In the Walking Dead comics, fighting a zombie is always a massive deal. Its survivors are all too aware of the dangers involved, the risk of attracting attention, and how one false step means death. They'll do almost anything to avoid a big fight. So the series doesn't seem ideal for a video game subtitled 'Assault' - but the first of many surprises here is how smartly it's approached unfamiliar territory.
This is a top-down strategy-shooter with the emphasis on the former, where you guide a group of four through zombie-packed locations, taking care of business and gathering supplies. The distinctive black-and-white art style of the comics is a heavy influence on Assault's look, making this feel like a much closer companion than Telltale's colourful adventure (visually at least), and every element is realised in 3D.
The viewpoint can be spun 360 degrees as well as zoomed in or out, essential for checking out alleyways and gaining a perspective during larger engagements - it's not just a nice idea, well executed, but an essential tool. The addition of comic book onomatopoeia during fights ("Thwack!"), along with brief glimpses of panel art to indicate incoming zombies, are the final flourishes of a gorgeous and faithful visual achievement.
That's not the only Walking Dead vibe running through Assault, with the combat also loosely tied in to a key idea of the comics - shooting makes a lot of noise. Your group can switch between guns and melee weapons, with the former much more potent but the latter silent, and as bullets are fired, a bar on the left begins filling. When it's full, a huge herd of zombies will suddenly pinpoint the group and rush to attack. The bar is relatively easy to keep low under normal circumstances, but in a big fight you often lose track of it and unwittingly make the situation worse; there's an achievement for surviving a herd attack, which says everything.
The combat in Assault comes down to judicious use of firearms, picking the right moments and conserving ammunition, as well as backing off when the crowds are unmanageable. Each of the 10 characters has their own loadout plus complementary abilities, and all are series stalwarts: Rick, for example, has a pistol that hits for medium damage across a long range and can activate a headshot ability to take down zombies much quicker. Others are much more specialised, such as Micchone; entirely melee-based thanks to her trademark katana, you can run her into a massive horde and then activate an ability that makes every slash a one-hit kill. Risky, messy and extraordinarily effective.
It's the way this diversity knits into four-person teams that gives Assault's combat such variety, with the zombies themselves acting like... well, like zombies. They shamble around until alerted to your group, then try to get close for melee attacks. Dealing with a couple at a time is no problem, but Assault's locations are built such that large numbers cluster together and sometimes break out of nearby buildings - let them mass up, or surround the group, and you're dead. This is why the differences in firearms are so neat, with variable damage matched up to different effects; a machine gun inflicts constant low-scoring hits, but also slows a zombie's advance, while shotguns deal incredible spread damage but only at point-blank range (and take ages to reload).
Assault's only real issues are the occasionally inept AI of group members and some aspects of the control scheme. More often than not, your group will be bunched together, but during fights one or two of them can stand out of range and idle - a particular problem with melee characters and 'Shotgun' Shane. This can be fixed by moving characters individually, but it's a fiddly business during a massive ruck. Switching between melee weapons and guns can be done individually or as a group, and I found the way this is tied to the same icon a little cumbersome at times; perhaps it's just sausage fingers, but Assault often seems to misread my intentions here.
That said, Assault is a smart and sometimes fraught blend of running and gunning with the highest production values. What's most impressive is that this isn't a genre piece with a licensed skin over the top, but a game that works themes from the series into its mechanics - albeit at times rather loosely - and combines this with a wonderful take on the art style. Being a fan helps, of course, but The Walking Dead: Assault is surely good enough to win its own converts.
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