Though many of us have deep affection for ye olde point-and-click games of yore, few of us actually want to play them anymore. While conceptually sound, the combination of hauling around a bunch of junk to throw at various puzzles in a minimally interactive way simply isn't as charming as it once was. We've evolved as players, but with The Walking Dead, the classic adventure game formula has evolved, too. It modernizes the core of what made the genre so enjoyable so elegantly that it's easy to forget you're really just pointing and clicking.
Episode 2 of the series was just released, but in case you missed out on Episode 1, let me catch you up. You play as Lee, an about-to-be-con who dodges a trip to the slammer when the police car he's riding in crashes into one of the walking dead. He quickly joins up with a mismatched group of survivors who will probably wind up killing each other long before the walkers get the chance. The game follows neither the comics nor the TV show, choosing instead to give you a fresh adventure set within the confines of the zombie-infested universe. It's a great way to let you go into events with no preconceived notions about how you should treat your environment and the other characters - and those other characters are where The Walking Dead gets really interesting.
In true adventure game style, your ability to interact with the world around you is limited to certain hotspots, either by looking at them or using an inventory item on them. Your choices are context sensitive and selected with the face buttons ; on-screen icons attempt to helpfully indicate what you can do, where. Most of the time, they get the idea across, but sometimes the icon is so vaguely shaped that it's not really clear what you're about to do. It's pretty easy to figure out distinctively-shaped items like keys or an axe, but a square shape could be anything from a photograph to a door. Making a selection you didn't intend won't usually get you into too much trouble, but every now and again you'll wind up insulting someone you're trying to make an ally or helping someone who hates your guts. And that's where The Walking Dead gets really, really interesting.
The vast majority of your time in The Walking Dead will be spent talking to other characters, and the things you say to them will matter a great deal. During the course of a conversation, you'll be given a limited time to choose between assorted responses. When asked about Lee's relationship with Clementine, the young girl he's protecting, you can flat-out lie, tell the full truth, tell something close to the truth, or just not answer at all - and people will not only remember your answer, but weigh it against other conversations you have. The choices you make decide which branches of the story you wind up exploring, which survivors will have your back, which ones won't, and oftentimes whether or not someone will live to see sunrise. Don't expect this to be some sort of binary good/evil decision making, because there are no easy answers in The Walking Dead. That's what makes it so damn good. You can start out deciding to play one way, and find yourself faced with a situation that sorely tests the values you thought you had. To be more specific would be to rob you of the uncomfortable pleasure of wrestling with those choices yourself, so suffice to say there's nothing as simple as a "paragon" or a "renegade" here. Just the living and the dead.
Both the TV show and the comic can be gruesome enough to make anyone squirm, but The Walking Dead game manages to avoid being too gory. Its stylish visuals, which beautifully emulate comic book art, keep the most horrifying imagery at arm's length without playing it too safe. You'll still see terrible, terrible things as you play, but it's safe to have a big lunch before picking up the controller. Nevertheless, you'll find yourself face-to-rotting-face with more than one walker, and will have to engage in a wee bit of button mashing to avoid dying, which is where The Walking Dead falters just a bit.
Though you only have a few seconds to make your dialog choices, most of the time you can lazily run your cursor around the scenery without fear of consequence. Exploration is important, and you're rarely rushed, but at times you will be faced with a situation that requires your quick response - like hitting the X button to shove a walker away from your face. You can't act until you've put your cursor in the right spot, however, and more often than not, that means you'll have to drag it clear across the screen from where it was previously investigating some interesting bit of scenery. The time between realizing you need to act and actually getting to is a split second, but that's often enough to get you killed, or force you to live with a consequence you didn't know was coming. You start right back up if you die, and you can "rewind" your game if you really, really can't live with how something played out, but it's frustrating, just the same.
It's not nearly as frustrating as having to wait for the next installment of the game, however. It's perverse that the best praise I can give The Walking Dead is to advise you not to buy it - at least not yet. It's so enthralling that I was crushed when I reached the end of Episode 2 and realized that I couldn't continue with the story yet. The writing is fantastic, as is the voice acting that brings the game's characters to life. These feel like real people in a real situation, and being forced to wait to find out what happens next is torture.
Bottom Line: The Walking Dead is a well-crafted tale that will surprise you with its masterful storytelling. You want decisions that make a difference in a genuine way? Look no further.
Recommendation: A new future for adventure games, and perhaps one of the best examples of the genre ever made. Whether you dive in now or wait for the entire thing to be available, play this.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Game: The Walking Dead: Episode 2
Genre: Action Adventure
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Mac
Available from: GameStop(US)