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On Second Thought, Play The Walking Dead On Anything But An iPhone

Happy new year. I’d like to start the year by helping you avoid a mistake I made in 2012. But let’s rewind one more year, first, ok?

In 2011 I had the good fortune of playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on a machine that wasn’t the PlayStation 3. I played it on an Xbox 360, but I just as well could have played it on a PC and experienced the same benefit of avoiding the version of one of 2011′s top games that made its players miserable.

Skyrim on PS3 was a mess. It was laggy. It crashed. It had problems in its launch month. Patches and updates still left it underperforming a month later, in December. In February, the game’s lead creator was still having to explain just what in the world had gone so wrong. But by that time, many people had declared Skyrim Game of the Year for 2011 (it was a runner-up for us).

Some PS3 Skyrim players fumed.

How could a game that had a version that was that much of a mess take top honors? You could debate for some time whether a buggy version of a game that can be played smoothly on other platforms should disqualify a game from Game of the Year consideration.

We’re not quite in the Skyrim PS3 situation again a year later, but I must warn you: if you’re going to play Game of the Year contender/winner The Walking Dead and if you have a choice of what to play it on, avoid the iOS version.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been playing The Walking Dead, the much-loved five-part graphical adventure game about a band of people struggling to survive a zombie outbreak in south Georgia, on my iPhone. I could have been playing it on PC or Mac, on Xbox 360 or PS3. I could have been playing it on my iPad. But for maximum convenience (or so I thought), I downloaded it to my iPhone and committed to playing it there. That was sort of a mistake.

The game is good on my iPhone. The acclaimed story is gripping. Using finger-taps to choose dialogue options works fine. Whatever the best is that the game has to offer, the iPhone version of the game gave me that. That’s why, when the game came to iOS, we gave it a thumbs up. Bring the best over of an exciting, impressive game, and we’ll be plenty pleased.

The game wakes up from sleep about as well as a cranky one-year-old. Because of this, I’ve had to reply small chunks of the game two and three times.

The problem is that, after a longer time playing it, it’s clear that the iPhone version of the game fails the prime use case of any portable game: it can’t handle being interrupted. The game doesn’t handle being started back up once it’s been put to sleep and it winds up requiring its players to re-play as much as several minutes’ worth of its adventure time after time.

As you play The Walking Dead the game will automatically save your progress. These auto-saves occur infrequently and typically only after scene changes or major decision moments. There’s nothing weird about a game that doesn’t let you manually save and makes you sweat it out to the next auto-save checkpoint. That’s standard, if sometimes inappropriately archaic, game design. It’s also, sadly, incompatible with how mobile games are played. You don’t time your sessions on a mobile game to the length of time between save points. You time them to the amount of time it takes for your bus or subway to get to the next stop or until it’s your turn at the supermarket checkout counter or in the doctor’s office. When it’s time to stop playing, you have to stop playing.

Any well-made mobile game can deal with these sudden pauses. The iPhone, like the 3DS or Vita, lets you put a game to sleep. Most well-made mobile games can be woken right back up so you can resume playing. Most well-made mobile games can even tolerate an iPhone user’s need to take a phone call, snap a photo or use any other app, other than the game, before returning to the game.

Through auto-saves, build stability and who knows what else, most mobile games can be woken back up just fine. Not the Game of the Year contender The Walking Dead. It wakes up about as well as a cranky one-year-old. After interruption, it often will display the moment you last saw in the game, but then it will freeze, choke, kick back to the title screen and wipe out any progress you made since your last auto-save. Because of this, I’ve had to reply small chunks of the game two and three times.

My colleague Jason Schreier has had the same problem with the iPad version, aka the version I almost played this game on. But I’d say that an iPad arguably could be considered a device you do play on for fairly long sessions. I could accept a save system and inability to handle idle states well on a tablet. On a phone? That system is terrible.

The game also doesn’t support cloud-saves, for some reason. Progress in the iPhone game can’t be picked up on the iPad, which is another way The Walking Dead fails to meet the standards of average iOS games, let alone one of the supposed best of the bunch.

In the days to come we’ll be talking about our Game of the Year contenders here at Kotaku. I imagine we’ll be talking about The Walking Dead quite a bit. I know that I’ll be able to talk about the game’s best qualities, but I’ll also know that I experienced the game at its worst. I payed the Skyrim PS3 version of the game and am simply grateful I haven’t run into many of the crash bugs listed by other players on iTunes (I only hit one game-killing bug, early in the game’s second act; re-loading to the last checkpoint resolved it).

I don’t recommend that you avoid The Walking Dead. You’d be missing out. But I do recommend that you avoid the iPhone version if you can. It’s more hassle than an iPhone gamer should have to put up with.