Telltale Games brings the latest instalment of The Walking Dead game series to console, mobile device and PC with A New Frontier. Continuing the story of Clementine and drawing on both the comic book and TV adaptation as inspiration, Telltale once again offers up the unique and engaging blend of listening, watching and making the occasional decision; a formula that in theory should be boring, yet has garnered accolade after accolade for the previous two seasons of the game. Does the third season start out with the same kind of energy and intrigue that will keep you engrossed over several months of episode releases?
Firstly, it seems a bit weird that they’ve not followed the naming convention from the last two releases, dropping the “season” moniker this time around. I’ll assume it’s so that the game stops getting confused with the TV series in search engines and general conversation. It’s not a bad move, and subtitling with A New Frontier makes sense because it makes it feel more individual (possibly taken as a learning from the Michonne standalone chapters), and given that’s the name of a group you’ll encounter during the first episode – The Ties That Bind. It’s actually in two parts, so the first episodes of this series are available together and are used to setup the new characters, locations and, because this is The Walking Dead – lull you into a false sense of security. Like it or not, the Telltale engine is back though, even if it has had some decent upgrading work thanks to the last couple of titles from the studio, such as Batman.
We’re picking things up some time after the end of the second season, and Clementine is (at least in the first two parts) not the main character you control. Javier Garcia steps up as the reluctant survivor left with looking after his missing brother’s wife and two children, always on the move to scavenge food and supplies, and struggling to cope with the responsibility. Some judicious use of flashbacks helps flesh out Javi’s character and gives you a feel for what he might be like, though as always in these games, the decisions you make will ultimately define the events of the story. However, the action really kicks off with a chance encounter at a junkyard, and for those involved their fight for survival has only just begun. If you’re returning to the game to find out what Clementine’s life was like after the last game, you’ll get some insight during A New Frontier, though it’s told in short flashback segments, and is markedly different depending on what you did at the end of season 2. Make sure you’ve uploaded your save to the Telltale cloud if you want to pick everything up as it was, and there’s a story creator if you’re new to the series. The crowd play feature that appeared in Batman also crops up here too, adding a level of multiplayer support for those not holding the controller.
For long time players of the Telltale games, there’s nothing different in the pacing, controls or configuration that the engine offers, though it’s far more stable than previous incarnations. Almost (but not quite) gone are the instances of freezing, pausing, jittering and skipping that you’ll have been used to whenever a “decision” moment needed splicing into the events on screen; and the whole presentation looks and feels smoother and more responsive than in the past. It does mean that sometimes it gets things wrong though – I’ve had characters pop up in the background of scenes that definitely shouldn’t be there, throwing the sense of me crafting the story out of the window. I know there are multiple options to deal with some situations, and multiple characters that can be taken along for the ride, and when everything is working you feel like you’re the one in charge making all the wrong decisions. When the mask slips and the engine shows you something it shouldn’t, the illusion of choice shatters and you end up feeling a little bit robbed of the agonising choices you’ve made.
That said about the engine, these games are about story-telling and making you think and feel like the characters you’re controlling. A New Frontier continues the theme from the The Walking Dead about permanently being in the grey areas of morality. Right and wrong are at the behest of the player, and it always seems like the game will punish your character regardless of which choice you make – you’ll never be right all the time because that just wouldn’t give you enough incentive to keep playing, nor would it be able to suckerpunch you with the events that unfold. It’s very clever and brilliantly woven, with full credit to the writers on maintaining the balance between emotion, action and the complexity of characters. Same goes to the cast who have clearly worked hard to ensure the game is voiced as well as it can be… you could never accuse them of just phoning it in.
The Walking Dead – A New Frontier: The Ties That Bind provides more of what we know and love from Telltale, excellent narrative combined with basic but functional mechanics that immerse the gamer in the post-zombie apocalypse new world. Robert Kirkman has said that the events of the games have caught up timeline wise with the events of the comics and that whilst the main characters are unique to the game, it doesn’t mean he won’t consider some form of medium crossover. It’s an interesting concept and one that could potentially work well here. What does need improving though is the length of the episodes. The Ties That Bind clocks in at just over 2 hours for both parts, which feels much shorter than the other games. They’re no less interesting for the time spent in them, and they’re not lower quality, I just hope it’s not the direction they’re going to move in because the wait between episode releases is already a drag.
A PS4 review copy of The Walking Dead – A New Frontier: The Ties That Bind was provided by the Telltale Games PR team, and the first two episodes of the series are available now on PS4, Xbox One, PC, iOS and Android as standalone purchases or part of the season pass.