There's no question "The Walking Dead" is a genuine phenomenon, whether you're talking about Robert Kirkman's Image Comics title or the popular AMC television show. Knowing this, there was probably even more pressure than usual on Telltale Games to deliver on its series of "Walking Dead" video games, which spins its own nerve-wracking tale based in the world of the comic, with a few familiar elements thrown in for good measure.
Thankfully, Telltale has done just that with the first chapter of the series (out of five parts), which was released last week on Xbox Live, PlayStation Network and PC. Titled "A New Day," this two-hour-and-change chapter gets the player familiar with the characters they'll be dealing with over the course of the game, along with its awesome dynamic of making decisions and getting folks to side with you -- or hate your guts, if you make the wrong choice. Hey, no one ever said that battling zombies would be easy.
"A New Day" tells the story of Lee Everett, a newly-convicted felon who's being transferred to a maximum security facility as the game opens. Everett engages in a conversation with the sheriff who's driving him, either going with a hostile tone or a loose, relaxed one, depending on which conversation pieces the player chooses. As they drive along, Lee can't help but notice the passing police cars and choppers, but that oddity is the least of his concerns as a zombie suddenly lurches out onto the road, forcing the car to crash into the forest.
When Lee awakens, he finds his leg injured and the sheriff thrown from the vehicle, several yards away. Barely able to crawl out of the wreckage, Lee goes to check on law enforcement officer, only to find that he's become a zombie. It's in this section of the game that you're introduced to the reactive gameplay elements, meaning you need to hover a cursor over an item to interact with it -- in this case, a shotgun and a nearby shell. Taking too long to grab them will result in your untimely demise, forcing you to start over, so grab them quickly and blast that zombie's head off.
As the game unfolds, players are introduced to the other main protagonist of this "Walking Dead" story, a little girl named Clementine. The two decide to work together and journey out to find more survivors, eventually dovetailing somewhat into the comics storyline as they encounter several characters from the series (Hershel and Glenn, to be specific), albeit from a timeframe prior to their published storylines.
The game presents difficult choices that affect gameplay in ways other than simply blowing up as many zombies as necessary to clear the level and move on to the next stage of the story. When zombies grab hold of two different characters, the decision on which character to save not only affects the outcome of the confrontation, but also sets the stage for emotional conflict with other characters.
Everything, from the slightest change of tone in a conversation to major decisions, can form or break relationships in "The Walking Dead," adding an impressive level of depth and complexity to the game. One minute, someone may be trusting of you, but if you make the wrong choice or a snap judgment, that trust may be shattered. Likewise, someone who may initially have negative reaction to Lee may end up becoming a trusted friend and companion.
Throughout the game, you'll use real-time gameplay to spot zombies, strategically finding items that may be useful for offing them, including a parked car (which plays out to great effect), a spark plug and, believe it or not, a pillow. Figuring out how to use these items -- while avoiding detection by the zombies -- is a huge part for getting through the chapter's later stage, and you'll also be rewarded with a new, incredibly useful weapon if you're successful.
The first chapter in Telltale Games' series sets the stage for even more epic parts to come over the next few months, including "Starved For Help," "Long Road Ahead," "Around Every Corner" and "No Time Left." Designers Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman have done a superb job channeling Kirkman and artist Charlie Adlard's raw energy into the game, as you can hear the sheer intensity in characters' voices and reactions, especially when they're startled by a surprise zombie attack. There are moments where the hair will stand up on the back of your neck, and you'll wonder if you'll survive the encounter. But hey, if you do die, you can always go back and try again. Just remember to react faster the second time around -- Hershel sure as hell isn't going to save you!
"The Walking Dead: Episode 1" is available now for Xbox Live, PlayStation Network and PC for $4.99. (You can also purchase a season pass on PSN and Steam for $19.99 for all five chapters in sequential release.)