Video Game Review: The Walking Dead: The Game (XBOX 360)

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Like the endless masses of shuffling undead inhabiting its universe, the fanbase of The Walking Dead is one of eternal hunger.  Always ready to consume the franchise's latest installment regardless of the medium, whether it be in the comics or on the hit television series, followers of the sudden pop culture phenomenon are in for a treat with The Walking Dead: The Game.  The XBOX 360 version was released in five downloadable episodes from April to November 2012 (along with a retail version containing the full game in December) and was an instant homerun for developers Telltale Games.  A mighty step up from previous releases Back to the Future: The Game and Jurassic Park: The Game, the result might not be everyone's cup of tea, but even the most jaded gamer won't be able to deny that The Walking Dead: The Game evokes some true emotions in its players, an accomplishment that very few video games have ever truly achieved.

Prepare yourself...

Story: This groundbreaking point-and-click adventure saga splashed with bits of RPG elements drops us right into the life of former university professor Lee Everett, currently being hauled away for a crime he may or may not have committed.  Immediately the player begins to build his or her own version of Lee, the main protagonist created specifically for the game.  Creator Robert Kirkman worked closely with Telltale during the course of The Walking Dead's development, and it was his decision to conceive a brand new cast of characters experiencing their own story independent from the simultaneous events in the comics and the TV show, although several familiar faces from both the pages and the small screen make cameos throughout the game.

Lilly and her father Larry sharing an all-too-brief moment of silence.

Episode One, entitled "A New Day," opens from Mr. Everett's perspective in the back seat of a police car.  The over-talkative sheriff escorting you down a stretch of Georgian highway distracts himself with his own jibber-jabber, leading to him striking a figure in the road and sending the vehicle flailing off into the nearby wilderness.  Lee eventually awakens, pinned down inside the overturned car, and it's up to the player to guide his avatar out of the wreckage.  After an intense encounter with your first "walker," Lee takes shelter inside a seemingly-abandoned suburban home and befriends Clementine, a seven-year-old darling hiding from the oncoming apocalypse in her treehouse.  The relationship between Lee and Clem becomes the focal point of The Walking Dead as you attempt to lead the girl to salvation in a time of utter hopelessness.  The supporting cast grows quickly as the pair meets more survivors, and soon, crucial decisions will need to be made.

Lee and Clementine are joined by protective father Kenny, his wife Katjaa and their dopey kid nicknamed Duck.  Lee's decisions thus far have cemented him as a potential leader until they run into another larger group headed by Air Force vet Lilly and her obnoxious old fart of a dad Larry.  Now the shaky brigade finds themselves at odds with one another at every turn, their criss-crossing agendas growing detrimental to their collective survival.  Making a stop at the farmhouse of Hershel Greene turns gruesome in a hurry, an event that leads to Lee and the gang taking off and holing up in an abandoned hotel.  Months pass in the lives of these fantastically crafted individuals, bringing them to a stand-off with dairy farmers hiding a terrible secret, bandits attempting to raid their camp, and finally, a get-away plan that takes some unfortunate twists before culminating with an ending that leaves a brick in the pit of the stomach that remains there long after setting down the controller.

Strange things are afoot at the St. John's Dairy Farm.

Control & Gameplay: It was at the request of Kirkman for the game to feature "decision-making and consequences rather than ammunition gathering or jumping over things."  This component sets The Walking Dead in a class of its own separate from other zombie-bashing titles like Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead.  The idea of choice defines what makes this one so enjoyable, as each response that the player is presented with will form alliances with your companions just as easily as it will destroy others.  The controller's face buttons represent the usual four-answer selection to most queries throughout the game, but some of the more pivotal moments offer only two choices, Decision A and Decision B oftentimes pushing the story into opposite directions.  This advancement in story-telling mechanics invents a new personalized odyssey for each player, meaning that no two campaigns will ever be played the exact same way.

The control scheme is idiot-proof; you'll be conversing with your fellow survivors and inspecting clues promptly.  While more time will be spent trying to bring arguments to peaceful compromises than engaging in heavy ghoulish combat, when the action does pick up, the player is rewarded with some of the most intense sequences in recent video game history.  While exploring the background for supplies, the left trigger moves Lee while the right focuses on objects lying about, allowing you to interact with various tools in the field.  But when the heat turns up and the undead bust loose, quick-time events will leave your hands sweating and shaking as you use weapons to scramble zombie brains into mush.  The few puzzles are never too challenging and the battles you'll face against both infected and human characters rarely become too overwhelming, and even if Lee is eviscerated by the walkers, you'll jump right back into the action with little time to grieve your loss.

Should've never left the Motor Lodge.

Graphics & Sound: The best pick-up-and-play controls don't amount to much without solid presentation, another department in which The Walking Dead reigns.  The graphics are crisp and slick, highlighting the in-game cinematics with a varied arrangement of bright colors in times of social ease and bleak hues in instances of despair.  The cell-shaded animation compliments fantastic voice acting by lead talents Dave Fennoy (Lee) and Melissa Hutchison (Clementine).  The small text can sometimes be difficult to read, like when it appears on similarly-colored backgrounds, which can be annoying when seconds count during important decision-making.  Nit-picks aside, The Walking Dead is one of the best looking downloadable titles available.

Just... out... of... reach...

Fun Factor: The level of gratification gained upon completing The Walking Dead is unparalleled.  Sure, the not-so-happy ending will leave some down in the dumps, but the evolution of Lee Everett powers this steam engine of a gaming experience along its turbulent track with such style and grace that'll leave everyone cracking a melancholy smile after the credits roll.  The ability to mold and shape Lee to your heart's desire stands as the game's biggest selling point -- in my first go, I made Lee out to be sympathetic to everyone else's needs and wants; in my next, I'll approach the situations in front of me with an unapologetic "every man for himself" attitude that will surely make me unpopular with my peers.  With all of the options given to us in a journey that takes approximately 10-12 hours to complete, new friendships and rivalries will be formed during multiple playthroughs, an encouraging fact that allows the player to see how else the story can pan out.

You're never too young to learn how to survive.

The Verdict: The experience gathered by Telltale Games with previous games Sam & Max and Tales Of Monkey Island helped the team create the masterpiece that is The Walking Dead: The Game.  Originally set for release in late 2011, the game was pushed back to early 2012 to fix several bugs and story issues.  Thank goodness for that, because the extra development time has led to securing over 80 Game Of the Year awards from E! Online, the Spike Video Game Awards, USA Today and several other well-known publications.  The success earned from The Walking Dead has already green-lit a sequel whose story will pick up right after the events of the first game.  Part 2 will promise more choices, more eventual outcomes and more appearances by already-established characters.  In the meantime, any self-respecting gamer should give a try to The Walking Dead, an accomplishment in gaming that comes around once or twice in a generation.

Rating: out of

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