As an avid fan of the television series, I held high hopes for “A New Day”, the first episode of The Walking Dead: The Game. Even though this game is more a product of the comic book series rather than the TV show, the core elements are present in both. I wanted to experience the precise balance of emotional drama and brutal, gory violence that the franchise has managed to achieve. However, past experiences with games based on other entertainment licenses (TV, movies, comics, etc.) forced me to temper these lofty hopes with the expectation that this would be just another exercise in mindless zombie extermination. While laying waste to undead hordes with waves of bullets or a conveniently placed chainsaw is a valid gameplay template that tickles my most primitive of fancies, I was craving a more profound experience. That is exactly what A New Day delivers: an experience. And it’s not one that you will soon forget.
You take on the role of Lee Everett, a man who has recently been convicted of murder. The reasons for his legal predicament will be uncovered as the game unfolds, but as the zombie apocalypse begins, your primary objective will be to stay alive. While this goal parallels that of any other zombie survival game, developer Telltale Games has built many more layers into the challenge presented here. These layers go beyond just zombie slaying and focus more on the human element of this survival equation. Frankly, you’ll do more talking than killing over the course of this episode. But it is this emphasis on living the life of a survivor that sets this title apart from other games of the same genre and make it right at home as part of the Walking Dead franchise. While Lee is a character independent of the comics and TV show, he exists in the same narrative world. Those familiar with the Walking Dead will immediately feel well-acquainted with the events as they occur. Some characters and locations that crossover between the mediums help to solidify this correlation.
As the game begins, you find yourself sitting in the back of a police cruiser bound for prison. You’ll spend the first few minutes of this episode conversing with the officer that is transporting you. This allows you to not only familiarize yourself with the dialogue system, but also the control scheme. During your ride, you’re free to look around the vehicle and out the windows using one thumbstick while the other is dedicated to navigating the on-screen reticle in order to interact with the environment. Being handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser does limit your initial options for said interaction, but you do have the ability to lock eyes with the officer as he looks back at you in the rear view mirror during your conversation. He is a talkative fellow and his curiosity about your crime gives you plenty of opportunities to toy with the dialogue options. When prompted for a response, you will have a limited amount of time to make a selection or simply remain silent – awkward. Both of these systems play vital roles in the game experience as it unfolds.
While exploring your surroundings during this tutorial ride-along, the intentionally sketchy, cel-shaded graphics offer yet another reference back to the game’s foundation in the Walking Dead comics. Admittedly, it took me some time to become comfortable with the visuals. They are not the smoothly sculpted forms you may find in a game like Borderlands, but rather irregular and jagged black lines used to direct the bold color palette. The visuals are in no way mind-blowing, but they are tastefully done and quite befitting a game of this nature. Beyond the confines of the police car, the graphic style’s potential comes to fruition as you discover other survivors and locations. Characters are sculpted with comic-inspired brush strokes. Their features are delineated by sharp black lines that shift and move with the individual’s disposition. New locations are presented in the same striking visual style and offer very believable environments begging to be explored.
That exploration is a key component of the Walking Dead’s gameplay. Like most adventure games, the goal of searching every nook and cranny of an area is for the purpose of solving some sort of puzzle. In The Walking Dead, some of these solutions that involve using miscellaneous found objects to overcome an obstacle are actually very creative. However, the process of putting the pieces of these puzzles together can seem somewhat contrived. At times, you are able to move Lee freely around the environments while using the reticle to interact with his surroundings. Though the camera may remain fixed, the ability to travel from one place to another in order to reach a specific point of interest does give a genuine notion of exploration. There are other times when Lee is immobile and the only option is to move the reticle about the screen in search of interaction points. Instead of actually visually searching my surroundings, I felt more compelled to simply move the reticle top to bottom and side to side about the screen in order to quickly reveal all available interaction points. These moments come across as more of a mandatory exercise rather than a natural progression of the game’s narrative. Even in the instances when you are able to move about, odd camera angles and confined spaces can add a bit of frustration to your search.
Exploration and investigation in The Walking Dead is not limited to just the game environments, but also extends to the complex relationships that exist between the characters. Lee has the opportunity to befriend or shun a number of survivors he encounters throughout the game. The aforementioned dialogue system allows you choose how you will interact with these individuals. Do you want to be diplomatic and considerate with your approach or brash and insensitive? Do you want to be honest and forthcoming or would you rather play your cards close to your chest? Whatever path you take, be prepared to reap the consequences. If you don’t keep your story straight, someone may confront you about it. An overly aggressive approach may turn away potential allies. All of these interactions and subsequent responses are believable and give the sense that you must be very deliberate as you choose your path. This becomes even more significant with the potential for your chosen course to lead you into the next chapter of this tale. Telltale has promised that the repercussions of your decisions will extend beyond A New Day and will affect the events of future episodes.
Electing to become acquainted with some of your companions is a rewarding endeavor. They are very believable characters to whom, in some cases, I became very attached. Superb voice acting brings these individuals to life as they weave their stories. Telltale’s attention to detail helps the player to perceive these individuals as actual people, rather than characters in a game. For instance, at one point, a young girl is forced to abandon her home in search of safe haven. When she leaves, she pauses for a moment, then turns to close the door. She then stares longingly at the address numbers on the side of the house. This is not a generic NPC. She is a very real child with a life and a home – one that she is heartbroken to leave behind.
You will encounter a number of new faces over the course of the game. Some are minor characters that pass quietly through the narrative while others are with you through the majority of the first episode. The latter are where there lies an opportunity for real emotional investment. On more than one occasion, you are forced to choose to save a particular character while letting another one die. I genuinely had trouble making these decisions. As the timer ticked away, I attempted to remain logical and weigh each character’s strengths and weaknesses against the other’s. This was a futile effort as I simply ended up choosing the one to whom I was more attached. Several other instances in the episode involve inevitable deaths that, while less about your decision, are equally as heart-wrenching.
These emotional and sometimes tense moments are highlighted by another of the games triumphs – the sound design. Music that may have once wafted through the background of previous scenes moves to the forefront as peaceful moments turn to nerve-wracking struggles to survive. An incoming crescendo of violins foreshadows an approaching climactic point in the game, while a tranquil acoustic guitar may convince you to relax and let your guard down for a bit. Even as the game is commencing and the introductory credits are rolling across the screen, a melancholy tune swells up, foretelling the struggle you’ll face over the next two hours.
Sound effects add another aspect to the already engrossing auditory experience. The zombies sound genuinely disturbing as their low, sodden moans actually seem to climb out of their undead, rotten lungs. Similarly, weapon strikes emit a dull, wet thud as you assault your foes. Ordinary noises such as footfalls on a hardwood floor or knuckles rapping on glass all sound very real.
The icing on the cake of the sound design is the excellent voice-acting. A game of this nature entails a good deal of dialogue and conversational investigation and mediocre performances can become quite bothersome. As aforementioned, this game delivers in brilliant fashion. Each character’s voice is unique and suited to its owner. It is also subject to that character’s current set of circumstances or emotional state. Anger and fear are easy to pick out, as are less apparent sentiments such as disappointment or shame. Listen closely, as slight vocal inflections you may miss can actually be quite telling.
At this point, you may be asking yourself, “Where the hell are all the zombies?” Don’t fret! There are plenty of them and Telltale allows you the take them to task in the most brutal of fashions. Planting a screwdriver into the eye socket of a shambling walker is always satisfying, but even more so with the game’s control scheme. Finishing off an immobilized zombie is as simple as placing the reticle over the head and pressing the appropriate button. However, a moving target, or perhaps one that has you in its undead grasp, is another story. The reticle is jarred and shaken about as you try to wrestle it into submission over the walker’s face and allow your screwdriver to finish the job. This provides the frantic, fight-for-your-life moments you would expect to find in a zombie survival game.
The game’s outstanding ability to pull the player into the experience also brings to light its most blatant flaws. I found the load screens to be a bit too frequent for my taste and, as a result, felt that they really hampered the flow of the total experience. In addition, there was often a slight hiccup in the events on screen immediately after choosing a specific interaction or dialogue option. The game would simply pause for a few seconds while charting the course of my selection on what I imagine was some sort of digital flow chart. Whenever this occurred, I was left to ponder how the game was processing my decision and what outcome it would produce for me. Again, I was thinking about the game itself, not the events or characters. These moments jarred me back into the real world and reminded me that I was simply an audience to these events and not an active participant. While these instances were hard to ignore, they were easy to forgive (and quickly forget) as the game pulled me back in each time.
Upon completing A New Day, I genuinely felt as though I had accomplished something special. It was not a particularly difficult game, but I was pleased with the Lee Everett I had created, the relationships he had built, and the fact that I had led him safely through the first episode. Multiple save slots allowed me to go back and experiment with other dialogue and situational options, simply for the sake of curiosity. I honestly had no real desire to make any changes to my first playthrough. The impending threat of being eaten alive by walking corpses forced me to make hasty decisions, but they were also, in my opinion, the right decisions. Now with the consequences of those choices directing the course of events in future episodes, I am eagerly awaiting the next installment. As a fan that is left hungry for more each week by the television series, this is exactly the game I was hoping to find.
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Gameplay – 8.5
Graphics – 9.0
Sound – 10.0
Control – 8.0
Replay Value –9.0
Overall – 9.0/10
RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure
A Conflicted Beginning
The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.
Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.
As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.
Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.
With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).
Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.
Gunplay To Die For
Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.
Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.
The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.
Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.
Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.
The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.
The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.
However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.
A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast
The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.
Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.
With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.
To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).
Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.
A Slipshod Structure
Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.
Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.
Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.
On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.
Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.
Reviewed on Xbox One X.
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