We’ve all survived a zombie apocalypse before. We’ve uncovered the crimes of the Umbrella Corporation in Resident Evil. We’ve snapped photos while mini-chainsawing through seas of zombies in Dead Rising. We’ve taken them down by the thousands in Left 4 Dead. We’ve planted the seeds of their destruction in Plants vs. Zombies. We’ve learned zombies aren’t something to be afraid of. Play with them, put hats on them, and eat an herb if you get bitten.
Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead takes a different approach as it focuses on the exploits of escaped prisoner Lee Everett as he makes his way through the savage Southern landscape depicted in the comic book version of The Walking Dead. To keep with the comic book-like nature of the series, Telltale Games releases the cel-shaded game in “episodes” each month. (To keep even more with the comic book theme, the wait time between episodes grows with each one, as they are increasingly delayed.)
The game’s atmosphere of relentless paranoia, dread, and, surprisingly, monotony take you further inside the hypothetical life of a zombie apocalypse survivor than any version of the Walking Dead. To use a word that you rarely associate with the zombie genre: it’s realistic.
The zombies of other games and most movies are cannon fodder. They’re something to get killed on the way to some other goal. In The Walking Dead, they are terrifying. You can see and feel their former humanity. They are strong hands and hungry mouths constantly hounding you. An encounter with a zombie doesn’t even end with the zombie’s death. The stress sticks with you as you continue further into the game.
The game’s greatest strength is its two lead characters, Lee and Clementine. Lee’s a suitable player surrogate, as he’s relatable and smart. Clementine, though, is a wonder. Children are usually insufferable in games. Clementine is a kid who is funny, resourceful, and intelligent. Within the Walking Dead universe, she blows away Carl as a character.
Choice, action, and inaction are the major themes of the series up through the most recent episode, "Long Road Ahead." Players are given ample opportunities to choose their futures in the game. These range from major decisions, such as choosing who to save and who to let die, to minor (yet important) ones such as who to ration food to. The Walking Dead, at its best, makes you feel like these choices matter.
"Long Road Ahead" firmly ends the first act of The Walking Dead game. As fans of the comic book know, no venue change is complete without rampant death and new character introductions.
"Long Road Ahead" serves as a link between the beginning and end of the series. Unfortunately, the character decisions featured in "Long Road Ahead" are by far the least believable of the series, as they consistently do the most melodramatic thing possible, despite Lee’s efforts to calm them down. Sure, it ups the tension quite a bit; unfortunately, it also lowers the well-maintained reality created thus far. This probably happens because Telltale wanted to streamline everyone’s experience heading into the game’s ending. While it chips away at that illusion of choice that you thought you’ve had so far, the game retains enough heartbreaking character moments to make up for it.
Before "Long Road Ahead," The Walking Dead had already taken the title of best member of the Walking Dead franchise, handily beating the TV series and narrowly edging out the comics. "Long Road Ahead" is a step back in quality compared to the first two episodes, but the Walking Dead is still on track to become the greatest zombie game ever made.
Grade (Long Road Ahead): B+
Grade (The Walking Dead Episodes 1-3): A