Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Walking Dead: Episode Two - Review

Much like its source material, The Walking Dead: Episode Two - Starved For Help is less about zombies and more about human relations in the wake of an inhuman apocalypse. Set three months after the conclusion of Episode One - A New Day, Lee Everett and his band of survivors have taken up residence in the Travalier Motel. With the walls barricaded, they seem set to survive until things blow over -- until they start running low on food. Forced to hunt the local wildlife, tensions mount on how to ration their remaining food supplies and whether or not to set out for a new location. As the group becomes more restless and malcontent with their situation, they meet a pair of brothers who own a dairy farm, and offer to trade gasoline for food.

The rest of Episode Two plays out like a suspense thriller as you try to gauge whether the St John family is trustworthy, and whether their farm (with its gasoline-powered electric fence) is really as safe from the zombies (and bandit raiders) as they claim it is. On the walk to their farm, the brothers ask oddly specific questions about your group, and once you arrive at the farm, they're rather selective of where you're allowed to roam. Are the St Johns up to no good, or are they just being overly cautious around a large group of heavily-armed strangers?

Besides trying to assess the potential for new living arrangements with the St Johns, with your group desperate for food and a safer shelter, you also have to contend with occasional zombie encounters as well as the mutual threat of bandit raiders. Human conflict takes center stage in this episode with even more tension dividing the group. All of your decisions from the previous episode carry over into this episode, meaning that characters will hold different opinions of you based on your prior actions within the group, and these tempered relationships get pushed to their limits in some of most tense and dramatic moments the series has offered thus far.

The story makes a few twists along the way to keep things interesting. Even though I had a feeling right from the beginning where everything would go, which ultimately proved pretty close to being correct, I was pleased with how subtle the build-up was. There was a lot of room for different interpretations as I went along, which kept me thinking hard about what I was choosing to do. A few unknown variables got thrown into the mix, one of which almost pulled a bait and switch and had me second-guessing my prediction of the plot.

Several new characters are introduced, including a few new group members. The most prominent new face is Mark, whom Lee and company rescued from a nearby air force base. The food he supplied from the air force commissary is what the group has been getting by on, but it's starting to run out. I was kind of annoyed at how they introduced a new main character completely off screen; the first few minutes of dialogue in the woods as Lee and Mark hunt for food suffice to fill in the gaps of what happened in the three month interim between episodes, but it's clearly just there to tell the audience how the characters and situation have developed, rather than letting you see, feel, and experience it for yourself. It's not a big deal, but it stood out as the weakest moment in the story-telling -- everything else was engaging.

Gameplay-wise, Episode Two plays identically to Episode One: you move around the screen with the WASD keys and you click with the mouse to use or observe things in the environment. During more action-heavy sequences, the game uses quasi quick-time events to let you perform more cinematic actions. Like Episode One, these quick-time events are very well-implemented, because your input controls almost always reflect the actions your character is performing. You're usually clicking on plausible spaces of the screen to interact with things, or using movement keys to move at a one-to-one ratio. It does a pretty good job of making you feel part of the action, even though you're basically only clicking to advance a cutscene.

With Episode Two's greater emphasis on its story, there's a minor feeling of less interactivity. Compared to the previous episode, it feels like there are fewer opportunities where you're really in control of Lee because you're often just watching cinematic cutscenes, occasionally selecting something from a list of options. There are even fewer puzzles this time around, so most of your actions end up being relegated purely to dialogue or story decisions, with more direct actions being entirely straightforward and devoid of satisfying problem-solving.

Starved For Help ultimately feels more like you're watching an interactive movie than you are playing a video game. Some people may be turned off by this, but for what it is, this episode manages to be engaging and engrossing despite its relative lack of interactivity. It feels kind of like watching an episode of the Walking Dead television series, except with better pacing, more interesting plotlines, and a greater feeling of impact because there is, in fact, interactivity. There are moments when I feel they could've done a better job of leaving you more in control of Lee, but it never took me out of the experience.

A large part of what makes Episode Two so engaging is the fact that your decisions feel so much more grave than they were in Episode One, and even those decisions felt pretty grave at the time. In retrospect, a lot of your decisions in Episode One were sort of arbitrary; do you side with this person or that person in an argument? Do you save this person or that person when they're both about to die? There was a lot of weight to your decisions because people often lived and died by your actions. This is still true of Episode Two, but this time the options appear far less clear-cut and give the implication of far deeper consequences.

One of the first decisions you have to make in the game is whether to rescue someone caught in a bear trap when you already have too many hungry mouths to feed. In any other game I would've been on the spot trying to disarm that trap, but in this game I found myself hesitating, actually considering leaving him there to die just because I didn't think we could afford taking even more people under our roof. Once the zombies showed, I started panicking and decided I would try to rescue him. The game immediately suggested I'd have to chop his leg off, but I wasted so much time trying every other option that, by the time I'd made it halfway through his leg, we were overrun and had to flee. I left him there to be eaten by zombies after putting him through excruciating pain.

In the aftermath, I found myself feeling extremely guilty about what I'd done. I hadn't been able to save him, and I made his death even worse. I wondered what I could've done differently, if maybe I'd been quicker or tried something else, and if it was even possible to save him at all. Then part of me thought that maybe it was for the best, since we couldn't afford to feed one extra person, anyway. This decision weighed on my chest so much more than any previous decision I'd made with other characters' lives, because there was so much more involved than just making one arbitrary click of a button.

Other situations are far less graphic, but carry equally serious consequences. Rather than just being decisions about whose life to save, or whose side to take in an argument, your decisions are influenced more by what kind of example you want to set for Clementine, your "adopted daughter," and how far you'd be willing to go in order to survive. When you have to dole out four pieces of food to ten hungry people, how do you decide who gets what? When you find a deserted car loaded with food, do you take it for yourself, even though it's possible the owner is still alive searching for gas? Do you try to be as open and helpful as possible with the St Johns, or keep your distance and lie about yourself?

When it comes to these kinds of decisions, there's even more railroading than in the first episode. If you replay the game, it becomes evident that, in many cases, the same net result will occur regardless of which decision you make. There are times when you're outright forced into doing something when the game gives you the clear choice not to, and none of your decisions have quite as much of an impact on the gameplay as, for example, the decision of saving Carley or Doug from the previous episode. None of this is really apparent when you're playing for the first time, however, because this episode is much better at masking the apparent outcomes of your decisions. No choice is easy to make, and there's rarely ever a right answer.

Finally, one of the best aspects of Episode Two is that it had me rethinking the way I was role-playing Lee. In the first episode, I thought I had it all figured out in terms of which characters I wanted to support and how I was going to handle myself. Things become more complicated in Episode Two, and I found myself going against my previous affiliations because of the compassion I held for certain characters in certain situations. Everyone's characterizations become deeper and more nuanced in this episode, including my own character. I had intended to play as a good guy, and watched as I unwittingly turned into a cold-hearted survivalist. My own change of character (perhaps a consequence of necessity) was one of the most dramatic elements of the game, making the entire experience far more tragic and poignant.

Minor technical issues still present themselves this time around. I ran into problems with cutscenes freezing in place for the odd, sporadic moment, much like they did in the first episode. I also had an unusual glitch where I was having a brawl with someone and watched the cutscene as I successfully fended them off, then for some inexplicable reason, the game told me I had died and had me restart the fight. Other than occasional mouse clicks not registering when I wanted to observe something in the environment, thus requiring a second click, I didn't run into any other problems, and these weren't significant enough to hinder the experience.

One nice improvement Telltale have made with the game's interface is that they've now separated the story hints (which tell you exactly how your actions have affected things for the immediate moment) and the item hints (which show icons for all of the things you could interact with on screen). Previously, it was either both or none. When I played the first episode I remember wanting to see the item hints, just to save me time hunting around looking for things to interact with, but I wanted to turn the story hints off for greater immersion, so it's nice that they've now made the option to enable them separately. And they've now added proper mouse and keyboard descriptions in the controls menu.

On the whole, Starved For Help is a definite improvement upon the first game. The writing is better, the story is more engaging, the character relations are deeper, and your decisions are even more grave. It explores the darker side of humanity that the comic series is known for; it stays very close to its source material. I wish there was some way to make the game even more interactive while retaining its cinematic feel; while not a big issue in practice, it's something to hope for in later episodes. Whether you're a fan of The Walking Dead or not, anyone who enjoys a good story with serious player decisions should find plenty to enjoy with Episode Two.

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