Anyone who played the first two outstanding episodes in Telltale Games' five-part The Walking Dead series can't help but feel their stomachs flutter going into Long Road Ahead. All of the excruciating decisions about who lives and who dies, dealing with folks who want to plop you on a plate next to their hash browns, and staying one step ahead of dead folks who see you as a Happy Meal have laid the groundwork for even more unsettling moments here. This time, the moral dilemmas hit closer to home than ever before, causing strife that may just break apart the group of survivors that came together in the first two episodes.
Lead character Lee Everett and his zombie-world extended family are still holed up in the Travelier Motel in rural Georgia as Long Road Ahead opens. As in the last game, dwindling food and supplies are taking their toll on the group. Worries are mounting about the growth of the local zombie population. Lilly may be losing her grip on reality in the wake of what happened in Episode 2. A gang of marauders might be working with someone on the inside to steal medicine and other vital provisions. Kenny continues to insist that the whole gang bug out for Savannah on the coast. All of this quickly explodes into open conflict, and the group takes off in Kenny's RV with the destination presumably being a houseboat on the Atlantic. Everyone better cross their fingers that zombies can't dog paddle.
The story breaks away from the earlier links to the Walking Dead graphic novels for the first time. Where the first game had a guest appearance from comic hero Glenn and the second featured a plot that mimicked one from an early comic story arc, here the group moves off on its own. This attempt to reach the coast and find safety at sea is new, as is the mad scramble to get there on board a train. For the first time, fans of the comics can enjoy a sense of freedom and escape comparisons between the game and what creator Robert Kirkman continues to relay to us each month in harsh black and white. It's rewarding to see the game standing on its own as a new saga in the Walking Dead universe with few if any remaining ties to Rick Grimes and pals.
Grim reality remains a constant, though. Long Road Ahead goes all-in when it comes to disquieting plot points. The zombie plague hits closer to home than ever before, resulting in horrific sequences that just might make you feel sorry for whiny, selfish Kenny (well, for a couple of minutes). Just like in the comic, you're kept on notice that anything can happen to anyone. At one point late in the game, you make a decision to save one character while leaving another to a brain-chomping death…only to see something happen that you don't expect at all. At the very least, everything that occurs here makes you well aware that nobody will ever be safe, from the guy at the top of the credits to the newcomers who just arrived.
Long Road Ahead also changes up the gameplay seen in the first two episodes. This is more of a straightforward adventure. While you still take on zombies with button-pushing challenges and engage in a fair bit of timed shooting and melee scraps, there is a newfound emphasis on solving puzzles by exploring the landscape and collecting items. There isn't anything brain-busting here, though. Most of the puzzles involve little more than wandering around small areas looking for the one piece of equipment needed to bypass an obstacle, like the blowtorch you have to use to cut loose a tanker truck hanging off a highway overpass.
The added puzzles and dialogue choices make Episode 3 feel more like a traditional adventure game than an interactive graphic novel. The downside to this shift in focus is that the game lags in a few areas, most notably when you have to futz around for 10 to 15 minutes to get that train rolling to Savannah.
With Long Road Ahead, The Walking Dead has passed the midway point of its series of five episodes with every indication that the game will keep getting better right through to its inevitably depressing and unsettling conclusion. The emotional weight of your choices--made even heavier now that we are three episodes into the game and have established relationships with the characters--makes it a tough game to play in many ways, but also an extremely rewarding one that, like the comics, uses the undead to define what it means to be alive.