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The Walking Dead – Episode One: A New Day – Review

Over the years of playing videogames there have been several titles that entertained me with frightening moments; encountering my first splicer in Bioshock, facing off against hunters in Left 4 Dead, or fighting off hordes of Antlions in Half-Life 2. Other games have been so frightening however that they have simply shaken me out of my skin, resulting in them returning to their box, back on to the shelf, not to be played until I seriously ‘man-uped’; while traversing the Painted World in Dark Souls, surviving the relentless terrors of Silent Hill: The Room and throughout the entire of Dead Space.

The Walking Dead falls somewhere in between these two camps: the entertainment of a little fright, and the downright fear that the game is somehow going to jump out of the screen and pull you in. With Dead Space, you know you’re in for a menacing world in which the chance of surviving is slim at best. But when your time is split between menial tasks like dishing out energy bars, and kicking away zombies through blurred vision, the unpredictability of what lies beyond can be ever more terrifying.

Playing as Lee you begin the Walking Dead in the back of a police car. Why you are there, or where you are going slowly becomes apparent, but before all the details are fully revealed the zombie apocalypse crashes in. You’re tasked with escaping from your handcuffs and making sense of the mess around you. That is until a zombie tries to eat you brains. This is always a difficult moment in entertainment, at a time when every audience member knows more than the characters, and we’re left shouting ‘He’s not a drunk priest, it’s a bloody zombie’ as Cillian Murphy clings onto his shopping bag. Just like Cillian (or Jim) in 28 Days Later, Lee hasn’t seen a zombie film before either, and we watch as it slowly dawns on him that he’s in more trouble than he thought.

Within the first fifteen minutes you team up with a little girl, Clementine, who – like Lee – is alone in the world. Clementine serves as a purpose for the player: someone to care about, to protect, to father. The bond with Clementine is one of the strongest elements of this first episode: I really did feel for her and wanted to look after her as best I could. When you begin to meet other survivors, you’ll still feel the pull of responsibility and care towards Clementine.

The story is presented in a style that reflects the comics’ graphics, all execpt for it being in full colour. The creator, Telltale Games, did play with the idea of sticking to the black and white of the comics, but found it made traversing the world problematic. But using a colour palate hasn’t solved that problem.

Navigating can be awkward, especially given that Lee sustains a minor injury early on. It plays out as a mix between an adventure and point and click: basically you move Lee around areas, interacting with objects or people. Invisible walls block your route, the camera can be poorly placed at times, while the darker areas resulted in having to turn up the brightness. However the animation of Lee and NPC’s are believable, and well scripted to the scenarios, while onscreen prompts mean that you’re aware of what you can interact with so you don’t have to scour the environment, as was often the case back in the days of playing Kings Quest (unless you decide to turn those prompts off).

Meeting other characters puts into focus who Lee really is. You are given numerous chances to reveal who you are, your relationship with the little girl and what you have been up to before the zombies came out of the ground. Deciding to lie about being in a police car, if you have family and how you know Clementine all have their repercussions. One choice I made early on left me worrying if (or when) I was going to be found out. Few games can load this kind of pressure onto a player – and although it doesn’t compare to some of the moral consequences of Heavy Rain, it’s certainly on the right path.

This is helps to create the feeling of fear that runs through the experience: when answering a simple question may result in someones death down the line, the game keeps you in a state of tension. You are left wondering who you can really trust, if anyone. And when choices don’t have clear right or wrong headings, your own ethical code is put under the microscope. Mix that element with the real time action sequences that pit you against savage foes desperate to bite into you, and the heat turns up considerable. Action sequences are made more frightening at times when the screen darkens or swirls as Lee’s vision blurs. Throughout the episode the pacing is just right to ensure that these moments are sparse enough to keep them challenging, but frequent enough to remind you of the constant threat of the undead.

The first episode stretches longer than I thought, with a variety of challenges and climaxes to overcome, including heated arguments with surivors, stealth segments, and a fair few undead brains getting splattered. Although it is action that the zombie genre is famous for, perhaps the greatest achievement here is the emotional pull of some of the scenes. Within two and a half hours it took to complete, I experienced fear, elation, sorrow, pity and hate. Within the first couple of hours in most games you’ve only just picked up your second gun, let alone met a believable NPC. But Telltale had the advantage of having a fantastic world at their fingertips.

The meat of the Walking Dead is in the story, and without spoiling your enjoyment I will say that you are faced with decisions throughout the first episode that will demand another play-through to discover what could have been. Often these boil down to simple A or B, but the best moments sometime came from deciding how to achieve your goal: the means rather than the end.

Ultimateley the success of the Walking Dead game will come from judging the title as a whole, as opposed to the indivudial episodes. If and how the decisions made will impact on the greater story, and to what extent, may be the making of this title – games have too long cheated us of real expanding story-lines, instead favouring endgame decisions determined by pressing a button or walking a coloured path (mentioning no names). But if Telltale’s ambition and achievements can grow from this seed, there will be great things ahead.

8/10

For more on the Walking Dead game, check out this trailer.

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