Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360
Developers: Terminal Reality
Terminal Reality's Glenn Gamble is an excitable man. The principal effects artist on TR's upcoming take on AMC's The Walking Dead, Gamble is positively brimming with an enthusiasm that's both entirely convincing, and rather infectious. This is a good thing, as by way of presentational support, all that Terminal Reality really had to put in front of the eagerly assembled journalists in Activision's business lounge was essentially a slideshow.
Of course, we've already seen a studio take on the gritty and grim world of The Walking Dead, with two chapters of Telltale's atmospheric adventure introducing us to the hard choices that come with surviving a zombie apocalypse. But there's an important distinction between the two games to be made: Telltale's episodic series is based off of the original comic books themselves, whereas Terminal Reality are dealing with the acclaimed TV adaptation. The former is a typical Telltale adventure in terms of structure - and a very good one at that. The latter is shaping up to be something of a first-person shooter, albeit one that looks a little bit different and, dare we say it, could even turn out to be a little bit fresh.
Gamble's unorthodox presentation came at breakneck speed and was filled with some rather vague details, but this is what we do know at this stage: this flavour of The Walking Dead comes fairly early in the series' history, taking place while main character Rick Grimes is still in a coma. Eschewing Rick as a central protagonist for the game - which would be pretty damn boring - instead players will take on the role of Daryl Dixon: violent nutter (though not quite as bonkers as his brother Merle), and resident crossbow expert.
It's going to be a good twelve months for bow fans.
Gamble tells us that Terminal were given the task of mirroring the show's aesthetics closely and, above all else, asking themselves what the fans wanted from a The Walking Dead video game. They were given the show bible and from it realised that the game needed to have three core pillars: story, survival, and of course the Walkers themselves. so it is that we find ourselves in something of a prequel, just at the moment of apocalyptic change, when the Walkers are coming into their own and beginning to take over. It was important to have that sense of hope, Gamble reveals, to have a world where people are still clinging on to the dwindling chance that someone, anyone can save the day.
The Dixon brothers are attempting to make they're way across the country to return to Atlanta - a goal that requires several careful choices - choices that Gamble suggests will define each player's experience with the game. The Walking Dead is not an open world game, but it is something of a road warrior title - offering players multiple paths to reach their goals. We ask about the nature of the mission structuring, and just how linear the game is, and Gamble settles on the term "mini sandboxes" as a rather fitting way of describing just how the game's laid out.
There'll be choices to make from the get-go. What car do you take? Do you go for a speedster that can assist in a swift getaway, or look for a more practical vehicle with a lower mpg? And what of the matter of space - do you take on more survivors, each with their own particular skills, or do you save the space for provisions and leave people at the side of the road? Each survivor will have their own stats and perks, such as being especially good at foraging for food, or perhaps offering medical advantages. Who do you leave to die?
It's clear that Terminal Reality are not going for your usual zombie slaughterfest either, and indeed one would hope not as that's really not what either of the incarnations of The Walking Dead are about. Guns, we are told, are a last resort. Not necessarily because ammo is precious scarce (although it's safe to assume that fact), but rather because the noise will instantly attract attention.
"We spent a lot of time thinking about the Walkers themselves," Gamble says to us later on. "And we needed to decide on a series of rules by which they're bound. These are slow and methodical creatures, they're relentless. So we had to think about ways of making interacting with enemies like that exciting."
The way that TR have gone about that is by making the Walkers incredibly aware of any disturbances in the environment or atmosphere around them. "All of our AI resources were spent on making the Walkers as environmentally aware as possible," says Gamble. "Their sight, their hearing...just like in the show, when they hear something a little off, they'll go to investigate. So say I run into an abandoned General Store and hide behind the counter, they'll shuffle up to the entrance and stop to sniff the air. It's hot in Georgia, it gets up to 35-40 degrees, so they'll be able to smell Daryl, and they'll come for him when they do."
The Walking Dead, then, is a game that seems to be all about choices, and that suddenly makes it a far more interesting proposition than simply being yet another zombie shooter. Gambles says that, from the testing that TR have already done, the most rewarding aspect has been seeing the multiple ways in which players will approach a particular puzzle or objective, whether via stealth, distraction, or full on in-yer-face dismemberment...of which there's apparently a lot. Think Binary Domain, but with zombies. In short, you'll need to go for the head every time.
It's not a particularly empowering game either. This is really more first-person survival horror rather than the rip-roaring action you'd expect to find in your typical FPS. The Walkers themselves are all built out of multiple pieces and animation sets to allow for dismemberment, and create a sense that no two Walkers look the same. But the game treats them as a single asset, which apparently allows the Infernal engine to render quite a few of them on the screen at any given moment. When that happens, the only recourse will be to run.
"Though capable," Gamble explains, "you're not a superhero. Any time more than one Walker is heading towards you, it's pretty bad. And the Walker in the middle of the field is never the one you have to worry about. You might go into an abandoned shop, clear the place of Walkers, only to find that two more have ambled in off of the street and taken you by surprise.
"Check out this scenario," he says, pointing towards a scene in a trailer park with a lone, oblivious Walker in front of the player. "We could put Walkers in the trailers themselves, have a few of them walk in off of the road. If we were really being assholes, we'd hide one under a car to grab your leg as you walk past. General rule: in this game, we're always assholes!"
So, we can't say exactly how the finished product will look, but we are intrigued by the decisions that Terminal Reality have made. They clearly love the source material, and some of the behind the scenes snaps revealing the lengths they've gone to in order to recreate the sound of a human/Walker skull being caved in by a claw hammer are impressive indeed. The buzzwords we like are all there - choice, consequence, freedom, replayability, varied experiences - we'll just have to wait and see if TR can pull it off. We're rather more interested in the game now than we were a week ago, and we'll be keeping our eyes on this one.