I've been a fan of Robert Kirkman's "The Walking Dead" for years, from the long-running graphic novel series to the excellent AMC television show. While the inclusion of zombies and unflinching gore adds to the franchise's cool factor, I've always found the character interaction and dialogue to be the key ingredient that separates "The Walking Dead" from standard horror fare.
For the opening episode of "The Walking Dead" video game, "A New Day," Telltale Games has succeeded in capturing those same ingredients, crafting an original story set in Kirkman's universe that is filled with the same likeable characters and personal conflict that drew me to the series in the first place. And yes, there is plenty of death, gore and of course, zombies.
"The Walking Dead" game features a number of characters and locations that should be instantly recognizable to fans of the comic series, but this isn't another chapter in the life of Rick Grimes. Instead, you play as Lee Everett, a man who finds himself in the back of the police car headed to prison when the zombie apocalypse begins. After escaping his bonds following a violent car crash, Everett meets up with Clementine, a young girl who has spent the opening days of the undead uprising surviving on her own after her parents' disappearance.
The relationship between Lee and Clementine feels natural and believable, a fact driven home by wonderful voice acting and a competent script. The same goes for the exchanges Lee has with other survivors. For a game as narrative-driven as "The Walking Dead," this is central to the overall experience. I quickly found myself immersed in this new world and caring for Lee, Clementine and the others.
And in typical "Walking Dead" fashion, no sooner than I started to care for these characters did they become prime targets for hungry zombies. This is where "The Walking Dead" game becomes much more than your typical survival-horror offering, as the choices you make - from major decisions like who lives or dies, to the answers you give to even the simplest of questions - have a long-lasting effect on the world around you and how your fellow survivors feel about you. Some conversations give you unlimited time to process the situation and think through your response, but other times you'll have mere seconds to make a decision that could affect the remainder of your game.
Your actions and words have far-reaching consequences, even stretching beyond this episode. Side against someone now and they will remember it moving forward - a teaser for Episode 2 offers a glimpse at how this mechanic will work, and I can't wait to see if Telltale Games can successfully pull it off.
While the story is central to "The Walking Dead," there is more to the game than just talking. You interact with the world around you by highlighting objects and pressing a context-sensitive button. For example, you can move the cursor over an axe and press a button to pick it up. Then look at a locked gate and you'll be prompted to use the axe to smash the lock in order to open the door. Combat works in a similar way - you move the cursor over a zombie's head and you'll be prompted to attack in a logical manner using whatever weapon you happen to have handy. It sounds simple and, in theory, it is. But the window to successfully line up the cursor and press the button is small, and failing results in a gory death at the hands of the undead.
Recent Telltale Games titles have been a mixed bag, but "The Walking Dead: Episode 1" is easily some of the developer's best work. Time will tell if future episodes can live up to the bar set by this debut offering, but the foundation is certainly in place. This is an epic adventure that fans of "The Walking Dead" won't want to miss.
"The Walking Dead: Episode 1"
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Available for: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC ($5)
Rating: M for mature