There is an excellent game out there based on The Walking Dead. It's a five-part serial of which the first two chapters have been released, and it's made by Telltale Games. One by one, many of us here at Kotaku have become fans, each for our own reasons.
If you would like to play a game about The Walking Dead, go play those. Or hold out for Activision's first-person shooter take, if that's your thing. But do yourself a favour, and give the Facebook game, which launched today in the now-traditional "public beta" soft launch style, a pass.
It looks all right, sure. The cartoony, big-head style so endemic to social gaming makes an appearance, but the range of customisation options provided to start with isn't half bad. After that, the game takes on a shape all too familiar to anyone who's ever played a game on Facebook. Player turns take energy, and after expending a certain amount of energy, you either wait or pay. Upgrades take currency, both the kind a character can earn, with enough patience, or the kind a player can buy. These are nothing new and, by themselves, don't have to be bad.
The game, however, is absolutely shameless in its exploitation of the player's cash. Yes, you earn skill points for a mission. But one point does not translate into one upgraded notch of skill. It takes three points to upgrade something. Yes, one click moves you a certain number of squares. But with the undead roaming relatively freely through the environment and reacting to your motions in a turn-based way, it can take four or five expenditures of energy to move safely through the ground you might otherwise cover on one turn.
I actually ran out of energy well before I reached level 2, still in the clear tutorial section of the game. I closed the tab, came back to it later, and ran out of energy again before I could complete my next mission. Yes, levelling up increases the amount of energy you have to spend. But more complex tasks also require more steps, so it evens out.
The thing is, The Walking Dead is at its best when its about people. There is human drama, created by having to live in the situation of inhumanity. Facebook games, though, are not a good way to tell particularly compelling stories. The game can't make interesting NPCs out of my socially connected friends, because those variables are far too wide. And while theoretically talking to people at camp is encouraged, the game actually provides disincentives that discourage you from doing so.
Want to read someone saying, "I'm ok, thanks?" That'll cost you energy. So do other illuminating statements like, "Who did this?" and "Don't worry about me. How are you doing?" That would be a great way to bond with this character if I could say something. But I can't. The social game renders the player conspicuously silent, except to communicate by wall posts, and so ultimately the insight into this guy's soul is meaningless.
Pretty quickly, I learned my lesson: it's not worth talking to people. Just keep your head down and click where the game tells you.
The story and people are what give the world of The Walking Dead its meaning. Stripping that way leaves just another meaningless set of microtransaction mechanics laid bare, asking you to continue for the sake of continuing. Perhaps the story really will get better after I keep gathering supplies. But it's hard to find out: the more resources I can earn, the more the game demands. When I have begun earning skill points, suddenly it shifts from taking three points to earn one level of one skill, to taking four. When I have begun earning sufficient energy to move, objectives suddenly get farther apart.
If The Walking Dead's Facebook game were the only way out there to connect more deeply to the series, I can see why some fans would appreciate it. But the fact is, there really are better options out there. And even a passionate admirer of the TV show will find only faint and hollow echoes of their favourite characters and settings here.
There is one neat feature, though. If there's a walker nearby when you switch tabs, or just walk away from the computer for a minute, you'll realise that the audio loop starts to sound a lot like Darth Vader's breathing. I might just leave it open to freak out the other members of my household with that ominous noise. I think that's the most enjoyment I'll have gotten from this app all day.