If They’re Not Careful, Telltale Games Runs The Risk of Overexerting Themselves

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Ever since their acquisition of the “Sam and Max” license, Telltale has garnered a reputation as a studio that does things a little bit differently.

It was with that series that the studio kicked off their unique episodic format, where a series is released in monthly or bi-monthly installments over the course of a season. While the quality of their individual installments varied from great to “meh” with some regularity, for the most part the approach was viewed as a gimmick by many.

That was until the release of “The Walking Dead.”

With that series Telltale finally made it all click. The series of choices and consequences in those games made the episodic format actually matter, while the quality of the writing and direction made “The Walking Dead” the first series from the studio to maintain a standard of excellence throughout. The general consensus winner of the 2012 game of the year awards, “The Walking Dead” was a runaway success.

Much like the runaway success “Walking Dead” TV show, however, its increased attention also drew increased criticism. Many gamers lashed out against “The Walking Dead” games for not actually being games. Instead they saw them as a series of story sequences loosely strung together by the occasional dialogue choice or QTE section. As a result, “The Walking Dead” became one of the most cited titles in the growing debate of whether or not the term video game is still appropriate when describing the state of the medium today.

Regardless of where you stand on that particular issue though, the sales numbers don’t lie, and the numbers tell us that “The Walking Dead,” was a success. It was such a success, in fact, that it allowed TellTalle to not only continue “The Walking Dead” series, but begin entirely new series within the high profile worlds of “Fables,” “Borderlands,” and “Game of Thrones.”

And that’s what worries me.

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See, I’m firmly in the crowd that loved “The Walking Dead.” While that’s mostly due to the quality of the game’s storytelling, I also attribute that to the fact that there wasn’t really anything like “The Walking Dead” series, even in the TellTalle canon. It was a breath of fresh air in the gaming world, and made the choice to buy “The Wolf Among Us” a no brainer.

By the end of the first episode of that game, though, it became pretty obvious that Telltale had no intentions of abandoning the gold mine of design they stumbled on during “The Walking Dead.” I don’t want to sound like I’m writing off “Wolf” as a re-skinned “Walking Dead,” but rather want to point out that if the appeal of “The Walking Dead” lied in it’s uniqueness and quality storytelling, the appeal of “Wolf” lies just in its storytelling.

That’s fine, but it does raise the question of whether or not TellTalle can justify releasing several high profile series in succession that all follow that “Walking Dead” style. After all, how many times can you hope to catch lightning in a bottle?

Now it’s not like I think Telltale should look at the success of “The Walking Dead” and say “Well, we made a good game so its time to shut down production,” but they already have both “The Walking Dead Season 2” and “The Wolf Among Us” releasing concurrently and now apparently have “Game of Thrones” and “Borderlands” titles in the works as well.

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There’s no studio in the world that can possibly handle that amount of production and maintain a consistent level of quality, especially if the games they are making all follow the same basic template. We’ve seen before what happens to studios who feel the obligation to make annual releases of the same series and, with few exceptions, the results are not pretty.

In the case of Telltale, however, it’s even more tragic. Here’s a studio that made their namesake by releasing a game that shook the foundations of gaming and had some questioning the validity of the classification gaming itself. Going from that, to just continuing to do that but in new worlds reminds me of the executives from “South Park” who surmised that if saying shit in a TV show was popular and revolutionary, then saying shit even more and in different episodes is sure to be just as popular and revolutionary.

I believe that TellTalle is a great developer, and will never intentionally start banging out games routinely in the “Call of Duty” style. However, whether it is their intention or not, unless they start exploring a style beyond that of “The Walking Dead,” or at the very least limit their releases to a series at a time, they run the risk of overexerting themselves and learning a lesson that entertainers everywhere have learned the hard way for years.

After a while, the same act starts to get old.

The Best Zombie Games of This Generation

In a gaming generation as long and influential as this last one, it’s hard to boil things down to just a series of buzzwords and hope to possibly encapsulate even a minuscule portion of it. That being said, bring up the the word “zombie” to a dedicated gamer of this gen, and you can sit back and just wait for the conversations and memories to start pouring in.

While video games weren’t the sole contributing factor to the zombie craze that took over the pop culture world, the sheer amount of zombie games that resulted from it certainly fueled the fad and helped propel it to levels of mainstream notoriety uncommon for such a topic. While many of the early zombie games were made to capitalize off of the growing popularity of the genre, as the years wore on some of the best experiences to be found in all of gaming were zombie based.

There’s just something about the idea that brought out the creative best of game designers everywhere, and as a result the prospect of trying to determine the best the zombie genre had to offer is daunting. As always, a number of high quality titles had to be cut to make this list, but that aside here are the best zombie games of this generation.

 

10. Killing Floor

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Originally starting out as an ambitious “Unreal Tournament 2004” mod, by the time that “Killing Floor” got a retail release, many of the things that initially distinguished it would be copied (and admittedly improved upon) by other games.

However, there are still quite a few things this game does well that the flood of zombie games that followed couldn’t quite replicate, including an extremely well developed character and class based enhancement system. Even stripped of those unique elements though, “Killing Floor” is so mechanically sound and viscerally satisfying, that its place among the best zombie games of this generation is unquestioned based on no other merit than how purely enjoyable it is.

9. I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1

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For sanity’s sake, I’ll just be referring to this one as “GAM3.”

Like a few other titles on this list “GAM3” just embraces the kill em’ all element of the zombie genre. Unlike other games, however, it has a freaking sweet theme song named after the title of the game that quite honestly makes all of the difference. “GAM3” very much feels like a throwback to any number of top-down action PC games of old and, much like those old games, has the ability to suck away hours and hours of playtime off of 15 minute or less play sessions. It’s provides the kind of simple pleasure instant gratification game that needs to exist somewhere in the zombie genre, and is clearly having the time of its life doing it.

8. Deadlight

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There’s a number of great indie games that fall under the “artistically beautiful” label, but I never thought that a zombie game would fit into that style. While “Deadlight” can at times feel like a greatest hits collection of the major indie games that preceded it, the end result is one of the most cinematic zombie games ever made.

The biggest draw of “Deadlight” is its silhouette art style, which not only initially turn heads its direction, but proves to have long term appeal as well once you realize just how the art style lends to a journey which feels epic and effortless in equal measure. Deadlight will only last you around five hours, but much like “Portal,” its value isn’t so much in the quantity of the experience, but rather in how it achieves everything it sets out to do in that time.

7. Dead Rising

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One of the first games that really felt next-gen to many people, “Dead Rising” really kicked off the boom period of the zombie genre in gaming, and is really one of the first games to let us live out our zombie fantasies in a way that adheres to all their fallacies.

What I mean is, rather than burden you down with things like survival and morality, “Dead Rising” just throws you into a mass of zombies and lets you mow them down with ease using a variety of weapons, just like we always envision when picturing ourselves as a participant at the end of the world. It may be full of design flaws, but still provides one of the most purely enjoyable zombie game experiences out there.

6. Call of Duty Zombies

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It may be popular to mock the “Call of Duty” franchise due to the insane levels of mainstream success it has achieved, but regardless of your views towards the series, you’ve still likely played and enjoyed the game’s zombie mode that started in “World at War.”

That’s because while the rest of the franchise may be getting more and more bogged down by its same old, same old releases and presumed grandeur, there is a humble pleasure in the zombie mode’s series of last stand levels that is immediately appealing regardless of your feelings towards the series. With the inaugural nazi zombie mode, “Call of Duty” may have found its gameplay calling, and is still worth purchasing the games for to this day.

5. Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare

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There’s two kinds of DLC’s in this world. Those that feel like cheap money grabs, and those that actually provide a worthy follow up experience using the original game as a foundation. “Undead Nightmare” is possibly the greatest example of the later, and is also just pure heaven for fans of the Western and zombie genres.

Right from the game’s B Movie opening, it’s clear that Rockstar set out to have fun with the idea of a zombie western, and in that pursuit were simply triumphant. There’s always been elements of westerns in the average zombie film, so the way “Undead Nightmare” stylistically fully embraces the concept remains exciting through the entire playthrough, while the already near perfect mechanics of “Red Dead” carry the bulk of the game well. The concept is a stroke of brilliance, but it’s the execution of that idea that makes this so worthwhile.

4. State of Decay

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When I first played “State of Decay,” I was expecting a dumbed down “Day Z.” While that holds true in a number of respects, it’s also a dangerous mentality to bring when looking at the game, as it makes it easy to miss so many of the things “Decay” does well.

“State of Decay” gives you a sandbox zombie environment and incorporates a number of strategy and survival elements that serve to enhance and prolong the more simple joy that comes with taking down zombie hordes. In order to fit everything in, many of those more advanced elements are watered down to a fundamental level, which could have been an issue, but it actually serves to enhance the overall flow of the game, as you are never overly burdened by them. The result is a game that makes a considerable effort toward incorporating all the things we associate with the typical zombie apocalypse, but in a way that never wears out its welcome, or deprives us of the essential fun factor.

3. The Walking Dead

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Telltale as a company tends to be pretty hit or miss with many of their releases. It’s a track record that led to many being, rightfully, suspicious when they announced they would be adapting the beloved “Walking Dead” franchise into an episodic adventure series.

Thankfully “The Walking Dead” would not only find its way among the studios hits, but is by far their magnum opus. Unlike the show which, though quite good, can often get bogged down by set-piece moments and action scenes, “The Walking Dead” game wisely focused on the human interaction element, and the difficult choices and consequences that human element can often lead to. This puts it more in line with the spirit and plot of the comics, and is one of the greatest examples of storytelling in gaming. Aiming for, and achieving, so much more than we usually expect from a typical zombie game, “The Walking Dead” is an unrivaled emotional experience that just happens to take place in the zombie apocalypse.

2. DayZ

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The premise (combine the most tactically advance shooter on the market with the zombie genre) of “DayZ” basically guaranteed that it would never catch on with the mass gaming crowd. However. for those that are willing to invest hours and hours dying over and over, while they learn the considerable amount of lessons the game has to offer, this is perhaps the definitive realization of the zombie apocalypse, and all the gritty details that goes with it.

It’s a world where finding a can of beans is the highlight of your day, and the humans left alive are often more dangerous than any zombie. By moving the focus from shooting every zombie on Earth to just surviving and staying smart, “DayZ” stands alone amongst the shambling hordes of similar games, as something that can only be described as an apocalypse simulator. It’s not often that you get a truly unique gaming experience, especially in a pretty over-saturated genre, but “DayZ” is just that, and one of the best mods ever made to boot.

1. Left 4 Dead

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“Left 4 Dead’s” place as the definitive zombie video game of all time is not only extremely difficult to argue against, but in some ways is a claim that detracts from the overall significance of its role in this generation.

Yes, the way it places you and three friends right in the thick of the zombie outbreak is the definitive digital representation of nearly everything we’ve wanted in a multiplayer zombie shooter prior to its release, but it pales in comparison to the numerous innovations it has made in the co-op shooter genre that are still being borrowed without shame to this day. There are more games than can be reasonably listed here that borrow from “Left 4 Dead” that are by and large worthy in their own right, but at the same time must bow to the master, and recognize this series as the king of the zombie genre and one of the best, and most influential multiplayer games ever made.

Five Reasons 2013 Will Be One of Gaming’s Greatest Years

While individual  game releases will always (deservedly) get most of the love, there is nothing like a truly great overall year of gaming. Even though it’s never an intended effect, it’s amazing when a group of independent properties come together to create an incredible 365, or 366 if we’re talking leap years, days of gaming. Years like 2001 (“Halo: CE,” “Grand Theft Auto III,” “Final Fantasy X”), 2007 (“Bioshock,” “Portal,” “Mass Effect”), and, of course, the greatest of them all, 1998 (featuring the holy trinity of “Metal Gear Solid,” “Half-Life,” and “Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time”) represent some of the best times ever to be a gamer.

And 2013 has the potential to join, or even exceed, all of them. Thanks to some fortunate timing, and a few delays, it’s looking to be a landmark year of video gaming that will be remembered for many, surely lesser, years to come. While there are many, many reasons for this, here are five that lead me to believe that 2013 in gaming will be one for the ages.

Mobile Gaming is Coming Into Its Own

“Serious” gamers may look down on the mobile gaming market, but it’s time that all gamers realize that we’ve come a long, long way from “Doodle Jump”. Now, instead of being an outlet for puzzlers, tower defense titles, and slightly lesser console ports, mobile gaming is producing intriguing and inventive titles at a rapid pace, due in large part to a sea of developers making use of the simpler programming on mobile devices, and the still interesting touch controls, to provide a constant, and often cheap, flow of amazing games on the go. Since the explosion in tablet sales over the last couple of years, we’re even starting to see more titles developed specifically with their larger sized screens and more powerful abilities in mind.

There hasn’t really been a truly noteworthy traditional handheld gaming system since the Nintendo DS, but thankfully an ever growing community has slowly turned a platform that was only used for brief sessions of “Snake” in your downtime, to one of the most exciting fields for surprising high quality video game releases. Expect this to continue in 2013.

The Next Generation Begins

As the Wii U is proving, a new console doesn’t have to blow minds to still produce some genuine excitement and huge sales numbers. While nothing from the other major gaming companies is official, it’s looking more and more likely that 2013 will bring gamers the next generation of Xbox and Playstation consoles (even if it is only a preview at the least). While that means that gamers will have to soon be plucking down some serious cash on new consoles, accessories and games (not to mention still trying to keep up with the releases still to come for the previous consoles), there is nothing more exciting than the promise of a new gaming generation.

Soon battle lines will be drawn once again as gamers choose their alliances, and new specs and features will again re-shape what we thought was possible in the medium. This has been a great console lifecycle, but it’s gone on for longer than usual, and it’s time for a new day to begin.

People Are Choosing the Games They Want, and What They Want in Games

One of the biggest changes to gaming over the last year or two has been the influence of sites like Kickstarter (or more recently Steam’s “Greenlight” program). Now, developers have open forums where they can present their ideas and let the community decide their interest in them, and even help by directly funding the titles. Even though the road to success is not guaranteed, it’s now easier than ever for a good idea to see life, and for gamers to help make sure the games they want get a chance.

But this isn’t just about sites like those. It’s also about events like “Mass Effect 3′s” optional new endings, or “Bioshock: Infinite’s” alternate cover. Now, more than ever, gamers have the ability to directly influence the decisions of major developers, and have a word about the final product. While this is a controversial move, the fact that the average gamer now has so much power to directly influence the titles available to them will have some major, and intriguing, implications in the coming year.

Influence of 2012’s Biggest Games

2012 was not one of those all-time great years of gaming I mentioned, but it did have some all-time great games. It’s natural to build off of what came before, and in the case of 2013, that could mean some exciting and sweeping changes across several genres.

Particularly, look for the success of “The Walking Dead” to lead to a revival of the traditional point and click genre, as well as a greater focus on the effect of storytelling in games. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the indie hit “Slender” put horror game developers back to the drawing board to come up with some fresh ideas for the genre (and veer it away slightly from the growing action elements), and if the praise that “Far Cry 3” is garnering expands the aging FPS market into more of the sandbox gaming territory.  Other less likely, but equally welcome innovations would be if more all-star developers got together on independent properties like in “Dishonored,” or if other long dead franchises get exciting resurrections like “XCOM,” or even if “Journey” inspires people to look towards developing with art, and not violence, more in mind.

Whatever the final influences may be, 2012 showed there are still some exciting places for gaming to go. 2013 might just take us to all of them.

That Lineup…

Oh sweet heaven, the amazing lineup of 2013. While you can never guarantee that any game will be great no matter how it may look, with 2013 set to deliver no less than “Grand Theft Auto V,” “Bioshock: Infinite,” “Last of Us,”  “Watch Dogs,” “Crysis 3,” “Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time,” “Simcity,” “Command and Conquer Generals 2” and the new “Tomb Raider,” it’s very likely that we are going to get a host of instant classics.

Of course, that’s just some of the games that we actually know about. Many of the best games of this year came out of nowhere, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the best game of 2013 is one that no one is talking about yet. Even in an ever expanding industry, at the end of the day games are still king, and the games set for 2013 are some of the most exciting that I’ve seen in a long time.

2012 Year End Game Review: Matt Byrd

2012 in gaming isn’t a year that is easy to sum up with hyperbole, or one sweeping statement.

It was far from the greatest year in gaming (very, very far), but even still, when I was compiling this list, I had to make some heartbreaking cuts, and felt I was disrespecting some very good games. For every cheap money snatching blockbuster we got this year, we were also gifted with some genuine surprises and accomplished franchise extensions (many of which make up this list). The end result of one step forward and one step back for an entire 12-month period may not have moved gaming ahead, but the constant motion made choosing the best of the year a dizzying experience.

Somehow, though, I was finally able to narrow it down to 10 games that I feel comfortable saying are the best of 2012.

10. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

On the surface, it looks like all there is to “Kingdoms of Amalur” is a standard RPG coat of paint and a souvenir of the high profile closure of “38 Studios.” It’s not the type of game that makes its first impression with its looks, but rather its personality. The game’s speedy free flowing combat system never ceases to be entertaining throughout the very long adventure “Amalur” provides.

An all-star team of developers and outside talent (fantasy great RA Salvatore penned the story) may have been behind “Amalur,” but nothing feels old hat about the game, and it instead comes across as something closer to a fresh faced group of young talent, with heads full of new ideas creating something against the grain. It’s one of the more surprising, and certainly among the most pure fun, releases this year.

9. Xenoblade: Chronicles

If “Amalur” looks standard and done before on the surface, then “Xenoblade” is practically a fossil upon first viewing. It’s a member of the dying JRPG genre, and was featured on the outdated Nintendo Wii, which would normally spell either doom or obscurity at best. Yet after a wave of hype from the Japanese market, and several thousand petition signatures later, audiences everywhere were greeted by something that felt like meeting an old friend, and finding out that you have just as much fun with each other as you used to.

“Xenoblade” pays tribute to all of the great JRPG conventions that shaped it, but it just as carefully takes note of all the things that made those game’s grow stale as well, and manages to mold new forms for them so you are left with a game that somehow makes you nostalgic for things you never knew before. Your party becomes your family thanks to a great relationship system, and the character building and combat mechanics keep things fresh as you explore one of the more unique worlds available for the genre all in pursuit of finishing an equally gripping story. The era of JRPGs may be over, but “Xenoblade” reminds us why it had a dynasty in the first place.

8. Sound Shapes

I love new, bold ideas in gaming, and “Sound Shapes” may have been among the newest and boldest this year. It has nothing to do with its basic gameplay either, as “Shapes” traditional 2D side scrolling system is fairly ho-hum. Much like a new “Mario” release though, the real draw doesn’t lie in the mechanics, but rather the design. “Sound Shapes” employs a minimalist graphic style that is charming, but only serves to give substance to the soundtrack that defines the experience. Several different musical artists contributed to the music (and the design) of the levels, and as a result we are provided one of the first games since the brilliant “Rez” that feels like an organic and physical product of the soundtrack. It’s more of an interactive soundtrack than a fully loaded video game, but it’s artistic value is unquestionable, and I wouldn’t want to know the person who couldn’t have fun with it.

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