It's been a longer wait than all of us would have liked, but the third episode of Telltale Games' The Walking Dead is a halfway marker that etches a bloody great mark in the sand.
You're once again in the boots of Lee Everett, escaped ex-con and makeshift father figure to young girl Clementine, a character who is sadly attempting to survive a zombie apocalypse without a World's Best Daddy mug. As a series protagonist, Lee so far has mostly been moulded and shaped to the player's liking. You choose each of his responses, decide how to solve each crisis, and elect which characters to favour amongst the ramshackle group of survivors. All your actions alter how the rest of the cast perceives Lee, and they always hold a grudge.
Choice has been a central theme to this episodic adventure, but by the beginning of Long Road Ahead your companions have almost completely made up their minds about you. The previous episodes gave you some room to play around with your responses and action to see how they would affect those around you, but there's not nearly as much room for error here. The relationship between Lee and Kenny begins to go one of two ways when the latter's mental resilience is tested to the max, whilst the paranoia of a thief within the group has caused Lilly to violently threaten those she feels are culpable for the missing supplies. You also finally get to witness the narrative conclusion of some of your previous decisions, a few of which result in some of the most sombre moments in the series thus far.
For the most part, Long Road Ahead sees occasional shifts in the series' established pace. There are intense moments dotted throughout the episode, including Lee's first potential firefight, but for the most part this three-hour adventure is more focused than ever on conversation and puzzles. The conundrums themselves provide very little challenge, but often have you wandering around aimlessly; you'll find you've spent 10 minutes trying to solve something before realising you just had to speak to someone beforehand in order for it to trigger an event. It's only a small issue, but one that could be easily rectified with better signposting.
On the plus side, the downtime provides intimate moments with individual characters, especially Kenny, who transforms - justifiably - into an entirely different man throughout the course of the episode. You also meet new, supposedly friendly faces. As new characters are introduced, the vibe of the group changes considerably. The preconceived idea that Clementine is just a little girl that needs protecting is challenged by guitar-strumming newcomer Chuck, and you're pushed to consider what would happen if you found yourself being eaten by a horde of ravenous zombies one morning. What would Clementine do? How would she survive on her own? Long Road Ahead presses questions the previous episodes never even asked.
It's also worth noting that, despite some issues with framerate, I encountered none of the bugs that made episode 2 such a chore to complete.
As the series' halfway point, Long Road Ahead expands on the old while embracing the new. The conflicts between existing characters are almost all but resolved by the time the curtain falls, but the introduction of new faces means you're eager to find out what's going to happen next. The team at Telltale Games have done an incredible job keeping the series fresh, and they don't look like they're going to rest on their laurels anytime soon.
Version tested: Xbox 360