‘Walking Dead’ game review: Death is all around

It doesn’t get much grimmer than “The Walking Dead,” a video-game adaptation of the popular Robert Kirkman comic book and AMC TV series, in which a zombie apocalypse is just the beginning of a horrific, danger-filled journey for the surviving humans.

Despite the violent subject matter, the adventure game manages to be humane, smartly written, expertly voice-acted and as compelling as the comics and TV show. (Its pacing and tone sometimes exceed the TV version, which has been known to meander or spin its wheels.)

The game’s story will unspool over five episodes. The first, “A New Day,” debuted in April and the second, “Starved for Help,” was released in June.

It’s available for Windows PCs and Mac, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 for about $5 per episode or $15-$25 for a season pass. A version of the first episode for iOS (iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch) devices was released in late July for $5. It’s rated M for mature.

In the game, you play as Lee, a man being transported in the back of a police cruiser when the game starts. The zombies, or “walkers,” interrupt the trip, and soon Lee finds himself free. He meets Clementine, a young girl who needs to be protected. By the middle of Episode 1, he’s found a small group of survivors who’ve taken shelter in a drugstore owned by Lee’s family in Macon, Ga.

“The Walking Dead” plays like a choose-your-own adventure with dialogue choices every time Lee interacts with other characters and action sequences that require quick decision-making to avoid the chomp of the undead. As a game, it sometimes feels unchallenging; the puzzles typically involve searching for an object (a screwdriver or a hammer) to accomplish a small goal or fending off death by kicking a zombie in the face (with multiple mouse clicks).

But as a story, it’s phenomenal. With superb writing, sharp acting and a graphics style that feels more hand-drawn than photorealistic, both episodes draw you in and build incredible tension in a short time. Each episode is meant to be played in just a few hours. There are lots of arguments, moments of terror and some deep moral conflicts. The easy gameplay seems meant to speed you along the narrative.

In one early sequence, Lee must decide which person to save when two other characters are being attacked by walkers. That decision, which must be made within seconds, affects the rest of the game, as do conversation choices along the way. Telltale Games promises those decisions will carry over into each subsequent episode and affect the direction of the story for each player.

At the end of each episode, you get to see what percentage of other “Walking Dead” players made the same choices.

These no-win decisions rarely lead to happier outcomes. Death is all around as much from within the community as from the monsters outside.

That’s especially true in Episode 2, in which Lee’s group finds an ideal-looking dairy farm that turns out to hide a gruesome, if predictable, secret. When that secret is revealed, the game doesn’t shy away from exploring that plot point to its gory conclusion. It’s a smart, unusually grown-up video game with believable, sympathetic characters.

Some will be familiar to fans of the comic and TV show: Though they don’t stick around long, Glenn and Hershel make appearances.

But Lee’s story, separate from Kirkland’s ongoing narrative, stands strongly on its own. It’s an almost unbearably tense game, brief but memorably gruesome.

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