You Should Play: The Walking Dead

[These days, keeping up with games can be a full-time job. So how do you separate the signal from the noise, the wheat from the chaff, the Temple Runs from the Temple Jumps? Allow us to help by regularly selecting a game You Should Play.]

I'm really, really tired of zombie games. Between Plants vs. Zombies, Zombies, Run! and Zombie Gunship, I think we’ve hit our zombie quota for the foreseeable future. I’m ready for something new.

Despite my fatigue I've fallen in love with The Walking Dead from Telltale Games, and I think you really ought to play it. Regardless of whether you’re a fan of the AMC television series, the comics or completely unfamiliar with either, this game is worth playing if you love a good harrowing adventure.

Adventure is exactly what you’re in for if you shell out $5 for the first episode, titled The Walking Dead: A New Day, on Xbox 360 or PS3 (PC and Mac users have to pay $25 up front for access to all five episodes, and an iOS version is purportedly in the works.) See, Telltale Games developed The Walking Dead as an adventure game spanning five monthly episodes that tells a new story in the Walking Dead universe while staying true to the grim tone of Robert Kirkman's comic books. Don’t let Telltale’s history of creating point-and-click adventure games fool you into thinking The Walking Dead is just a series of logic puzzles; you'll spend a little time fixing radios and finding keys, but the constant pressure of surviving in a post-apocalyptic Georgia makes even simple problems feel challenging.

While you do need to solve simple puzzles in order to progress through the game, you’ll spend the lion’s share of your time guiding protagonist Lee Everett through tense verbal exchanges with other survivors. Like any good piece of zombie fiction, the most interesting aspect of The Walking Dead is the relationships that form between the survivors; Lee is a shady character among strangers, and you'll need to figure out who you can trust and how far you can trust them as society falls apart in the background. That means you basically need to walk around and talk to every character in the game, but doing so is rarely a chore; the dialogue sequences in The Walking Dead are smartly written and often pressure you to think quickly by setting time limits, causing Lee to sputter impotently if you don't choose a response in time.

Of course, all these post-apocalyptic heart-to-hearts are peppered with desperate attempts to fend off marauding zombies by quickly clicking them before they can take a bite out of you or someone you care about. These action sequences are simple and easy to beat, but they foster an atmosphere of danger that makes The Walking Dead feel tense and thrilling to play.

After playing through just the first two episodes, I think this game emulates the grim thrill of The Walking Dead graphic novels better than the AMC television series of the same name. But even if you’ve never flipped through one of Kirkman’s books, you should check out The Walking Dead game because it features an engaging cast of characters and a geniunely emotional narrative. Each episode is brief, taking about two hours to play through, and I recommend you play through an episode in a single sitting (as though you were sitting down to watch a movie). If you’re still on the fence, here are a few more reasons you ought to play The Walking Dead:

Graphics: Whether you're playing on your home console or your PC, The Walking Dead looks beautiful. The game pays tribute to Kirkman’s comics by emulating the pencilwork of Charlie Adlard, the current artist of the Walking Dead comics. But where the comics are stark black-and-white affairs, the Walking Dead game is full of colorful characters and lush, vibrant landscapes. The game’s camera is fixed in place during every scene, and while that occasionally makes for some frustrating navigation problems it also ensures that Lee navigates through scenes like a protagonist pacing through panels of a comic book.

Dialogue: Like a great film, The Walking Dead game features dramatic dialogue that keeps you on the edge of your seat during a simple conversation between characters. Lee Everett has a complicated past, and you choose how much he shares with other characters by selecting his responses from different options that sprout up throughout every conversation. These exchanges are written well enough that the characters feel authentic, making it easy to empathize with their plight and hard to remain unfazed when bad things happen to them. And trust me, very bad things happen while playing this game.

Consequences: Zombie attacks aren’t the only reason to think fast in the world of The Walking Dead. You'll need to make some tough choices about what to do in order to survive; on one occasion I actually found myself stepping back from my keyboard to take a walk and think through what I should do next. But you're rarely afforded the luxury of time; most of these choices have timers, and if you run out time Lee is left speechless, so playing through tense encounters really feels stressful because you risk slipping up and saying or doing the wrong thing. Let another character catch you in a lie, and they’ll hold it against you throughout the rest of the episode (and presumably the series, as you can carry your save game from one episode to the next). Choose to save one character’s life at the expense of another, and the survivor will support you throughout the rest of the episodes while the dead character disappears from your game for good.

Developer: Telltale Games
Platforms: PC, Mac, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, (iOS version in development)
Price: $5 per episode on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, $25 upfront for the five-episode series on PC and Mac

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