Judged strictly as an adventure game - which is, after all, what you may have been expecting, given developer Telltale's lineage - the first episode of The Walking Dead seems to be pretty disappointing stuff. The environments are only sparsely interactive, while the hot-spot interface is constrictive and sluggish to navigate with a mouse-and-keyboard set-up. (Click on the control menu and you get a picture of an Xbox pad, incidentally, which probably explains it.) More importantly, there are only a few genuine puzzles in the entire game, most of which aren't particularly well crafted. It's nowhere near as dismal as Telltale's recent Jurassic Park offering, perhaps, but it falls a long way short of the company's better work.
The thing is, though, I'm not really sure that the weird kind of fanfic brand extension that Telltale's engaged in these days even counts as adventure games anymore. If you take The Walking Dead as (sorry about this) a piece of interactive storytelling, it's actually a lot more successful.
The writing team is pretty good at mimicking the simmering human psychodrama and shocking flare-ups of hyper-violence that characterise both The Walking Dead comic and its TV spin-off. Meanwhile, the Borderlands-influenced biro-and-watercolour art means that Telltale's lumbering tech can just about deliver the stylised expressiveness needed to keep endless scenes of talking heads visually interesting. It's a buggy journey, filled with random freezes and poor audio quality, but it's not boring like Jurassic Park was, and the thrill-free quick time events have been kept to a minimum.
Rather than making use of established characters, Telltale's five-part series follows a brand new selection of Atlantans, all watching as Georgia - and presumably the rest of the world - succumbs to a fairly traditional zombie outbreak. In this first chapter the writing and characterisation are surprisingly good, introducing the gang in swift strokes without relying too heavily on clichés and quickly keying the audience into the various fault-lines lurking in the group.
At the centre of it all, the player is cast as Lee, a man with a mysterious past, who starts the game on his way to prison in the back of a cop car. That doesn't last very long, but Telltale then allows you to inhabit the role for quite a while before you actually begin to learn what sort of a man Lee truly is. This creates the kind of creeping paranoia that's a perfect match for the series - particularly since the plot quickly throws him into the role of carer for a sweet, possibly orphaned, child named Clementine.
Another perfect match seems to be the game's focus on choices and consequences - although with only two hours of story to play through, it's far too early to judge whether Telltale can deliver on such an ambitious structure. For the time being, it's worth mentioning that Episode One has at least two genuinely dramatic moments in which you'll have to decide upon matters of life and death, while every conversation - and there are lots of them - seems to throw you a handful of intriguing new indicators that you're starting to earn somebody's loyalty, or have just piqued their suspicion.
The game's filled with chatting rather than puzzle-solving for the most part, then. But it feels appropriate given the licence, and by the end of this first instalment, you'll have picked up a fair amount of backstory, made new friends and enemies, and covered a surprising amount of ground. Like the comics, I suspect Telltale's take on The Walking Dead will be something of a slow-burner; Episode One forces you to make some interesting decisions, and now it's down to the rest of the series to see if they pay off.
7 / 10