At the risk of voicing an unpopular opinion, zombies are overused in interactive media. Too many games employ the undead as a crutch, leaning heavily on worn material that is devoid of any creativity or compelling narrative arc. In the worst instances, the cause of the zombie apocalypse (zompocalypse!) or even the presence of perambulating corpses is irrelevant. Any other mindless, emotionless and innumerable foe could be substituted for the same effect. Red Faction: Armageddon’s insectoid Plague or Halo’s Flood are perfect examples of the type of enemy that could easily be swapped in with minimal impact.

What sets Telltale Games’ episodic The Walking Dead series apart is the same thing that drives broad interest in the comic book source material (and television adaptation). The undead aren’t the major threat. The unpredictable, desperate and irrational living are the true peril in this newly devastated world. Finding food and water and distributing it amongst the party isn’t a side-quest necessitating a walk back to a whining survivor who has an unquenchable thirst. No, it’s a decision that carries with it an impact that might not be known for hours. The scarcity of resources, conflicting personalities and emotionally demanding choices are what make The Walking Dead great. The zombies? They’re set dressing.

Gruesome set dressing.

Episode 3 picks up shortly after the events of “Starved for Help.” The group is low on supplies and high on tension, setting up events that will change the fates of the survivors through the end of the season. The undead aren’t absent (how could they be?), but the paranoia and infighting running rampant through the barricaded encampment trumps the presence the formerly-living.

It’s impossible to discuss more than those vague details without spoiling the experience. To tip even one of the key events that occurs in the two- to three-hour episode would be a violation of the unspoken agreement that we have with one another. The punishment for doing so is something along the lines of filling my inbox with Rage Comics. I can tell you that there were moments that made me gasp out loud, question my motivations and (in-game) relationships and forcibly return my jaw to the closed position. Put simply, Telltale has done a stellar job of creating relatable characters, tense and fulfilling scenarios and an atmosphere made possible by, but not reliant on, the presence of zombies.

Except for this guy. This badass zombie is crucial.

The puzzles in “The Long Road Ahead” aren’t terribly challenging, but the first large one offers an investigative component that felt new and refreshing. The issues of trust are woven throughout as things come to a head. Though it’s unclear how much different the result of my travels would be at this point—based on the closing moments of this installment, I suspect minimally—the journey has unmistakably been colored by my words and actions.

There are also more action-based moments that don’t rely on button mashing. One of these, in particular, required a couple of attempts before meeting success. I was never frustrated, it was just a bit difficult to adapt to the controls. The combination of jarring, emotional moments, tense moments that haven’t been copy/pasted from previous portions and puzzles that simply feel a bit different makes for a wholly satisfying experience.

The moment right before this? Terrifying.

In addition to bringing more emotional weight than either of the previous episodes (not that they were lighthearted or whimsical), “The Long Road Ahead” is free from the issues that have plagued prior chapters. The occasional odd audio or graphical bug that tends to pop up in Telltale games like a hastily scrawled signature is absent. More importantly, the issues I had with the importation of my choices in Episode 2 were rectified.

Unlike last time, I never had any immersion-breaking moments of confusion and frustration. This is my story, my Lee Everett and my collection of horribly strained interpersonal relationships. The visuals, voice acting and scoring all continue to hold up against the high bar set during the first moments of the series, supporting the sense of ownership I took in the tale.

Meet Chuck.

Things are changing, and if the cliffhanger at the end of this episode is any indication, life will not be getting easier for those still among the living. I can’t wait to see where Episode 4 takes us on this long road.

Missed our reviews of the XBLA versions of Episodes 1 and 2? Read them here and here.

 

Here’s the Rundown:

+ Tension among the survivors creates a compelling narrative atmosphere
+ Action sequences go beyond button mashing
+ Impressive character development creates a strong sense of immersion
+ Split second decisions help drive home that Lee can’t always be in control
- It seems that earlier decisions have funneled into a choke point before opening up again
- Puzzles aren’t terribly challenging or thought-provoking

 

9 and 9.5 represent the pinnacle of the genre, a game that defines what that genre should be about. These scores are for games that you not only feel would be worth your purchase, but you would actually try to convince your friends to buy them as well.

The Walking Dead: The Long Road Ahead was developed and published by Telltale Games. It was released on August 29th on Xbox Live Arcade for the price of 400msp ($4.99). A copy was provided by the publisher to RipTen for the purposes of review.