We've reached the half-way point of Telltale's adaption of The Walking Dead series, and if you still haven't played any of the episodes yet then I'm not quite sure why you're reading this. Seriously, it's the third episode now; go and play the others, then come back.
Everyone else still here? Good. By this point in an episodic series, it is difficult to really add anything new to what has already been said about the game mechanics itself; the graphics are the same, the voice-acting still convincing and the interactive game-play absorbing. If you want that analysis, here is a link to the first review which covers these areas (and here is the second to keep you keen). Instead, I will focus on the pacing and storyline (sans spoilers) of Long Road Ahead, the toughest episode of the series so far by some distance. It goes without saying that for fans of The Walking Dead, and for fans of narrative driven games in general, this is an essential purchase and a brilliant continuation of the peerlessly dramatic series.
After the horrors of the Dairy Farm, the tensions which had started to split the group continue to fester in the claustrophobic motel. Lilly and Kenny are at each others necks, whilst the revelation that someone is stealing supplies unleashes a series of catastrophic events for the group which mean they hit the road in a hurry. To go into any more detail would spoil the broth, but as you would expect each player's experience will be shaped by their previous decisions; things that I describe, or conversation and feeling provoked may never appear for you, or vice-versa.
The decision making process is perhaps the most apparent, and oft used, feature in this instalment. Choices come thick and fast, starker and less ambiguous than in the earlier games; they can be a literal matter of life and death. And boy is there a lot of death. The Walking Dead universe has never seemed more unnerving or cruel, even in a series that causes more grief and anguish than any you can care to mention. This is a true horror game, a genuinely horrifying experience in both subject matter and the strain placed upon the player as the unfortunate Lee. In one instance it goes further than even the most unsettling or unpleasant games have ever managed; the death of this character, and you will know when you come to it, I believe is a video-gaming first and has broken a taboo I wish never to see repeated again. Robert Kirkman's point is proven though; a zombie apocalypse and the end of human civilization forces upon people the direst of situations and the worst of consequences, provoking them into acts that would in any other circumstance could never be carried out, let alone moved on from. But move on they must, and so must we.
If there any faults with Long Road Ahead in comparison to its predecessors, and there really aren't many, the main one is probably a heavy handed use of narrative pacing. A sense of quiet before the storm is understandable, building tension before all hell breaks loose, it was perhaps unnecessary to have every major incident preceded by a moment of calm contemplation. Although once or twice it works well, it soon becomes far too obvious when the next moments of action will come to the point you can effectively count it in; a sloppy piece of work considering how well considered the rest of the game is. Unfortunately, this sloppiness results in a loss of tension through the hackneyed peace scenes, meaning that one spends too much time anticipating the next disaster rather than reflecting on the previous gut-wrenching decision, a consideration which surely these moments are intended to inspire. Thankfully, these instances are just about saved by an array of puzzles to be solved, each plausible within the world but interesting enough to hold the player's attention despite amounting to little more than 'find A, place in B, turn C.' An attempt is also made to introduce a shooting mechanic to certain action scenes, but it is haphazard and poorly implented; an awful contact engine means that plum shots cause no damage, leading to frustration and annoying deaths. However, this scenario is not repeated and the mechanics are barely used, so hopefully they will be improved for the next episode.
Still, this is utterly absorbing stuff, and everything that worked well in the earlier episodes still applies here. The interactive interface, where every action is performed by the player invokes a sense of cohesion and place in the world that pointing and clicking cannot replicate; it feels as though you are becoming Lee. Action and fights scenes are tight and tense affairs, matters of timing and accuracy which avoids the pitfalls of QTE-ran events. The vocal talent excels itself once again, creating convincing characters in scenarios of almost implausible horror and suffering. The comic book style of the graphics works tremendously well, and it is a great testament to the precision of the style that the emotion and suffering of these characters comes across so well despite the less realistic presentation.
To call Long Road Ahead a joy would be a misleading. It is not joyous, enjoyable, or any other descriptive of such positivity. This is a tough and harrowing journey, torturous and riddled with sadness and regret. The decisions are harsh and the outcomes harsher, comeuppance rarely received and innocence well and truly lost. Yet it is a brilliant, absorbing and relentless journey, effortlessly playable and intensely fascinating; you will spend as much time thinking about the game as you will playing it, likely in one sweeping play-through. Once again I cannot recommend The Walking Dead highly enough, and I will do some serious damage if this does not win at least one game of the year award. Roll on the next episode, in all its undoubtedly grim glory. It can't get any worse for the survivors, surely?
The Walking Dead: Episode 3 - Long Road Ahead was reviewed using an Xbox Live Arcade version of the game, supplied by the publisher. Long Road Ahead is also available on the PlayStation 3 and PC.