The Walking Dead: Episode 3 – The Long Road Ahead
To cease living is inevitable for us all; the only thing we truly have in common. But now Death is no longer waiting around. He’s standing over the shoulder of every last human whispering unsweet nothings into their ears’. Leave them behind. Look after yourself. Who needs them. They’ll kill you. The seeds of doubt are planted and soon blossom in the minds of the weak who succumb to these notions, only to become undone and lose what they had left. There’s little sand left in the hourglass of life for each of The Walking Dead‘s survivors.
George Herbert said that ‘Hell is full of good meanings and wishings’. The remark couldn’t ring truer in Telltale’s take on this world. The story’s protagonist Lee has had to make many hard decisions over the past few months, often with his back often against the wall and failure facing him in every direction he turned. In The Long Road Ahead, all of his good intentions and wishes are pulled apart and devastated by the actions of others. Frustration is the final step before creation, but when that frustration comes from an external force denying you the end goal, there’s no reward or victory. There are only long, lonely hours to contemplate what you could have done differently.
The world itself is navigated in the same manner as previous episodes. Each location allows some limited free movement, and pointing out items or people of interest will allow you to interact further. The straight-out-of-a-comic-book, sorry, graphic novel, cel-shaded visual aesthetic remains and captures the atmosphere of the original printed issues. Subtle musical cues play beneath the scenes, with certain thematically representative harmonies repeated throughout; the short loop that accompanies Lee’s time with the young girl Clementine is a particular highlight.
There’s also a great satisfaction in playing as a lead character whose differences from convention aren’t rammed down your throat like a spoonful of hospital food. He isn’t the leader of the group, he doesn’t woo all the ladies wherever he walks, he’s not white, nor superhuman, and has committed a crime that was sending him to jail for a long time before hell opened its flood gates. Other survivors met along the road are however often based on some form of stereotype to help us identify with them in the short running times, but there’s more often than not a twist or subtle change that makes them fully-dimensional characters that don’t merely exist to be killed off or slept with.
What Lee – through the decisions of the player – has to do is survive. Whether that means questioning his loyalty to others or only looking out for himself is at your control. These choices are represented via options during conversation or pivotal moments in the story arc. There’s no apparent right choice or colour guide to help you. Instead, there’s a timer that rapidly shrinks and forces a quick reaction. By making our decisions closer to the gut rather than being processed in thought, Telltale makes you part of the conclusion. It’s utterly gripping from the opening of each episode until the very last choice.
With the characters developed, this third chapter wastes no time in presenting the many dangers: fatigue, the undead and human error. Through verbal interaction and split-second decisions those moral grey areas soon dominate as old social codes have no meaning any more. There’s a real sense of threat and it can never be taken for granted that a character won’t suddenly perish in the explosions of carnage that litter their mundane survival.
The voice acting is consistent throughout. There remains an element of scripting, with characters always waiting for their turn to speak, but the voices aren’t as gruff or TV-like as many of today’s video games. This consistent realism within the world is further punctuated by the subtle facial animations that coalesce with the writing to flesh out the characters Lee travel’s with. It’s great to see survival horror – for lack of a better word– surviving in alternate disguises. There are some lighter moments that shine through the madness too, and this helps it from becoming too overbearing.
And then the train misses its signal, and everyone starts to break.
Previously, the second episode’s faults were in its reliance on some clumsy quick-time events to conjure the illusion of difficulty, and the occasion bug with bizarre technical consequences. Here unnatural pauses in cutscenes and at other points are experienced when it appears the world is recalling your past choices. The frame rate occasionally stutters for no apparent reason. And the QTEs return, although this time there’s a greater variance in the use and purpose of them.
One encountered glitch caused an otherwise located character to appear out of thin air, the original cutscene playing again. Following this rather large and unwanted dose of déjà-vu the story continued on unaware and the only thing damaged was the moment. It’d also be interesting if Lee would visibly carry items. Whilst he doesn’t own pockets of infinity, it’s strange not to see him lugging a large item around, especially when this would work to complement the scene. Like the shopping cart in McCarthy’s The Road, the encumbrance of items recently taken for granted and now vital are a significant visual aid of struggle.
The Long Road Ahead continues The Walking Dead’s fantastic storyline and presents a real case for episodic gaming on consoles via digital means. There are still some bizarre bugs present in Telltale’s system but these merely cause slight distractions. And when counterbalanced by such an engrossing adventure, it becomes easily forgivable. With our group of vagabonds now over half way through their journey, this continues to be a highlight of 2012.