Although the first two instalments of The Walking Dead created a brilliant sense of danger that had you fully aware that no character was truly safe, it appears that Telltale themselves weren’t quite satisfied, as Episode 3: Long Road Ahead removes any and all traces of false sense of security. Not only do Lee and Clementine require great caution with the constant threat of zombie hordes, but now their own little group of survivors is threatening to tear apart under the strain of recent events, with constant conflicts over decision making and claims of treachery. This delivers some of the most memorable scenes in the series to date, though the experience is held back somewhat by giving players less control over the most fateful events.
Long Road Ahead throws you straight into difficult choices, as Lee and Kenny (who has continually made clear his disdain for my decisions so far) discover a young woman surrounded by "walkers" just as you’re preparing to loot a pharmacy in the local town. Kenny being Kenny, he suggests that we skulk away with the zombies distracted whilst we carry on with our mission. However, as I find that annoying Kenny is one of the few remaining enjoyments Lee can find, I opt for an alternate approach, which as usual brings about unpleasant consequences. Having alerted the undead horde to our presence, I then needed to make a mad dash through the pharmacy, pillaging as many supplies as possible within a limited time before being overrun by the infected.
Back at the camp, tension is at an all time high, with Lilly and Kenny finding any and every reason to be at each other's throats. The rest of the camp looks on with blank expressions, worn down by all the stress; even typically cheerful Clementine is uncharacteristically deflated. Lilly appears to be teetering on the edge of sanity, and begins throwing around wild accusations of deceit within the group. Lee investigates her claims of missing supplies, if only to prove her wrong, but the results soon become the straw that breaks the camel's back. Trust is thrown aside and replaced with high tempers and bold actions as you find yourself stuck in the middle, as per usual, playing the mediator in an attempt to calm the group and ensure everyone’s safety, if that's even possible anymore.
Without a doubt, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the series (in a perverse sort of way) is these hard hitting choices as you act as counsellor or simply the only one present to make the decisions that others can’t. At times this forces you to play god by choosing who will live and who will die. Unfortunately, for the first time in the series the sense of choice and flexibility in the story seems to be waning. There are many shocking events that take place in Episode 3 that have permanent consequences, but not a single one of them can be altered. Whilst there is always the illusion of choice and your words feel full of weight, after experiencing alternate playthroughs I realised how little difference they make in this particular episode.
Despite these unavoidable plot points, however, there are moments during Long Road Ahead that are so impactful that I found myself sitting open-jawed or feeling genuinely emotional. What I initially anticipated would be an extremely predictable and cautious series has continually left me in awe with increasingly bolder events. One particular scene this time left me genuinely surprised it was ever approved, even under the game's "Mature" rating. It’s also a testament to the developers when you can completely change your opinion on two of the game’s characters within the span of a single episode.
Due to a string of unfortunate events, you have no choice but to leave the safety of the motel, which ultimately results in becoming stranded on the roadside by an abandoned cargo train. One of the carriages happens to be home to Chuck, a friendly homeless man whose bluntness and carefree attitude provide a fantastic contrast to the remaining bleak and distraught original team members. You'll later stumble across a young couple, Omid and Christa, who arrive a little too late to fully judge. This leaves me feeling strangely cautious, if only because they seem oddly too ordinary. But perhaps the more dramatic events of this episode are starting to make me paranoid.
The addition of new characters at this point in the story feels perfectly timed, as their enthusiasm is a breath of fresh air, and their personalities contribute nicely to the team dynamic. This is particularly true of Chuck, whose harsh matter-of-fact advice, coupled with his self awareness of his appearance and stereotype, add some comedy to the otherwise extremely serious situation. Clementine’s role also looks to be expanding, as Lee begins to grant her more independence. Not only does he give her some uncomfortable gun lessons, he brings her with him to explore a potentially dangerous train station, even going so far as squeezing her through tight gaps and risking putting her in harm's way. It’s a stark contrast to Lee’s typically protective nature, but it’s certainly good to see Clementine have more presence in the series.
Once again the gameplay revolves mainly around dialogue options and the choices you make, with environmental interaction and puzzle solving less a focus than storytelling and character development. Puzzles are limited to such tasks as finding a tool to cut metal or instructions on how to start the abandoned cargo train and then applying them. The biggest problem with such puzzles is that their solution is always extremely obvious, the necessary items clearly laid out before you. Those wanting a puzzle-heavy affair will not find it here, but by this point in the series that comes as no surprise.
As usual, there's a bit of action in the form Quick Time Events, typically when you need to react quickly to a zombie attack or save a group member. New to this episode are two periods of first-person shooting, where you’ll need to kill incoming zombies. Those who aren’t fans of action within their adventures need not worry, however, as these events are short, slowly timed and allow for a wide range of accuracy.
Graphically, the cel-shaded style still holds up well, though this instalment doesn’t have the same visual flair as Episode 2. Whilst part of this episode takes place in familiar locations (the town of Macon and the motel), hitting the road keeps asset reuse at a minimum. As always, the voice work is stellar, with no drop-off in quality from the new characters added. The music helps build atmosphere, especially during scenes of tension, and Chuck strums his guitar during quieter moments outside the train.
The game's engine once again stuttered for me, often badly and at times when it was least welcome (like during the shooting phases). And each time I began the episode fresh, I was hit by a terrible bug that failed to recognize my choices from previous games, prompting the story to start with random consequences chosen for me. There are a variety of user-created resolutions to this common bug in the Telltale forums, but no official fix at time of writing. Additionally, playing the Steam version I was unable to see the end game statistics on other player choices, as the game displayed each choice as placeholder text with equal weighting. Such technical issues can greatly affect the overall enjoyment, particularly with regards to the save issue that undermines the entire draw of an ongoing choice-driven series.
Whilst Long Road Ahead falls short of its brilliant predecessors, it still delivers a rich and compelling experience that literally moves the series in a new direction over its 3-4 hour duration. Once again, the episode ends with a fantastic cliffhanger that opens up a plethora of unanswered questions as the group makes its way to what is potentially the most dangerous location to date. I'm still completely hooked, but with the halfway point of the series now passed, hopefully Telltale will return to letting players drive the most important choices as The Walking Dead gears up for the home stretch.