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Zombie vs. Zombie: Why The Walking Dead works better as a game

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(Credit: Telltale Games)

The zombie renaissance is in full swing -- and if you're looking to crown the current king of undead entertainment, it's pretty hard not to pick The Walking Dead. The hit drama based on the equally awesome comic book franchise boasts legions of fans and some of the highest-rated episodes on AMC.

But the best Walking Dead experience currently out there isn't found in a book or on a DVR. It's happening in a spot all too familiar with zombie epidemics: your video game console.

Created by adventure game pioneer Telltale Games, The Walking Dead game has quickly turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. Presented over the course of five separate downloadable episodes, the horror/adventure title is racking up strong reviews from both fans and critics, something no one expected when the game launched.

Though the AMC series has a broader reach, it actually falls short when measured up against what Telltale has created. Here are five reasons why.

Truly shocking moments

Granted, AMC's The Walking Dead has had plenty of jaw-dropping events, but few have had the impact of what Telltale has put together. While it's set in the same world as the show and comic, the game cuts its own unique path through the zombie hordes.

Without diving too deep into spoiler territory, the game's first episode ties the fate of Lee Everett, an African-American professor recently convicted of murder, to an abandoned child named Clementine, forming one of the unlikeliest duos in the history of zombie apocalypses.

That's just the set up, because The Walking Dead game pulls absolutely no punches in delivering its adult story. Seemingly essential characters die -- often due to your (in)decisions -- as your world spirals out of control. Suffice to say, you do some terrible things to survive in this game, including dealing with one of the most breathtaking in-game moments we've ever experienced. Turns out kids can become zombies, too, you know.

[Related: 10 must-play downloadable console games for under $15]

Choice and consequence

For years, developers have tried to create worlds where the player's decisions have consequences, where every action can influence the course of the narrative and how you interact with characters. Games like Mass Effect have certainly nailed it, but The Walking Dead ups the ante.

You'll have to make some tough calls in this game -- and you'll have to make them quickly. A timer counts down as you quickly skim through dialogue options, forcing you to use your gut rather than carefully plot out how you want to proceed. Your actions determine which characters live and die, as well as how others will view and treat you as the game moves along.

That carries through not only each individual episode, but the entire five-part experience. Bad decisions made in the first episode can come back to haunt you in the third. It's stressful stuff, but utterly captivating.

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(Credit: Telltale Games)

Characters you care about

Let's face it: A great number of characters on AMC's The Walking Dead are simply tools to keep the story moving. The game has a couple of these cardboard cutouts, too, but thanks to top-tier voice acting and a graphical focus on the expressive capabilities of the characters' faces, you're bound to feel a strong bond with the survivors you'll spend time with in Telltale's adventure.

Part of the reason this works is that the game focuses on the psychological impact of survival and dealing with claustrophobic environments rather than simply giving you a gun and making you shoot zombies. You'll certainly deal with the undead from time to time, but the meat of the game is in interacting with other survivors. Each possesses a vulnerability that's much more human that the characters on TV.  If you don't feel protective towards Clementine, there's something dead inside of you.

It's interactive without being repetitive

The ability to actually make choices rather than sitting on your couch yelling at your TV as AMC's band of survivors make yet another misstep elevates The Walking Dead game.

The game never devolves into the disconnected, repetitive nature of so many games based on licensed properties. You're not inexplicably hopping on platforms or inanely shooting wave after wave of undead beasts. As a legit extension of an existing franchise, The Walking Dead game simply makes sense.

You'll feel a sense of loyalty to some characters, while hating others. You'll struggle between virtual friendship and morality. You'll write your own script and insert yourself into the boots of Lee Everett, and those feelings will stay with you long after you've walked away from the game. That makes for a much more interesting 'water cooler' moment than virtually any episode of the show.

Masterful pacing

The second season of AMC's The Walking Dead was taken to task for moving too slowly. Critics complained there was too much talk and not enough action, especially as Glen Mazzara replaced original showrunner Frank Darabont.

There's a lot of talking in Telltale's game as well, but rather than filling time, every conversation has some impact on the story. There's a constant sense of urgency that the TV show lost and that keeps players on the edge of their seat at all times. You're never really sure when things will go to hell. Nothing feels forced and it never, ever gets boring. The TV show, on the other hand, has plenty of moments where you feel safe wandering into the kitchen to grab a bite.

The downside to that pacing? The month-long wait between episodes is even more maddening.

The Walking Dead is available for Xbox 360, PS3,  PC, Mac and iOS devices. Check out the official site for more info.

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