In the spirit of the comic book, I’m going to abstain from using the zed word for this review. You know the one I mean. Personally, I relish the opportunity, as I’m sick to undeath of the trope. Besides, the gameplay in The Walking Dead: Assault is standout enough that to lump it with the banal would do the game a terrible disservice. Sure, there are swarms of reanimated corpses moaning “Uhnngh,” but this is not just another riff on the same. At heart, The Walking Dead: Assault is a masterfully-executed squad-based tactical game that happens to have—ahem—walkers as the central antagonists. It would probably still be fun if the enemies were spiders or Nazis or whatever, but matched to a great IP with style out the ying-yang, what you’ve got here is a hit that deserves hyping.
As I said, The Walking Dead: Assault is squad-based tactical stuff. You pick a team of four from a selection of characters from the series, each with her or his own strengths, weaknesses, weapons and special abilities. There are 11 missions (“chapters”) in total, generally designed around some set piece, with inspired titles such as “The Tank” and “The Warehouse” to match. The primary goal of every mission is to wipe out all the walkers in the level, and a handy gauge lets you know how many remain. Secondary goals (complete the mission under a certain time, rescue some defenseless NPC, etc) are offered to prolong your play time. Accomplishing these also opens up concept art, bits of trivia, and sometimes extra supply, the game’s IAP/upgrades currency.
Controlling your team is straightforward, but not to a fault. Tap a character once to select and double tap to move. Hold the screen to move the whole group. Your survivors will automatically fire or swing at whatever enemy within range is closest, but won’t attack while moving. Different weapons have different ranges, so arranging and moving your squad to take full advantage of their weaponry is key to success. Each character has two weapons to switch between—usually ranged and melee, but there are a few melee-only exceptions. There are also buttons on the screen for character-specific abilities (increase your fire rate, heal, freeze enemies, and so on), indispensable when you’re in a bind.
What really makes the game distinct, however, is a collection of game mechanics that work together superbly to bolster the whole. For instance, instead of mindlessly approaching one by one, geeks will swarm in groups according to your noise. This can be used to your advantage via distractions like car alarms and sirens, causing the hordes to go after inanimate objects instead of your survivors. A bar on the screen also fills up as you make noise, the culmination of which leads to an extra swarm spawning on top of you. This serves to up the tension, and introduces a tinge of stealth gameplay, as you learn to make your way around the hordes without stirring the pot too much at once. Ammo is also rare enough that you’ll think twice about who gets to reload and mixing and matching the characters in your squad is a uniquely fun exercise, as there’s variety enough that a number of play styles can be tested and perfected against the lumbering hordes.
The game is visually very easy on the eyes, with a 3D, black-and-white (and red) cel-shaded look that retains the grittiness of the comics admirably. The production values are high all around, and when things get busy the game might lag a bit on older devices, but for the most part the game ran like a just fine on my Tegra 2-enabled Asus TF-101. The camera is fully rotatable and easy to control, offering myriad angles from which to view the post-apocalypse. The sound is functional, and pretty much what you’d expect: a vast array of corpse moans and gunshots. While not particularly note-worthy, the music complements the theme just fine.
Narrative-wise, you’re not getting much from The Walking Dead: Assault alone. There are occasional trivia bits you can read that reference the series, but nothing in the game really explains who Michonne is and why it takes 200 supply to unlock her while everyone else costs somewhere between 15 and 35. The game just sort of functions under the implicit assumption that you’re already familiar with all this, and if you’re not, you can (should) just read the comics or watch the show. It’s really not something I want to fault the game for, as a shoddy re-telling doesn’t seem necessary when the gameplay is this good. Yet, having very little on offer to endear you to the characters or to entice you to check out the comics is a blunder just too glaring to ignore. After all, a story-oriented franchise should, for the player’s and their own benefit, employ at least a little story-magic.
Rather than simply ride the success of its intellectual property, Assault takes the high road, offering existing fans and newcomers alike a satisfying and engaging nugget of strategy gold. It’s refreshing to see a studio deliver a compelling title despite any mainstream impulse toward the shallow and safe, and there is very little to knock here. Even the IAP integration is commendable; I was able to afford Michonne midway through my second playthrough anyway. The best part is, there are more episodes on the way, and even if these only maintain the level of quality exhibited here, I’m certain they’ll be worth every penny.