The Walking Dead: A New Day Review «
Welcome back, Telltale Games. After the weak Back to the Future series and the failed Jurassic Park: The Quick Time Event experiment left the sour taste of disappointment in many a gamer’s mouth, the first episode of
Title screens often say a great deal about a game. In this two-hour episode, called A New Day, it’s just a simple logo, but it’s accompanied by sounds that suggest Telltale gets The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman’s bleak vision of the zombie apocalypse. First I heard birds singing a delightful tune — the type of song that instantly made me picture a perfect summer morning. A moment later, the sound of swarming flies overcame the tweets and chirps. Even with just the logo on the screen, I envisioned an idyllic world littered with rotting corpses and sensed the dread. It’s a subtle, effective way to kick off a game version of The Walking Dead, and a sign of what’s to come.
Nowhere to Hide
We’re introduced to Lee, the likable and well-written main character, in the back seat of a cop car. Did he really kill his wife’s boyfriend? Is he really a bad guy? These are questions Telltale poses — and slowly begins to answer — in episode one, wisely avoiding the cookie-cutter hero template and creating interesting opportunities for character development.
From the squad car to Hershel’s farm (yes, the Hershel) to a barricaded drug store, Telltale sets a lively pace and foreboding tone. These locations and the colorful characters within them are delivered with Borderlands-like illustrative-style visuals, but sight seeing is hazardous. One moment I was exploring new areas, finding items, solving puzzles, and enjoying an old-school adventure. The next, a white-eyed zombie was clutching my leg and pulling me toward its rasping mouth.
These instant, unexpected, and jolting transitions from relative serenity to intense horror and violence are akin to trademark scenes by filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Nicolas Winding Refn. Remember the elevator scene in Drive when Ryan Gosling finally kissed love interest Carey Mulligan? So tender, so sweet, so honest. Blink, and Gosling is stomping a hitman’s head into a gory pizza. Telltale adeptly pulls off this type of juxtaposition, and as a result, I never felt completely safe in The Walking Dead — I was certain the undead would be unleashed at any moment. And that’s just how a game based on this franchise should feel.
When I did find myself in a zombie’s unpleasant embrace, I was happy to discover Telltale has done away with the quick time events (QTEs) of Jurassic Park in favor of more traditional controls. A simple action button is used to punch, kick, and pull away from walkers, and a reticle-based targeting system is used for more precise aiming, like when you’ve got to pop a zombie’s head with an ice pick or blast it apart with a shotgun. It’s a huge improvement over the random QTE button-mashing of Jurassic Park, and it works, but it’s also far from perfect. In some cases, you’ll first have to scramble to pick up an object to facilitate skull-bashing, but you can’t simply click on items. Instead, you first have to find the magical, invisible spot on the screen that’s tied to the item — a spot that is typically in the vicinity of what you want, but annoyingly it’s not directly on the thing itself. Telltale does offer an easy mode that makes all of these spots visible on screen with glowing white dots, but these markers take away from the adventure fun and diminish the challenge.
Holding a Grudge
You’ll have to rush to make the right choices (in dialog and action) even more often than finding the right items, because Telltale has placed a premium on quick decision-making with a tension-building countdown timer. I encountered plenty of NPCs, with some familiar faces popping in for cameos, and they all had stories to tell and opinions to share. How I responded during conversations impacted what these characters thought about Lee. Think of it as the good/evil meter BioWare has put to good use in Mass Effect, only less in your face. There’s no actual red-and-blue meter, but prompts did inform me that “Character X will remember this about you” when I chose a particular response.
There are also plenty of action-based decisions to be made — and this is where the choose-your-own-adventure aspect of The Walking Dead comes in. A number of times I was tossed into a situation where I had to make quick, no-right-answer decisions with life-or-death consequences. Help character X or character Y? Barricade the door or the window?
Characters file away judgments of Lee in their AI brains based on your words and actions, and Telltale claims this will have game-changing repercussions throughout the entire five-episode adventure. Piss off the guy on the other side of the barricade, and he might choose to ignore your cries for help. Make nice with him, and he’ll pull you over the fence. You get the picture. In theory, that sounds like a terrific mechanic for The Walking Dead given the focus the comics place on the relationships and conflicts within Rick Grimes’ group. In practice, it appears Telltale isn’t quite able to deliver.
I won’t spoil anything here by detailing the major choices in the first episode, but I will tell you I approached a couple of them in polar opposite ways on my second playthrough and got the exact same outcome for some (but not all). Sure, characters issued a blurb of different dialog, but the overall impact did not change based on my decisions. It was the biggest disappointment I had with A New Day, and I’m hoping more of the decisions I’ve made in episode one will lead to truly different outcomes and create some interesting replayability options over the course of the next four episodes.
Back From the Dead
A New Day is an apt name for the first episode of The Walking Dead, because it signals a sorely needed fresh start for Telltale. Rick Grimes, Michonne, and Dale may not be a part of your group of rag-tag survivors, but the game perfectly captures the most important part of the books: the tone and atmosphere. Fans of the comics will appreciate the familiar faces and places that do pop up, but even those of you that have completely avoided the stellar comics and so-so AMC TV series will be engrossed. I was nervous going in, but now I’m glad The Walking Dead: The Game is in Telltale’s hands.
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