The living dead are stumbling down I-85. Black helicopters fly overheard. You are in handcuffs, stuck in the back of a police car. Welcome to the end of your world.
In Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead: Episode 1 – A New Day, you play Lee Everett, a University of Georgia professor with a less-than-perfect past. The game opens just before the events of the now classic comic The Walking Dead #1, with Lee captive in the back of a police car and on his way out of Atlanta as the first batch of dead rise and walk the earth.
Lee is estranged from his own family, but finds himself in a world filled with walking corpses and with a little girl, Clementine, to protect after a walker-induced police car wreck. The game is within the continuity of the comic book and not the television show, making for some interesting characterizations.
Telltale’s The Walking Dead is a great licensed game, maybe one of the best licensed games of all time in the way it re-creates the pacing and feel of the comic series. The game is heavy on character interaction and suspense, like the comic and show, and light on puzzles and item hunting. Action sequences are spread out; this is not Left 4 Dead or Dead Island, but a character driven game with action elements only added in when completely necessary. Think of The Walking Dead as Maniac Mansion and a poor man’s version of Heavy Rain put into a blender containing 10 or 15 issues of Kirkman and Adlard’s comic—a nice mix, especially for the episode price of $4.99.
Player dialogue is carried out like a Bioware game, but with a five second time limit to answer in most situations. React slowly and Lee will give a gruff default response. Unlike most Bioware games, Lee repeats your dialogue choices verbatim.
The controls are intuitive—an easy to understand combination of D-pad, analogue stick movements, and screen-prompted button pushes control all aspects of the game. The controls become a bit tricky during action sequences, especially when aiming for a zombie’s eyehole or moving while in cover. There are no negative effects accrued from Lee dying, making the game accessible to novice players.
The absence/inability to play as Rick Grimes, Shane Walsh, or Daryl Dixon might turn off some fans, but it really makes for a better experience. Placing the player in the role of Lee Everett and surrounding him with a largely unknown cast gives a feeling of freshness and suspense. The core characters you come across do not appear in the series, making them fair game to become zombie chow. Plus it makes sense given the nature of this particular zombie apocalypse—Rick and crew obviously aren’t the only walking dead who have to confront this dilemma.
Some of your dialogue decisions make an immediate impact (noted by a convenient “Non-player character will remember this” that flashes onscreen), forcing the player to remember what each NPC knows so Lee doesn’t get caught in a lie.
During episode one, you will meet a couple of familiar characters, but it’s the comic book versions you’ll encounter and not the TV translations. Herschel Green is not the portly, pious gentleman from the television series, but a skinny, foul-mouthed veterinarian that quickly kicks Lee off his family farm. You also come across Glenn, who is delivering pizzas in a small college town and leaves for Atlanta as a result of your actions in the course of the episode, setting the table for Glenn’s eventual meet-up with Rick Grimes and company.
The graphics are exceptional, particularly for a PSN game. They’re cel shaded, like The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. It gives the game a comic book feel, with the heavy black lines around character features mimicking an inker’s nib.
The first episode clocks in at roughly 2-3 hours. That’s considerably longer than the average issue of The Walking Dead, which retails for $2.99 and can usually be polished off in five minutes or so. On a dollar-to-time basis, Telltale’s $4.99 offering is worth twenty to thirty issues of the comic, with the opening scene contributing at least three issues worth of content.
Other than some of background dialogue elements, the settings for episode one are set in stone. The background characters are not—you will find yourself deciding who lives and dies from the outset of the game, with your decisions ranked against other players at the end of the episode, where I learned my choices were decidedly unpopular. Oh well.
The closing credits of The Walking Dead: Episode 1 – A New Day gives a short preview of episode two, Starved for Help which is scheduled for release on May 30th, 2012. Are you a “wait for the trade paperback” person when it comes to comics? The episodes will likely come out in disc form after all the episodes are released, following in the steps of such previous Telltale games as Back to the Future and Jurassic Park. But do you want to miss out on this batch of monthly, episodic suspense that is as good as the TV show or comic?
Keith Veronese is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to Gawker Media’s io9. He tried to round up money to buy Super Mario Bros. 3 by soliciting neighborhood men and women for chores, leading his parents to ask him to stop, lest the neighbors think them poor. You can send death threats to him on Twitter or mock him here for bonus enjoyment.