Shotguns, vomit receptacles and Kleenex at the ready Walking Dead fans, because if Telltale’s Dennis Lenart is to believed you’re going to need at least one of those while playing Episode 3: Long Road Ahead. PR guff or legitimate reason to be concerned for your wellbeing? Join me in donning your best gurning survival face as we find out.
Last time out our cheery band of surviving misfits took a stroll through Cormac McCarthy country and, er, well it didn’t go so well with poor old subtlety nailed to the cross midway through and the ensuing pantomime better left forgotten. And great news! You can forget it because if you decide to jump from Episode 1 right into Episode 3 the only thing you’d need to question would be the sudden disappearance of one grumpy old, (headless) bastard; there’s hardly a sniff of fallout from the events of Episode 2. That’s all to say, Episode 2 was filler.
Episode 3 most certainly is not.
There’s more action this time round, more chances to have your face munched, more press A to not die moments and even a spot or two of first person shooting (which is terrible). But crucially, Episode 3 continues the story of the survivors as they struggle to reach the coast and with that comes a renewed sense of purpose. There’s something driving the story forward again, which is for the best when story is at the heart of your game.
More great news; the many problems of Episode 2 are alleviated almost entirely. Overwrought opening ten-minutes aside, the narrative wagon weaves in and out with drunken gusto; pulling illegal U-turns at will and throwing up shocks, surprises and gut-wrenching twists without so much as an inkling as to what awfulness looms over the next knoll. During the frequent downtime it’s peppered with endearing moments and little jokes that come packaged with huge payoffs down the line.
There are mild pacing issues that rise out of the fact that you actually have to do some gameplay now and again; gameplay that only really amounts to clicking on things until you’ve clicked on enough things that you’ve automatically clicked on all the right things, and interesting things are allowed to happen again. Like before, though, the best bits of Episode 3 are where you’re wretchedly deciding how best to respond to the rigmarole on-screen, usually in the ominous shadow of a gigantic clenched fist (otherwise known as the time limit).
The horror makes a welcome comeback too and of course it’s not the doddering undead that provide reason to sleep with one eye open. It’s you. Choices are meaty and at times terrible and Telltale do a first rate job of leading you by the hand into cruel deadfalls. The quality of the storytelling is markedly improved even if the dialogue is still a bit too boorish; clobbering through the drama in a desperate bid to remind you that there are choices to be made at times where a less impetuous art-form would allow the swelling melancholy to burrow deep down into its audience’s psyche. Some of the more tender moments would be better served with slight action, as opposed to fumbling dialogue choices, and while it sounds like a small quibble, it’s the only thing – technical hitches aside – preventing The Walking Dead from making the leap to greatness.
True; by videogame standards it’s all pretty damn spectacular. Lest we forget these are characters you’ll actually care for (and if you don’t to begin with, you sure as hell will by the end) and it’s a game that leaves you ruminating long after the curtains close. But there’s such a rich tapestry of similar fiction in film and literature; so many authors and directors doing what Telltale try but with greater mastery. There’s no reason a videogame has to be this indelicate.
Perhaps even more frustrating are moments when the music stops brusquely, sucking all the meticulously worked tenderness out from the scene. There’s the same gamut of glitches too: awkward pauses between camera transitions, sound and dialogue going AWOL willy nilly. In a game that’s tugging at the heartstrings at every turn these hiccups are all the more pernicious.
It’d be unjust to take too much away from Telltale’s triumphs here, though. Long Road Ahead certainly isn’t much fun to play, but it is by a stretch the smartest, most rewarding episode in the point and click zombie tragedy yet.
Best take a couple of Kleenex in with you, then. Just in case. Sniff.