Publisher: Telltale Games / Developer: Telltale Games / Played on: PS3 / Price: $4.99 / ESRB: Mature [Strong Language, Blood and Gore, Intense Violence]
It’s getting harder and harder for me to review the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead. At this point you know about the incredibly dynamic, complex characters with who you’re sharing the game’s story. You know about the tense, heavy atmosphere that the previous chapters evoke. For the most part, the third episode, Long Road Ahead, pushes forward with those motifs and aesthetics, but also introduces some new wrinkles in the formula that are quite welcome, even if they aren’t executed perfectly.
When we last left Lee Everett and the survivors of The Walking Dead, they were camped out at a dilapidated motel in Macon, Georgia, having escaped a harrowing experience at the St. John Dairy Farm. Tempers were on edge, and this is where the third chapter opens, with the tension bubbling between Lilly and Kenny. There’s dissension among the ranks as Kenny and his family are pushing to leave the motel for greener pastures, and a slowly collapsing Lilly hoping to stay in the safety of the compound. I won’t go too much further so as to avoid spoiling the outcome of the episode, but you will get a heavy dose of dark tidings this time out. There were moments in Long Road Ahead where I felt about as numb as some of the characters must have. To be sure, this is a turning point in the series, both for the characters and for the overarching plot.
What I liked best was the way the episode could switch moods, moving from funny to depressing, and back to funny again, sometimes in the span of a couple minutes, which is an element to the writing that we haven’t seen much so far in this series. That being said, the low moments are some of the lowest yet for these characters, and it’s only because the chapter concludes with some of the most touching character interactions so far that I haven’t slit my own throat.
Ultimately, my biggest complaint about episode three is the pacing. It’s not as tight as the previous installments, and is in fact very uneven. Most of the first half of the episode is pretty heavy with conflict, but once you get to the mid-point, the game slams on the brakes in a major way, and even the concluding events with new characters feels oddly misplaced in the flow of the story. That’s not to say it’s bad; Long Road Ahead is very enjoyable, but it’s just not as white-knuckle as the rest of the series. It most definitely feels like a mid-point to a grand story, and the events and developments here do more to set up the final two episodes than keep the train chugging along as it had been before.
I’m also skeptical about some of the motivation and reasoning behind solving a few of the puzzles, specifically as it relates to the gas truck portion of the episode. You’re tasked with moving a tanker because it’s full of diesel fuel and could light up if you bump it too violently (or something to that effect; even the reasoning is suspect). But diesel isn’t as flammable as gasoline, which is why the army uses it in tanks and other military vehicles, so expecting me to believe a truck full of diesel would go up in flames was a bit of a stretch. And the method by which you solve the puzzle will also challenge your suspension of disbelief.
On the gameplay side, Telltale has spiced up this chapter with some new mechanics that are very welcome (even if their implementation is kind of poor). You’ll encounter a couple of FPS-inspired sequences where you’re finally able to look down the scope of a gun and blast some targets (though for the life of me I could not figure out why the fire button was on the face of the controller and not the trigger). It is satisfying to be finally laying into some aggressors, and you’ll be surprised at the actual targets themselves; they aren’t who or what you think they’d be.
Unfortunately, some of the puzzle-solving does bog down the pacing, which I mentioned earlier. More so than the other episodes, it’s a struggle to find the exact interaction point to move along the game. I spent close to 20 minutes on a puzzle with a train, before frustratingly discovering what was holding me up. I knew what the solution was, I knew what I had to do, but the interaction point to pick up the required item was placed so obscurely that I missed it the first two times I visited the location. This annoyance also occurs during some of the game’s intense “combat” sequences, where you need to pull the cursor to the very edge of the screen to hit the correct prompt to prevent you from dying.
In all though, there are enough new activities in the gameplay that the series has yet to feel repetitive. Even the act of unlocking a door during a zombie attack is still a stressful, terrifying experience.
This series is still the best story being told in games right now. There’s often a lot of complaints that videogames never tackle mature themes in an intelligent way, but those people have clearly not played Telltale’s The Walking Dead. With this third episode, the way the game handles the moral dilemmas are profound and challenging. They involve decisions about children, about parenting, about how to treat other human beings, about murder and mercy. In this, the team has captured what makes The Walking Dead IP so fascinating: exploring our own feelings on right and wrong, and showing us that the way we might react may say something good or bad about ourselves.
I realize a lot of my complaints above are kind of nit-picky. Long Road Ahead is still fantastic, and it sets up the conclusion to this series nicely. Buying and playing this episode is a no-brainer (no pun intended).