maanantai 1. syyskuuta 2014

REVIEW - The Walking Dead | Xbox 360 | 2012

GENRE(S): Adventure / Interactive drama
RELEASED: April 24, 2012 (PC, PS3) - August 26, 2014 (MAC, PC, PS3)
AVAILABLE ON: MAC, PC, PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox 360, Xbox One
DEVELOPER(S): Telltale Games
PUBLISHER(S): Telltale Games, Sony Computer Entertainment (PS Vita)

In 2003, writer Robert Kirkman and artist Tony Moore unleashed The Walking Dead, a comic book series chronicling the lives of survivors of a zombie apocalypse, and telling horrible stories of how ordinary people would realistically be affected by such an event - how innocence dies and you hold on to your humanity with everything you've got and more. The comic book was a critical and commercial success thanks to its themes and different take on the age-old zombie story, but international success had to wait until AMC picked up the rights for a TV adaptation. Premiering on Halloween in 2010, AMC's The Walking Dead became an overnight phenomenon, enticing horror and drama fans alike. Five months later, Telltale Games announced they were working on an episodic adventure game based on The Walking Dead, with Robert Kirkman himself on board as a consultant. Instead of being directly based on either the comic book or the TV show, the game went with a story arc of its very own, featuring a few characters from the comic books to really tie it to the rest of the franchise. After the first season ended with its fifth episode in November 2012, formerly discreet critics began praising the game very vocally, and its success didn't end there; at the Spike Video Game Awards, the game won Best Downloadable Game, Best Adapted Video Game, and finally the coveted Game of the Year, from under the noses of many sure winners. Telltale Games' major breakthrough was soon followed by the announcement of The Walking Dead: Season Two. A few days ago, this second season came to its end, and thanks to its expectedly great success, a third one is coming, but since this might well be it for the original story arc of the game, I think the time is quite ripe to finally review Telltale Games' The Walking Dead. It's quite a trip - pretty much the best the franchise has had to offer thus far.

The light in a world gone dark

Dave Fennoy : Lee Everett
Melissa Hutchison : Clementine
Gavin Hammon : Kenny
Owen Thomas : Omid
Mara Junot : Christa / Anna Correa
Erin Yvette : Molly / Bonnie
Michael Madsen : Carver
Scott Porter : Luke
Shay Moore : Rebecca
Christine Lakin : Jane

Lee and Clementine set out on the longest
journey of their lives.
An important note: this is indeed a review of the WHOLE series thus far, both Seasons One and Two, with the Season One expansion 400 Days also taken into account. The changes to graphical presentation and the UI between the two seasons are minimal; the few changes which mostly regard storytelling style will be addressed by the end of the review.

Convicted murderer Lee Everett's police escort swerves and crashes, trying to avoid a strange figure crossing the road. Lee manages to escape custody, but finds himself in all new trouble as he is attacked by a group of the undead. He finds shelter in a seemingly abandoned house, which however is inhabited by an 8-year old girl named Clementine, whose parents are out on a vacation they will obviously never return from. Lee immediately forms a strong, father-daughter like bond with the girl and promises to guard her with his life as they make their way across the country ravaged by a full-blown zombie apocalypse, to find a new safe home.

After I broke up with my ex-fiancee in the summer of 2009, I stopped watching TV altogether - watched much less movies than I did before, too. I just didn't feel like watching movies alone (still don't!), and even an hour sitting in front of the TV felt like a waste 'cause it was so full of crap. Every time I'd pick up the remote and try to watch TV for more than two minutes, there was something horrible on. Hyperactive cooking shows upon hyperactive cooking shows, that God damn retarded home improvement show (not the 90's sitcom!), travelling documentaries, or even worse, those "911"-type of overtly melodramatic, re-enacted "documentaries". "IT SEEMED LIKE A FUN FAMILY TRIP, BUT THEN SOMETHING WENT HORRIBLY WRONG......... stay tuned!" Cut to commercials, and when the show's back on, they spend the next 20 minutes recapping the events before the break, then cut to another break, and then maybe the grand revelation comes. And it's usually something like "Just halfway down the long road, little Charlie shit his pants in the car". And then they interview the whole family and they're all like "I'll never forget it, the smell of it's forever burned in my nostrils." Zoom in. A few tears, maybe. OK, I'm taking this too far, you probably get it. There's more: repetitive sitcoms, 30-minute commercials for miracle product X, crappy teen shows of all genres that I hope no-one watches, useless talent shows, ultraboring game shows with stupid, complicated rules (what the hell happened to good old quiz shows, really?), and last but definitely not least, the scourge of all humanity, Big Brother. When I was seven years old, I told my teacher I think TV is the best invention ever. If I was able to travel back in time, I'd smack that little bastard around 'til he's able to breathe just barely enough to someday grow into the person I am now.

Lee learns that to survive in this new world, a
brother must turn against brother.
There were good shows back then, such as my long-time favourite South Park; but that glorious 30 minutes or an hour per week wasn't enough to keep me even remotely interested in TV. Besides, many shows were syndicated all over the place; you could never keep up with what was coming and when, and from where, and what season we were at. In the case of South Park, I think one channel was re-running season one, another was re-running season four and one's broadcast was with the times. It became way too complicated on top of everything else for me to even want to keep up with TV. Well, then I discovered Netflix. Way over here, and back then, Netflix was relatively compact in terms of variety, but it had many good movies or movies I had always wanted to see but had no time or interest to watch alone; these ones I could watch at my very own pace, it always loaded more or less the exact spot I left off at. What interested me even more was the variety of TV shows I had missed, and always wanted to watch. One of these shows was called The Walking Dead, and the first season they had available blew my mind. The Walking Dead single-handedly restored my faith in quality TV, and helped me discover something even better I'd missed in the form of the amazing Game of Thrones. Then Telltale Games made a game out of The Walking Dead, and as it happens, now they're working on a game based on Game of Thrones. The Walking Dead gives me all the reason to be excited for it.

Now for the part where I feel stupid, after ranting on and on about modern television: Telltale Games' The Walking Dead has virtually nothing to do with the TV show. A couple of characters from the show appear, but even they are not voiced by the same actors, and they're much more influenced by their comic book counterparts in look. I knew this when I first downloaded the first episode of season one; I got it for free, and the game was fresh off its big win at Spike, so I definitely wanted to take that risk of trying to forcefully tie the game to the TV series and fall on my ass all disappointed when it didn't work out the way I expected. I'm like that, I try to make connections all the time. On a positive note, it doesn't have all that much in common with the comic books either. It's a story of its complete own, and a very good one - considering the many long-range slumps of the show, I will rather easily go as far as to say it works even better as a drama than the show. It's got good pacing, great build-ups for and between characters, and much more zombies, or "walkers" than you'd expect to see in a Telltale title. It's got everything, for people who like and understand the interactive drama for what it is. It's a game, but not in the usual sense. It will make you laugh, smile, cry, and hurt. Not all of the outcomes are up to you - but how your characters deal with constant tragedy, how it shapes them as people, and what kind of people they'll be once it's all over, are exclusively your concerns.

In this new world, suicide's an honorable choice.
The visual presentation from character to environmental design, to mere details, is very similar to the comic book, which is no surprise since creator Robert Kirkman himself and comic book publisher Skybound Entertainment were in very close cahoots with the writers, artists and designers all the way. As far as the TV adaptation's influence goes, the game makes good use of silence as a dramatic effect; as the tutorial points out in the very beginning of the trip and a few choice points along the way, silence is nearly always a valid dialogue option if you can't come up with a hearty response. The musical score by Jared Emerson-Johnson hits all the right emotional notes with an otherwise typical score, and there are a few, more fleshed out tracks that appear as end credit songs, soft rock and such. The voiceover work is top notch; usually I cringe whenever I hear the words "in-house talent" combined, as it always reminds me of the first Resident Evil game, but not to worry. These people know their business. The big one to follow Michael J. Fox's cameo as Old Marty in Back to the Future is Michael Madsen, who does the voice of the supposed lead villain of season two, and does it so good that I had nightmares of this guy. When he finally got what was coming to him, I had to replay the chapter a few times, just to make sure he's dead. That wasn't a spoiler, by the way - in the world of The Walking Dead, everyone's basically dead, they just don't know it yet. In case you didn't know, "The Walking Dead" refers to the survivors, not the walkers.

In the usual sense of being a game, 99% of The Walking Dead is of the very casual kind. Most of the story is told in automated cutscenes; however, there are times you must move your character (Lee, Clementine and the several survivors of 400 Days) yourself, successfully respond to a QTE prompt or few, even solve some very mild puzzles, though even the mildest of puzzles are ousted altogether by the time of season two's second episode. Very often you need to engage in combat with a walker or a whole horde of them, or even bandits, all the while getting shouted at or otherwise stressed out by something else on the side - combat is basically very easy and forgiving (the target zone is bigger than it looks and which trigger you pull at an RT prompt doesn't matter), but the point of these scenes is rather stressing the shit out of you with their audiovisuals, not challenging the gamer in you. You're living this - as scripted as the characters sound like judging by written word, it is made clear almost right away that they live and learn through you, and vice versa.

So here we get to the biggest difference between season one and season two. Season one's protagonist is Lee, and the main focus point of the story is the development of this brooding convict's strong feelings, dare I say unconditional love OR extremely bad temper, towards a child he hardly knows. The decisions available to Lee in any situation nearly always include a decision that notably benefits Clementine, but also a decision that drives him further from the girl. Lee is also a calm, but easily irritable man, and isn't afraid to get physical if he feels the need to - like his background goes to show. It's extremely exciting to play as Lee; he's so relatable that it's easy to find a sensical consistency to your decisions, even if you take a break from the game in the middle, that waiting-for-the-next-episode break for example. Actually, one of my favourite scenes in season one is the very end of episode four, where you make the final dialogue choice of the episode; the end credits roll, and the first line in episode five is what you chose in episode four.

Even the living aren't that nice.
Season two has a similar moment, and the first episode in general really doesn't feel that different from season one, except for the fact that you're controlling Clementine - to whom the main protagonist's torch passes on to near the end of season one - a physically smaller and mentally a bit more sensitive character, although of course the girl's toughened up a LOT from what we started with, she's grown up way too quickly. Her dilemma alone makes us feel so sorry for her from the beginning, but also intrigued - she's even more of a hopeful spirit than she was before, things can never get any worse for the girl in her own mind. Of course they do, all the time, and that really starts to frustrate her and turn her from an innocent child into a raging beast desperate for survival. However, there's only so much a little girl can do; there are action scenes coming Clementine's way, but generally she's more of a conversationalist; she tries to get through by talking, and if that's simply not possible, she has a few trusted adult friends watching her back most of the season's duration. The decisions you make as Clementine very rarely concern her, but the people around her. She needs them to survive. They watch her back, she watches theirs. They double-cross her, they meet the beast. Or a sniveling brat. Once again it's all up to you, and your interpretation of the character. Clementine can indeed be built up to be a real bitch in the disguise of a 10-year old girl, a mean and manipulative little shit... or you can try your best to just always treat and present her as the same girl you found alone in that treehouse so many episodes ago.

So here's the thing with decision-making; the greatest flaw to come to mind when we're talking 'Dead is inconsistency, which comes in somewhere along season two. Even the best decisions might turn out to break your character once the dialogue choice is actually spoken, or when the chosen action actually takes place. Let's elaborate. Lee is depicted as a somewhat unstable character in the early goings of season one; even if you make a "bad" decision as him, it might still pass for a plausible solution and the story shapes out just fine, 'cause you just know the man has a temper and he's easily stressed out, he might even lash out at Clementine if he's at a boiling point, it's OK. But, playing as Clementine is somehow different. Sure, the whole ordeal has changed her, but sometimes the decisions are a bit too extreme even for someone who's been through so much - she's Clementine, for God's sake. A couple of times I really stumbled as her, 'cause the time limit for the decision was so unforgiving, it took me a while to read and think through all the choices, and there was just one choice (in addition to silence) that seemed remotely realistic and reasonable for my interpretation of the character. For example, I encouraged another character to beat down another one, 'cause I felt he deserved it. Well, I soon got another say in the situation when it looked like he was killing him - I started feeling the guy had understood the point and wanted a dialogue choice where I would calmly tell the attacker to back off. Well, apparently there was one, but the time limit scared the shit out of me, so I chose one which kinda looked like it, and Clem suddenly jumped up and screamed out something like "Let him go, he hasn't done anything wrong!" Even if this wasn't a mistake on my end, that just didn't make any sense at all - the guy on the receiving end was definitely an asshole. Just one mistake really bummed me out and I found myself not caring for the choices I made for the next five to ten minutes. Never happened during the first season.

Sometimes it really sucks to be a little girl.
All that I just said wasn't meant to spit flame on the second season. It sucks to not be in full control of the situation, yes, but it isn't such a huge or constant problem. Maybe the thing is just that Clementine is such an intriguing character you'd want her to be just as easy to play and unconditionally relate to as Lee. As far as episode-long slumps go, The Walking Dead has none, not at any point. There are several episodes which I consider notably better than the rest and some of Telltale's best work. These include the first couple of episodes of season one as well as the season finale, the second episode of season two, and the season finale released less than a week back. Generally, compared to The Wolf Among Us which also came to its season finale a while back, The Walking Dead has delivered on a much steadier pace, and it's already left a trail of 11 episodes, which equals to about 17-18 hours. That's miraculously long for a Telltale story, and what's even more miraculous is that even while a lot's already been done, I believe it's got all the potential for at least five more episodes. For example, seeing as they already used a couple of tricks from the TV show during season two, they could spin something off the show this time, with different characters. Or perhaps really follow up on what they merely tinkered with in 400 Days - there are surprisingly good ideas still out there.

Just in case they've used up all the good ones or end up using up all they've got left too soon upon the premiere of season three, I decided to review The Walking Dead right now and dwell on which grade of awesome it currently stands at. It has those Telltale glitches, though not as bad as in The Wolf Among Us. Season two isn't quite as captivating on the playable character's side as season one - though it has even better set-ups in general, as well as a great lead villain - and utterly effortless Trophies/Achievements, as well as many shallow decisions tone down on the replay value. These few flaws are hardly enough to spoil a true gem; so far, the best in the field of interactive drama.

+ Amazing story and characters, that's all a great Telltale game needs...
+ ...Plus there's fantastic audio to go with it
+ In a nutshell it's better than the show ever was in my humble opinion, and that's saying a lot

- Some of those weird pauses/glitches present in any game utilizing the Telltale tool
- Character-related inconsistencies rear head, especially during season two
- Trophies/Achievements are all 100% automatic, easiest two Platinums/Completions ever pull some bad pranks on replay value

< 9.0 >

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