I gotta admit, I was a BIT nervous about this one. The Walking Dead game got its teeth into me during the Steam Summer Sale. The first episode blew me away, both as a great zombie story and as an adventure game that understands why people don't play adventure games as much as they used to. It was exciting and kept a good pace, while still requiring a good bit of brainwork on the part of the player, but without throwing absurd puzzles at them. Most importantly, unlike most zombie games, it put life-or-death decisions at the hand of the player, rather than just giving them a gun and telling them what to shoot like, I dunno, some brainless Activision FPS. Episode 2, while consistent in quality and player engagement, jumped the shark with a plot that's been seen a little too much in post-apocalypse fiction. I was worried the series had stumbled and already past its peak. Could you imagine that? A Walking Dead adaptation totally sucking after the first episode? That's almost as crazy as the FPS idea.
(Before we go any further, I'm not familiar with the comics. I hope to fix that in the future, but until then forgive me if there are any gaping continuity errors I miss between the comics and the game)
With "Long Road Ahead," does the series reclaim its stride after that slight stumble?
And then it turns toward you.
And then it breaks into a run.
And then it jumps.
And then it kicks you in the face, dash cancels out of its recovery, leading into a 1000-hit, air-juggling combo that BEATS THE S**T OUT OF YOUR SOUL!
And I mean that in the most positive way.
A few weeks have passed since the events at the St. John farm, where all the tension came to a head. (HA!) Needless to say, things aren't exactly okay. Lilly, once the stone-faced leader of the group, seems to be cracking at the seams. The food is running out (again) and bandits have begun attacking the motor inn our heroes call home. When things go south during one attack, they have no choice but to pack up and leave. And probably forgo the "packing up" part. When they come across an abandoned but miraculously functional train, they decide to take a one-way trip to Savannah in the hope of finding new shelter.
In terms of execution, the episode keeps up with the franchise's quality presentation and design. The cast and writing are more than up to snuff. It's still one of the most "painless" adventure games out there with solid pacing and satisfying puzzles that are mostly practical and believable.
I played through some of the episode with a different file and was pleased to see a good amount of impact from my previous decisions. The same general events still happen, but there are good touches along the way. Depending on who you saved in the first episode, you'll either have the option for a very tense (but worth having) series of conversations in the beginning, or a noticeably easier shoot-out. Also, THAT decision at the end of the second episode has a big impact on how the characters involved treat you. Though I still find it a stretch that Kenny is borderline hostile towards you if you disagreed with him there. That and I have to call it out on forgetting a minor decision I made in the first episode. Coulda sworn I told Clementine that story already.
I can't really say anymore without going into spoilers, since some of the most intense moments come early on. That and obviously not every experience is going to be the same. All I'll say is that this game will not leave you happy. It will leave you satisfied and in my case, I feel like I've already got my money's worth with the series. Happiness is just not an emotion you will be feeling. You know how we like it when games don't have "wrong" choices? Well, here in post-apocalypse Georgia, there are no right choices. Don't expect to feel good about anything you do in this game. I can barely bring myself to replay past the first hour. THAT should give you an idea of how dark things get.
I do have to criticize the plot a bit though, and you can probably guess that people are gonna die in this one, so that's hardly a spoiler. I will say that one death felt kinda forced. The death was believable enough, but from a writing perspective, it required one of the people involved to act a bit out-of-character. Were this a TV show, I'd be suspicious that an actor's contract had expired or something. I still really wanna talk about this point, so I'll make a comment on this in a few days when everyone has had a fair chance to play.
There are a few other minor but worth-mentioning gripes. In lieu of a "real" combat system, the series uses an elegant blend of simple QTEs and point-and-click puzzles along the lines of "punch zombie face, get gun, use on zombie face." In one zombie encounter near the end, the default option for things to interact with always has Lee doing something useless. like just LOOKING at the wrench he needs as a weapon, or trying to open a door manually that you JUST got the key to, instead of using the key. It's a frustrating sequence that kinda jarred my immersion for a few minutes, since in most every similar sequence before, there was only one effective option for interaction. Also the map "puzzle" shatters the pace and believability like a damn sledgehammer to stained glass. Just stand up for three freaking seconds, Kenny!
Staying on the subject of things that are too "game-y," if any game can make you believe that Achievements aren't necessary, it's this series. I would go to jail and possibly hell for doing the things that earn me those meaningless prizes in this game.
All that little crap out of the way, this episode was amazing and easily the best one of the series. I always love it when games put me on the spot to make decisions, as much as I whimper during some of the major choices, and none have succeeded at making me whimper as much as "Long Road Ahead." There may be games where your choices have more impact, but there are few where the choices are as difficult. I mean Heavy Rain and Mass Effect had a few doozies, but the Walking Dead has come closer than any other game to leaving me a total, guilt-ridden, emotional wreck over my own decisions. (Disclaimer: I have not gotten around to Spec Ops: The Line yet. I'm gonna fix that too)
Now if you excuse me, I need to go play something more light-hearted to cheer me up. Like Max Payne 3.