents itself as simple polygon set-pieces with precalculated lighting.  Character animation seems to be purely keyframe defined (and why not?  Since it’s not variable for the most part) with no dynamic animations.  Modeling is last-gen with plenty of simple textured backdrops, low polygon objects, simple alpha textured grass, and poor rigging on character models.  As far as the character animation and modeling goes they look good from a distance but closer inspection shows severe vertex warping at joints which doesn’t really cut it as we’re gearing up for DX11 consoles.  And so my first impression is that the game just doesn’t look modern.

The introduction of the game falls flat by just not being that interesting.  We meet the playable character – Lee Everett – and start to get some background but nothing concrete and before you know it you’ve hit a walker, crashed, and wake up in an overturned police vehicle.  After escaping in a sequence that’s more annoying than compelling we break into a house to find first aid and have our first face-to-face with a walker.  The game quickly shows you how brutal it’s going to be as we have no choice but to collapse the creature’s head with a hammer.  During the encounter we also meet Clementine who Lee decides almost instantly to take under his wing.  And herein lies the issue that I had with Episode 1:  it doesn’t make you adequately appreciate the characters at this early stage of the game.  It feels like they’re just props standing in to put on a cliché zombie story.  They meet and before you can even start to feel sorry for Clem they’re joined at the hip.  Lee only comes off as a good guy even if you try to be a jerk which makes you start to wonder why you’re bothering to make these choices.  So to take an example from later if we’re going to choose to kill someone then why does Lee have to frown and look remorseful afterwards?

As you don’t immediately feel an attachment to the characters your inclination might be to toy with them at this point in the game.  Meanwhile the group grows as you meet other survivors in town and begin to work together (whether you want to or not!) to find medicine for Larry and gasoline for Kenny.  The game does have some mild adventure game sequences that involve finding creative ways to off zombies or opening doors.  These are sequences are – as stated above – very simplistic compared to other games of this nature and you quickly find that the most enjoyable part of the game is not the point & click, but the choices you get to make.  So after saving Glenn at the Motel and killing four or five zombies by pinning them with cars, shoving an icepick through their eyes, or with a swift axe to the head we find that making the decision to kill an infected girl, leave her to her fate, or let her commit suicide is much more compelling than all the puzzles that lead up to it.  And at about this point in the game I started to notice I felt differently about it – the decisions did matter, and not just in what they showed on the screen but in what they said about my own thought process in dealing with the situation.  It’s a shame the game waits until almost the end of episode 1 to start making the player feel this way, but at least it ends on an upward note.

Episode 2 was released late, but with what I see as good reason.  It feels much more polished than Episode 1.  Graphically it’s still mundane, but we see better direction in the overall presentation.  The camera feels more dynamic, depth of field is put to better use, and the characters interact in motion (hunting in a woods, clearing fences, arguing while trying to escape a locked room) much more often.  It gives a better impression that they’re taking part in a world rather than just talking at the camera.  My theory is that Telltale put more money into this episode than the previous.  Telltale famously has said that they can produce one of these games and break even by selling a mere 100,000 copies.  The Walking Dead, due to its strong brand and advertising through the TV show and its availability on Xbox and Playstation consoles, sold over 1 million copies when it was first released.  So Telltale certainly gained a buffer for their production with this game.  After the release of Back to the Future they stated that they were looking to increase their staff from 90 employees to 140 employees so it’s feasible they’ve picked up even more hands recently – there are actually job postings on their website as I type this.  The takeaway here is that I found Episode 2 to be more aesthetically pleasing than Episode 1 and have hopes that the increased production values will continue into Episode 3.

Episode 2 takes the importance of decisions and runs with it.  Straight from the outset you’ll be making choices that paint you as warm or cold, invested in the group or a loner, principled or utilitarian.  Now the same caveat applies from above – Lee always acts like a ‘nice’ guy even if you try to be the most cold hearted Nietzschian motherfucker to ever walk the face of the earth but you CAN still make those choices and they do start to add up and effect the way the others look at you.   I found myself trying to make choices that would cement alliances and inspire loyalty in some of my companions while pushing others aside who I felt were either too volatile or too annoying to stick beside.  And by the end of Episode 2, after some predictable but incredibly well orchestrated plot twists, I was surprised to find I had started to care about Lee and about the example I was setting towards Clementine and my friends in the group.  The game was no longer about just playing with props; now I was interacting with characters.

     So what can I say about the game overall?  If I take all the negatives and headaches of the game’s presentation and delivery I can’t gainsay the one thing that it has accomplished – it’s made me care.  Nothing more needs to be said – I’m eagerly awaiting Episode 3.

 For those interested in taking the plunge be sure to check out http://www.telltalegames.com/walkingdead/  or look for the game on Steam.

I’ve also started a playthrough of The Walking Dead on my youtube channel – http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL6B974571E6587A1F