Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Developers: Telltale Games
Every time I finish another chapter of Telltale's emphatic masterclass in choice-and-consequence adventure gaming I have to immediately replay it, possibly even from the very beginning of the saga. Three chapters in, that's starting to take a little longer than before.
The reasons for that of course, come in the form of the weighty moral decisions one has to make along the way. The whole point of The Walking Dead as a concept has been to explore the crippling humanity that comes with staring into the face of the zombie apocalypse, and the lengths that people will go to in order to survive. The question that is constantly posed when it comes to Telltale's series is just how long can you - as central protagonist Lee -keep your humanity as it disappears so very rapidly from the world around you.
The echo of the finale to the second chapter - one of the endings sees Lee and his band of survivors turn their back on a man essentially howling, begging for death - forms the prelude to the darkest chapter so far. Deep distrust and abject denial are at the heart of this particular slice of zombie-evading action. Indeed, the Walkers feature somewhat less than perhaps they have in the first two chapters (although the final few scenes more than make up for this), but desperately striving to stop your little group ripping themselves apart makes for compelling stuff.
This episode sees the Motel outliving its usefulness as a safe haven. Though it has served the group of survivors well, they are all too aware that their circumstances in Macon could change at any moment, that bandits are never far away, and that there's no really hope should their hideout be overrun by numbers. Lilly and Kenny have regressed further and further into their respective corners: the former beginning to lose her grip as she realises that she has nothing left, with the latter's tendency to bury issues, memories, and actions starting to catch up with him. The debate raging at the start revolves around whether or not he group should move on, with Lilly refusing to leave and muttering dark rumours of traitorous intent, and Kenny eager to pack up his family in the RV and head for the coast.
An early scene provides a scenario that shows just how skillful Telltale have been in creating characters that you genuinely care about. The emergence of a stranger, beset by Walkers, threatens to bring a horde down on Lee and Kenny. She's being ripped apart and the merciful thing would be to put her out of her misery, though the noise would surely attract attention. But she's a lost cause in my eyes, the survival instinct - that desire to keep Lee alive - beginning to prevail over all else. Later on, when acrimony and wild accusation threatens to tear the group asunder, it's the confidence I've placed in one character in particular that leads to a resolution so shocking I screamed at the TV.
Anyone who's ever cursed George Martin will surely uncover a similar feeling here, and I immediately replayed the episode on completion to frantically find out if there was something, anything, I could have done to prevent it from happening. One of the strengths of this series, and it is shown no better than in this episode, is its ability to move and provoke without overstepping the line - not once does the action ever seem overblown or melodramatic. The player is never treated like an idiot by the script.
This being a middle chapter in which an awful lot happens, there are a few new faces too, with the straight-talking Chuck easily the pick of the bunch. A few choice words from the grizzled loner to Clem provide the basis for a sequence of scenes that really serve to underline Telltale's ability to provide moments of familial tranquility, albeit marked and overshadowed by apocalyptic context. There are more moments of humour here too, with Duck's attempts to be a Robin to your Batman early on raising a smile. A second playthrough frequently changes one's perceptions of these, casting conversations and engagements in slightly new shades.
Though couched in a 3D world, The Walking Dead is essentially a point-and-click adventure title, albeit one that can boast some of the finest voice acting and staggeringly engrossing writing that we've ever seen from a video game. The puzzles and the action elements are lacking, but that's not why here. The interaction with the world helps to provide some level of interactivity, to make you feel more involved and to root you in Telltale's creation, but really it's all about the story. As before, it's all about the chooices you make and the consequences that they have, and the effects of those choices are lasting indeed, perhaps more so than any other game I've played in recent memory.
There are some niggles, of course, a few framerate issues on the Xbox 360, and it's irritating to see that Telltale still haven't fixed the save game glitch. There's a little shooting gallery section that's a bit too fiddly, though it does make a slightly welcome change from your basic button-mashing QTE. There was some wholly unintentional humour wrought from an emotional scene, where one of the characters on the periphery simply disappeared into thin air, though thankfully it didn't ruin the impact.
Episode 3, then, sees more of the same...but better, weightier, and with increasingly difficult choices to make. It's impressive just how quickly Telltale can deliver everything you need to know about a character, and then masterfully work a narrative arc for them in the space of a few short scenes. You'll pause and ponder, scream and shout, breathe huge sighs only to sharply suck in vast lungfuls of air in anticipation moments later once more. You'll think you're in control, only for it to be taken away in an instant as the script tosses in another curveball. Telltale have delivered a fantastic study of the human condition and forced you to be the moral compass, and this chapter makes that a more difficult prospect than ever before.
The next instalment can't come soon enough.
- Fantastic story
- Characters are superbly written and excellently brought to life
- Run the emotional gauntlet without ever becoming maudlin or melodramatic
- A few visual glitches still prevail
- That f#!*ing save game bug is still there
- There are only going to be two more confirmed episodes
The Short Version: Telltale deliver a third chapter that somehow raises the stakes even further, with a truly dark episode that shocks, surprises, saddens, and still somehow makes us smile in places too. Utterly masterful interactive storytelling, and totally unmissable.