Remember Sierra On-Line? Makers of such addictive but mostly horrible “graphic adventure” games as King’s Quest and Leisure Suit Larry? Well, a new low-cost entry in Xbox LIVE Arcade seeks to marry that kind of old-school gaming with one of my favorite modern media trends, zombies. Sadly, the result is a mixed bag.
To be fair to Sierra On-Line, my first sighting of a Kings Quest title (on an Atari ST, of all things) did trigger about a decade of buying and playing most of this company’s graphic adventure games (on an Apple IIGS and then the Amiga). What I realized over time is that they stacked the decks against the player. They were artificially hard and most had weird (and silent) moments where you could do the wrong thing and not be able to finish (“win”) the game, all without realizing it. I grew to basically loathe them, and while others (like Lucas Arts, with “Maniac Mansion” and “Monkey Island”) tried their own take on this genre, these types of games basically died out over time. I mean, they were just digital versions of those “choose your own adventure” books.
Meanwhile, back here in the 21st century, zombies are all the rage. We have zombies on TV (“The Walking Dead,” which is excellent) and zombies in the movies (various Romero and Romero-like “Dead” movies that vary in quality from the truly excellent—the “Dawn of the Dead” remake—to the truly terrible; i.e. most everything else). We even have zombies in video games, from the “Zombies” mode of the Treyarch-made “Call of Duty” games to “Left 4 Dead” and “Dead Rising,” all for the Xbox 360.
And now we have “The Walking Dead” series of Xbox LIVE Arcade (XBLA) titles, which, like the TV series of the same name, are based on the excellent graphic novels (or, if you will, comic books) by Robert Kirkman. These books have an interesting and sparse visual style, courtesy of Tony Moore, and it’s pretty clear that the makers of the video game series tried to emulate this style in a pseudo-3D way that is actually pretty effective.
If you are a fan of “The Walking Dead” in any of its incarnations, then all you need to know is that these games parallel the comic (which in turn inspired the TV series), using new characters and a new storyline. And while fans of Mr. Romero may be, um, horrified by this notion, it seems that Georgia is finally starting to rival rural Pennsylvania for zombie infestations. They’re just everywhere.
Anyway, the games are being released over time, with Episode 1 available now for 400 Microsoft Points ($5 US) on the Xbox 360. There will be five episodes in total, so if you stick through it, you’ll pay about $25 for the whole thing. And assuming each episode is as long as the first, that’s a good deal. Assuming further that you can stand this sort of thing.
“The Walking Dead” isn’t like other zombie games. It’s not an arcade style slashathon like “Dead Rising,” and it’s not a relentless survival horror countdown like “Left 4 Dead.” It starts off slow, really slow, like a semi-interactive story, and my initial thought was that this was sort of a neat new way of telling a story. But the reality of this game struck me after an hour or so: It is no more and no less than a Sierra-type graphics adventure game, with perhaps one major caveat (below). And to me at least, it gets tedious after a while.
You play Lee Everett, a man who may have murdered someone, perhaps justifiably, and is being led to prison outside of Atlanta, Georgia just as the zombie apocalypse happens. You meet up with other characters, form a band of survivors, and establish relationships (largely through picking from two to four conversation choices). There are occasional action set pieces—whack a zombie head with an axe using the exact right Xbox controller button at the exact right moment, or else—but mostly it’s about talking to others and making decisions.
Where “The Walking Dead” exceeds Sierra On-Line adventures, apparently, is that the decisions you make—trusting one character with personal information, perhaps, or choosing which character to protect—have ramifications further down the line. So while this is very much a rails game, where you must obtain certain items to achieve certain goals, the outcome isn’t pre-established. I guess. I haven’t actually gone back and made different decisions to see how the game would change, though I suspect many will. (And you can, thanks to a generous save system.)
That said, what ultimately drags this thing down is the same issue with those age-old Sierra titles. It’s tedious. A character needs batteries for a radio, but the way you find that out is to examine the radio, front and back, trying different things. And then the two batteries are found within ten feet of you both, but you’re the one that has to wander around the room, mindlessly scanning with an onscreen control until you find them, return, turn over the radio again, and then turn it on. When you do, the broadcast promptly dies (along with the announcer). But the goal was achieved and now you can move on to the next task.
Tedious. To me.
The presentation is great, however, and as a fan of the whole “Walking Dead” thing specifically and zombies in general, I’ll at least see how Episode 2 takes the series. Will I finish them all? It’s hard to say at this point, but “The Walking Dead” is at least a nice departure in every sense of the word from the twitch-happy world of “Call of Duty” that it’s nice from that perspective alone. In fact, the same could be said for much of XBLA, which is a generally under-appreciated segment of the Xbox ecosystem. I think I’ll be spending more time looking at these titles in general.
Recommended, but mostly for fans of the genre.