The Walking Dead franchise has been one of the multi-media runaway success stories of this millennium. First conceived as a gruesome black-and-white monthly comic book series in 2004 by Robert Kirkman, and still going strong 96 issues later, it was also the subject of an extremely well received television adaptation. Telltale Games, they of Tales of Monkey Island fame, were handed the responsibility of converting the morally ambiguous, gruesome and often emotionally difficult series into a game. Thankfully, they've managed to create a terrifically thought provoking affair; half interactive film, half survival horror, it's all heart both on and all over the screen.
Like Back to the Future before it (and still on-going), The Walking Dead is split into five episodes with sequential release dates, with A New Day being the first in the series. This is admirable; not only does it split the game into affordable, 400 MSP/£3.99 gobbets - a bargain - but it also allows time for the action of the episodes and the consequences of your own decisions to sink in.
As you can imagine from such quality source material, the story is the meat and gristle of the game. Telltale and Kirkman from an early stage made the wise decision of creating a new narrative with an original mix of characters in a similar time-frame and location, rather than re-creating the already-familiar tale of Rick Grimes. Instead, you play as Lee Everett, a man with a mysterious past (as always) who is thrown headlong (literally) into events. Familiar faces, like Hershel, appear, but a prior knowledge of the Walking Dead is not necessary; the sign of a quality tie-in.
This quality shines through in the exceptional presentation. Utilising a comic-book style (think XIII),the graphics are clean, crisp and detailed; the use of pencil lines for body folds and contours is particularly impressive, as are the emotions the characters are able to express through their facial features. The settings are likewise full of character and designed to maximise either the potential for claustrophobia or the danger of being out in the open; whether at a farm or a fortified store, you rarely feel safe. When the game does get violent (this is a zombie apocalypse after all) the gore is particularly striking, slamming home the gruesome consequences of the situation; an early incident involving a hammer, zombie, and watching child is particularly shocking.
Although there are the obligatory hordes of zombies to avoid/stare at ominously from a distance, these would not be nearly as menacing without the fear in the protagonists' voices, and the admissions of what they have lost while they protect what fragments of their lives remain. The voice-acting is first class; reactions are moderated, understated, often panicked, yet never over-acted. Although no actors from the series reprise their roles, this matters little; this is a convincing world, inhabited by ordinary people caught in an extraordinary situation, whether they're trying to protect their family or simply survive.
If the impression so far is that the game is more akin to an interactive film rather than a video game, then you're not far off. Like the illustrious Heavy Rain, the game involves lots of strolling around, tailed by a probably too static camera, interacting with the various other characters within the environment to either gather information, form/break alliances, or further the story. Although it could (and has) been accused of shallowness, this does not really do the game justice; the gameplay fits the atmosphere that's been painstakingly created. A third-person shooter, for instance, would be ridiculous, and a purely cut-scene based cinematic would not offer enough interaction to immerse the player.Instead, you use the right stick to search for interactions, be it with a person, object or zombie. What combat there is generally involves moving the interaction 'toggle' over the zombie before pressing the particular interactive button, mapped to the main buttons (A, B etc.), which then results in Lee kicking the face off the undead victim. Whilst talking to a person, you're given several options for response which have to be chosen within a time-limit. What you say effects how they react to you and whether they decide to help you or not. You can lie to them, but they might notice, chastising you; you could even tell the truth, but that might cause even more harm.
Interestingly, Telltale Games have stated that every choice enforces a consequence that may not be noticeable until the fourth or fifth episode in the series. Although many of these may just be a different character interaction, certain situations require harsh, immediate moral judgements, normally forcing you to choose between one of two characters to save from immediate death, leaving the other to their doom. Fans familiar with the tough morals of the comic, where popular and long-lasting favourites are suddenly and mercilessly killed off, will be aware of the frightening practicality of many of these decisions. Do you save the resourceful, tough man who saved your life early in the day and is incredibly useful in these harsh times, or do you pull the child from the clutches of the zombie, your moral compass insisting that the child must be saved, despite the fact it may hinder your own survival? The choice is not as straight forward as you may think, nor is there necessarily a 'correct' choice; both decisions have their pros and cons, which must be quickly weighed up before it's too late. These situations are unsettling, difficult and extremely tough; your decision is reflective of your own attitude, and questions you in a way that video games rarely achieve.
The Walking Dead is a tantalisingly ambitious project; high production values have met a driven narrative to create an entirely engrossing experience. It may only last for five hours or so, but this will likely be in one sitting, such is the gripping nature of the story and the tension prevalent throughout. Whilst the gameplay is perhaps a little shallow, it works to move the narrative along whilst offering enough interaction to make you feel like you're part of the apocalyptic and terrifying situations. Not only is this an extraordinary circumstance, but it is also an intensely human one too; irrationality and common sense clash in the will to survive, with perfectly decent people arguing to cull children in an attempt to remove excess baggage. This is a tough world, but one which will continue to thrill, shock and provoke thought long after the last episode has finished. At £3.99, The Walking Dead: Episode One – A New Day is not a risk; it is an essential purchase.
This review is based on an Xbox Live Arcade version of the game, provided by the publisher. The Walking Dead: A New Day is also available for the PC and PlayStation 3 (via the PlayStation Network).