Walking Dead: The Game, Survival DRAMA! (instead of horror… get it?)

(the following review is dedicated to my friend, “Rhiannon” Miller)

Life is full of choices. Which shirt do I wear? What should I have for lunch? What movie should I go to? Who should I save from the attacking zombies?

That last decision isn’t really easy, it can change your entire life or at least in the case of Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead your entire experience over a five episode monthly season. At first it may seem not completely apparent how much your experience will truly change and in terms of major beats I’m not sure it will or if puzzle solutions will change as much as just dialogue and plot sequences, but it still makes for a fully replayable (sic) adventure. Doubly so because even without the chance to have portions of the story play out with different dialogue choices and segments, Telltale has put together an interactive graphic novel that one could see re-reading, just as one reads The Walking Dead comic again or owns the Walking Dead TV show on DVD to watch it again, good storytelling with quality acting.

For fans of the TV show the service is bit less, but they will get to see Glenn before he went to Atlanta and Shawn and Hershel Greene before Shawn became a Walker. Comic books fans get a minor character who did major things, as Lilly’s life before the apocalypse gets fleshed out. Everyone else we’ve been introduced to are original characters and while some reviews have stated these characters to be one dimensional, I feel that means they went for really super quick playthroughs (sic) to get their reviews out and never really took any time to listen to all the various conversations in which they are, including Doug, who was based completely on an actual real person. Of course none of them are as fleshed out as much as the lead character the player controls in Lee Everett. A character just as engaging, intriguing and with a variable personality even because of player choice. It seems like a small thing right now that you can decide if Lee is totally loyal, valiant, kind and all that jazz or mostly single-minded and only looking out for himself with a truly jerky attitude or something in between.

At many times the feel of the game is much for like a very interactive and controllable graphic novel. While there are actually puzzles which can take some common sense and in other times a good eye and understanding of logic as well as even the occasional very easy what has been known to be called QTE, which essentially translates to mashing a button and then mashing another button just at the right moment. There’s also some very minor targeting situations, but they are handled much more like a point n click adventure as Telltale has handled in the past. To my trained eye there doesn’t seem to be much change to the game design that differs from earlier Telltale Games such as Back To The Future, Sam & Max and Wallace & Gromit, and I’m one of those people who actually found those games to have a perfect balance of being easy to pick up for a complete non-gamer and only too easy for the strictest of puerile game players who want to feel like they’re taking a lawyer’s bar exam while playing a game or just find flaws to find flaws

I love most of all the art style which finds a way to combine what has become now known as Telltale’s signature art style with a very comic book feel with a line style that evokes both Walking Dead’s original artist Tony Moore and current artist Charlie Adlard. The animation does have various glitches that are easy to ignore, but can be jarring. In certain environments if you try to walk to the edge of the screen that isn’t actually passable, I noticed the animation would fall to a crawl. There was some texture parsing and floaters in cinemas that is distracting, but again not so much to ruin the game and make one scream bloody hell. Unless you you’re someone who demands absolute perfection and I mean ABSOLUTE perfection, which means, you’ll never ever be happy or satisfied and you better hope there’s a zombie apocalypse soon and that you become a zombie quick so that your brain becomes one process of eat, eat, eat. Which you know, could be interesting, but since I see myself as someone like Rick Grimes and possibly Lee Everett (who knows, it’s only one episode so far), you’ll end up being smashed to bits by me.

I actually highly recommend The Walking Dead game. It’s available on Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC/Windows and Mac , so your options to play are very high. You can also choose to try out things with just purchasing one episode for $5 or getting the entire season. On the Telltale site there are even better deals that get you the whole season and other games as well if you’re new to Telltale and want to explore stories such as Back To The Future Part Four or Jurassic Park 1.5.

Law & Order’s Legacy Continues in Interactive Format

I was twelve years old when Law & Order began its long run on NBC. The show didn’t really hit its stride till the late great Jerry Orbach joined the cast in the second season along with S. Epatha Merkeson in my personal opinion and truly didn’t reach excellence till Sam Waterson joined as Jack McCoy. All that can be easily argued, but suffice it to say I’ve been a fan since day one. Criminal Intent was quickly my favorite show because of the awesomeness of D’Onofrio’s Goren and Kathryn Erbe’s Eames, but SVU always held my interest through and might actually top CI as a favorite with Meloni’s Stabler, Hartigay’s Benson and Wong’s Dr. Huang. Through the new shows though I still always loved the original and it’s various pairings. Logan was the original guy, but once teamed with Brisco he just reached levels of awesomeness and anyone who teamed with Lennie was automatically awesome, especially Rey Curtis. The way they wrote Benjamin Bratt’s character out was tragic, but the return to who he was in 2009 was just as tragic and never had any followup.

All this build up brings us to be able to discuss the new Telltale game for iOS and eventually PC, Law & Order: Legacies. Written and developed by Ryan Kaufman with production from Dave Felton, the game attempts to actually create in many a season of Law and Order that could’ve made it to the airwaves, alongside the fantasy of stories never told. It’s definitely a professional approved fan fiction, but it’s a well done one with creativity and an attempt at as much accuracy as possibly allowed by the production’s budget and limits. I found it interesting that Arie Kaplan who worked on the HOUSE M.D. games and is an accomplished journalist worked on Episode 2.

Unlike Telltale’s Back To The Future which featured the talents of original BTTF stars Christopher Lloyd, and Claudia Wells, the Law & Order game were not able to procure talent such as Benjamin Bratt, S. Epatha Merkeson, or Linus Roach among others such as obviously the dearly departed Jerry Orbach. Yet despite this, between quality voice acting and top notch art, the original actors are surely missed, but do not result in causing a distraction. Among the talent are voice over actress Cissy Jones, poet/musician Kid Beyond who has worked for Telltale previously, musician/voice actress Rashida Clendening, and many of the people who have worked with Telltale on other productions. The one voice they were able to retain was Steve Zirnkilton, the Voice of Law & Order, as well as that pretty critical Mike Post composition.

In playing this I had really wanted to replay the Vivendi/Legacy Law & Order games which had the use of the real actors, but as I remembered featured mail it in performances as well as writing and tons of bugs, yet, I wanted to try and do a track record of these type of games, as well as comparing them to Telltale’s CSI games. Yet in terms of style, content and conception, Legacies is its own entity based much more in paying attention to clues and having a good eye, while the previous games were based more in choosing the right random dialogue tree and beating annoying minigames like tile, match and also match and sometimes peck and hunt.

While I’ve only gotten to play the first two episodes, I wanted to reflect on the plot as there was a real attempt here to create something original here. The game in the first episode seems to take place shortly after season 12 and before Season 13. Detective Rey Curtis after a few years since his wife’s passing in 2009 and moving back to NYC is prompted by his daughters to return to the force instead of moping around. He someone gets automatically put back on the 27th Precinct run by Lt. Van Buren where he and Lennie Briscoe partnered. His first case in which he hasn’t been given a partner is a murder which also turns up rape evidence, Detective Benson from the 16th is called up to join the investigation as her partner is “on leave”, which is probably Benson not wanting to accept that Elliot actually quit, that is the only thing that makes sense unless Ryan Kaufman messed up his L&O timelines . That now gives us the Legacy of two major L & O characters becoming temporary partners on a major case, which once the suspect was revealed probably should’ve been turned over to Goren and Eames, but that’s splitting hairs. That case takes a quick left turn during trial and it is up to Michael Cutter and Abby Carmichael to clean up the mess. This must be before Cutter ends up as the new Bureau Chief of ADAs who work on SVU cases. A sidenote in the story reveals a connection between this case and a cold case Briscoe and Curtis worked on years ago.

In chapter two we are sometime between 1995 and 1999, probably closer to 99 based on the statement that the cold case took place 10 years ago from the first episode’s story, although for the time line to work it had to be at least 11-12 years ago, but one can say I’m nitpicking. This is an untold case of Briscoe and Curtis looking into the possible murder of a young father who died steps from his door step. The investigation follows all logical steps and Jack McCoy and Abby Carmichael have to use everything they can to convict in a case that isn’t not exactly as clear cut as one would hope. During the episode we discover a little more information on the Cold Case mentioned in Episode one and that it wasn’t just cold but closed, and that Lennie had been working on it on his own time. I spoil this information here so that fans and potential gameplayers who have yet to try the game out are aware there is an over arching storyline which seems to promise that while each episode is playable on its own, the full purchase will be definitely worth it.

Plot out of the way a very quick discussion of gameplay. So far the game is broken into two sections much like the TV show. We open with an investigation which includes listening to answers, hearing stories and a bit of a “find the item” type of minigame which actually has some thought put into it and allows for some cool looking backgrounds. The questions section will ask at certain points if you believe someone or feel you’ve caught them in a lie or that information provided was accurate and if you answer that correctly, a multiple choice will ask you the why of the answer. These mulptiple choices can be tricky as they can be worded incorrectly. Getting an answer wrong won’t end your game, but it may lead to a different result when it comes to the trial. Once all investigations are done, you go into court room mode. Here when interviewing a witness on the stand it is much like the interview investigations, but the twist comes in the properly placing objections and doubt when the defense is up at bat. There is also a closing arguments segment where you must properly choose what subjects to bring up. There are chances of losing, winning by jury or even offering a plea bargain which allows multiple gameplays just to see those scenes play out.

While I have not yet played the just released episode 3 which introduces Detective Logan to the story as returning to the force after quitting Major Case, trying out the real world and deciding he had to be a homicide detective, I definitely look forward to it and seeing where else the game and story go. Maybe with four episodes to go we might even get appearances from Lupo or Munch. Since this game was supposed to originally be a Law & Order: L.A. game there’s a chance will get a cameo from Connie Rubierosa who has decided that California just wasn’t doing it for her. Either way Telltale has shown that they can handle telling original stories, with gameplay that should be acceptable for all levels of gameplayers from the beginners to the veterans and a plotline that should be satisfying to all levels of fans of Law & Order as well.

FAVORITE CONSOLE GAMES of 2011

Back to the Future-The Game: With Bob Gale along as a supervisor, Mike Stemmle and Andy Hartzell, a fourth Back to the Future movie was realized. One just needs to completely ignore most of Back to the Future: The cartoon to enjoy it. It’s a very easy game, making it much more an interactive story than an adventure game, but that seems to be what TellTale is going for these days based on Law & Order: Legacies which is really well done, but very easy. What makes BTTF: The Game so special of course is Christopher Lloyd. His inclusion on voicing Doc takes this from a fun detour into a real project worthy of favorite.

Catherine: This Japanese Tetris like game has a lot going for it. While the majority of the gameplay is simply a hardcore variation on Tetris, Bejeweld, etc. it has an overlapping story with adventure game elements holding it together. Combined with absolutely stunning anime sequences produced by Studio 4°C (who incidentally did the anime sequences for one of my favorite games of all time Rogue Galaxy) and soundtrack of classical tunes remixed by Shoji Meguro, it is an amazing entry into video gaming and a game changer of what is capable in terms of basic being innovated.

Fight Night Champion: I have gotten to play the Champion mode of this game (by choice), but as a compelling original boxing tale with awesome combat controls it was one of the best experiences I have had with a video game. As a movie with interactive elements its actually on top as that, with a great script from Oscar nominated Will Rokos, good voice acting including video game veteran and popular actress Elisha Dushko, really quality realistic animation and the fact that’s its based in boxing really gives it an edge and I can see myself coming back to it even in years to come.

Infamous 2: Between Uncharted 3, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations and Skyrim it seems like the second chapter of Sucker Punch’s two games in one super hero saga has been forgotten. In the second game we get an even more realized and cooler world in a New Orleans-esque town. Cooler enemies with the zombie vampire like swamp creature horde and a more intriguing story with continuations of the first game but giving us now two protagonists, two sides to choose from and your special sidekick. Infamous 2 was everything Infamous was and more. Throwing in the ability to create your own levels or play user created levels, a first for a third person action adventure game on a console where the developer actually approved and helps distribute the mods, it was a gem among the horde.

L.A. Noire: The story in L.A. Noire and the acting is top notch, as is the clue gathering, the conversations. It’s a great conceptual answer to an interactive version of a 1940′s cop film with as much accuracy as allowed, with some intriguing twists of inaccuracy, because really… a fully realized game would probably be boring. The characters are fully realized, not just by the performances that the technology developed for the game allows, but by the actual writing itself. Alongside Quantic Dream’s David Cage, I see former Team Bondi’s Brendan McNamara one of those videogame writer/director’s who will create very few, but very powerful, interesting, critically popular games full of strong script, concept and final product. L.A. Noire was the Heavy Rain of 2011 and more people got to play it, since Heavy Rain was a PS3 exclusive and still is.

Yakuza 4: The latest iteration of the Yakuza series before they went “Kill Zombies” in the next game lost some of its flavor by telling four different stories from four different characters instead of just focusing on The Dragon, but it gained another flavor and various techniques of intrigue. Four characters means four fighting styles, four different personalities and four different side missions. Some of them are huge side missions which I have to believe you can work on when you beat the whole thing, because I have not got that far yet. This is a huge epic game with more options of things to even more so than Yakuza 3. Training fighters, bowling tournaments, parkour challenges, fishing, more food to learn about, more drinks to discover, fishing, bating cages with better technique, and just so much more, more, more.

BONUS iOS

Jetpack Joyride: Hardcore addicting and adorable, the most recent Barry Steakfries game which is probably a prequel has no ending, you just keep playing, then you die and you try again. I don’t think there’s an end at least. Maybe there’s a way you can reach the super end if you unlock everything and spend extra money to get coins… I don’t know. I do know it’s super addictive and really fun. It’s currently still free so if you an iPhone or iPad I’d go grab it.

Where’s My Water?: Disney Mobile’s first original game and the game that actually beat out Angry Birds for top selling iTunes App Store game may be considered a cheap choice especially with my console favorite choices, but in terms of iOS games compared to video games, sales do generally mean quality and proof of concept. Some of my favortie games of all time in all history were definitely not the best selling, or even critically best, but they are my favorites. Swampy is adorable, he’s so adorable he’s getting an original web series in a couple days.

Games That Tell Tales

As TellTale Games truly expands their line of excellent produced games in the end of 2011 and beginning in 2012 with magic based on the Jurassic Park movie franchise, and two very popular the Comic books in Image Comics The Walking Dead created by Robert Kirkman and the Vertigo fantasy series FABLES created by Bill Willingham, I thought it best to look at Telltale’s game history as a whole as well as quickly review their three last distributions in Back to The Future-The Game, Puzzle Agent and the second chapters of Hector-Badge of Courage.

I’d previously reviewed the first chapter of Hector on PCS, but I’ve yet to throw praise their way for everything else and they’re highly deserving it. So, away we go, with the history of the company as I understand it without all that legal and technical mumbo jumbo and with applauding their efforts and criticizing a bit (because it’s video games and one still must criticize video games) along the way.

Telltale was founded by former Lucasarts team members Dan Connors and Kevin Bruner. Both have had an extensive hand both creatively, administrative and technologically in bringing to life some of LucasArts most popular franchises such as Sam & Max and Grim Fandango, along with some Star Wars titles as well. Along the way they’ve been able to bring in some really awesome people to the team including Mike Stemmle, who was co-lead on Sam & Max as well as Escape from Monkey Island, Andy Hartzell, an award winning independent comics cartoonist and most notably Dave Grossman, co-creator of Monkey Island, Pajama Sam, and Moop & Dreadly with Ron “Grumpy Gamer” Gilbert (who now works at the other base of operations for awesome games Doublefine with Tim Schaefer, who worked alongside Stemmle, Connors and Brunner back when) was brought in as head designer. Along with incredible artists, producers and more, this assembled team has allowed Telltale to be one of the only successful adventure game companies in the United States today. Most of the adventure game companies with success are based in England, the Netherlands and Germany. Thankfully though Telltale exists and helps bring franchises you’d think were primed for a game, but also difficult to envision to life.

The first series they tackled was Jeff Smith’s BONE. Visually and intellectually, as well as voice acting, this production was awesome, but it definitely suffered serious flaws in their action and mini-games sequences. Despite this, it is a great shame that they only got to do Out From Boneville and The Great Cowrace. I’d love to see them return to the series at some point and maybe try and create a side adventure instead of the adaptations done here. Maybe an untold Grandma Rose story would be best suited.

TellTale was given the CSI franchise to develop for publisher Ubisoft, but these games never really seemed to fall into line with where Telltale’s style and bread&butter landed. It wasn’t long into Telltale’s existence as a company though that the opportunity to “come out like gangbusters” presented itself. While the exact reasoning behind how Sam & Max ended up at Telltale has many stories suffice it to say they got their hands on the Freelance Police, along with their creator Steve Purcell along for the ride for brand new adventures not tied to the LucasArts design. That gave us “Save The World” which was followed by “Beyond Time & Space” and eventually “The Devil’s Playhouse”. All three games used very interesting and intriguing uses of puzzle design and twists in the adventure gameplay to deliver games that were quite awesome, even if they somehow never have yet to reach the epic-ness that was “On The Road”. This was not for lack of trying. It could be because of the SCUMM system, maybe it’s because of nostalgia on my part. I enjoyed all the Sam & Max games from Telltale but there were decisions made in gameplay style which caused problems.

These same issues would plague their very thought out and high quality “Tales of Monkey Island” series. This game did have the excellence of Ron Gilbert working alongside Grossman and Stemmle to come to fruition though. What hurt this game, much like in the Sam & Max game was that each episode was not exactly standalone. They were treated much more like chapters in a book and some episodes were weaker than others, in terms of length, puzzles and more. If played in one sitting, this could be ignored, but if played the way they were originally designed it was very noticeable. In the long run though, it truly proved that Telltale was on to the magic. (Although it should be noted Ron Gilbert did come in for one chapter of this series, helping with design and writing, helping stir the pot that Stemmle and Grossman started.)

During this time they had also worked with Aardman Animations on their “Wallace & Gromit” franchise. Now I never saw how that could be a video game, but they figured it out. Even more amazingly they found how to turn the Strong Bad flash cartoons in to fascinating and funny games. I was never a fan of Strong Bad and I am still not, but my god, they seriously figured out how to make me in the least like those Strongbad games. It’s a testament to the talent of the Telltale team.

In 2010, Telltale became more than just a developer of their own products, but the housing platform for smaller games which would come out on their own, but with Telltale backing them had much more chance at being seen by a public desiring adventure games on all levels. They called it the Pilot program and the first title was Nelson Tethers, Puzzle Agent. Designed by cartoonist Graham Annabelle, who had been working in some capacity at Telltale since 2005 as they published his webcomic DUNK, it was an an example that Telltale didn’t just make good games, but they really could find excellent ones. I actually had problems with Puzzle Agent, both the original and the sequel in the puzzles. Some of them just went beyond my style of thinking. That’s not on me though, the game is called Puzzle Agent and that meant all kinds of puzzles, logic, math, visual, and when it comes to two of those I tend to have some issues, especially super complicated mazes. The game has both super easy and then slider puzzle types and I am not good at slider puzzles. Never hand me a Rubik’s cube, my way of solving it is to crack it open and re-glue it together when solved.

Back to the Future: The Game was announced in June of 2010, alongside with the upcoming Jurassic Park, as part of a licensing deal with Universal. Fan interest was high straight from the start and only got higher when the game was announced as “the fourth chapter” in BTTF and that Christopher Lloyd would be voicing Doc Brown. From the first chapter I was immediately sold. While my computer wasn’t completely up to snuff to handle the graphics completely I could tell the writing, acting and gameplay were everything I’d been wanting from Telltale and that the franchise only helped this. I think with this series the company really found their swing. Maybe it was knowing that there would be even more discerning eyes on it to accomplish their goals. Yet, yes, the episodic formula caused this to also suffer from some episodes being weaker than others and the game can truly only be appreciated best if played in succession. It truly was one of the strongest efforts from Telltale and gives amazing hope to their Jurassic Park game, not to mention The Walking Dead and Fables.

The most recent Telltale game to “ship” were chapters 2 & 3 of the Straandlooper developed HECTOR-Badge of Carnage. These both continued the excellence of the first two chapters and truly compel you complete the entirely funny, well thought out and constructed point & click game. The way this project finished gives me not only hope to see what if anything Straandlooper produces next, but what the pilot program may offer. While it’s obvious Telltale’s efforts for the next year will be in the three previously mentioned franchises and hopefully a second Back to the Future game, I hope they understand what they can really do here for gaming as a whole. Especially being one of the only, if not the only developer who is not an independent creator to produce games like this with distribution on almost every available platform one can think of.

There was a TellTale panel scheduled for New York Comic Con 2011, but based on research I could conduct it has been postponed for rescheduling or possibly all out cancelled.  This is a shame as I was excited at the prospect of possibly meeting Stemmle, Grossman, et. al… but alas.  I shall just continue to enjoy their products.