With rare exceptions, TV show viewing figures slide over the course of a series’ run. There’s something a little bit intimidating about a series entering its third season, especially as TV becomes increasingly serialised and character driven. The same line of thinking could hold for videogames, and a fear of not understanding the story has held me back on a number of occasions from starting with the second, third or fourth entry. That’s surely part of why The Walking Dead’s third season isn’t labelled as such, but rather called A New Frontier, indicating that this is a fresh start for people to get onboard.
The TV series parallels continue, as the season kicks off today with a two part episode, designed to be played back to back but just as easily split and played separately. It’s a strong sign of intent from Telltale to really establish the new characters, set the tone for the season ahead and also allow them to unspool new story threads and menaces for our small group of survivors.
We first meet Javier in the very early days of the zombie outbreak, but as he runs up the hill, he’s not trying to get away from the undead, let alone the sirens blaring in the background of the city. Instead he’s rushing to get to his family, to live up to the expectations of his mother, his brother and his father. It’s actually a rather nicely played introduction, leaning on the conflicts within this family to start with before slowly colouring them with the dangers of the world at that particular moment. I actually started to forget about the zombie threat after a few minutes. I was soon reminded.
Cutting to a good few years later and Javier isn’t surrounded by anywhere near as much of his family. Sister in-law Kate and his two nephews – Kate’s two step-children – Gabe and Mariana are all that’s left of the family, simply trying to keep moving in their camper van and stay a few steps ahead of the herd of ‘muertos’, as they call them. From the interactions between them, it’s clear to see that it’s been a gruelling, monotonous ride so far, and the ease with which everyone takes out zombies shows their experience in handling themselves. Of course, we join them just as they land themselves in all sorts of trouble.
As ever, it’s rarely the zombies in The Walking Dead that are the main threat, but the humans that you meet. The New Frontier, who lend their name to this season, seem to be a particularly ruthless bunch, but even after two episodes, you’re barely getting to know and understand the threat that they pose. Thankfully it’s not all bad out there. There’s an almost idyllic little commune with some genuine, nice and helpful people within, and then there’s Clementine’s return after ending Season Two in a tricky situation.
It’s clearly a few years on from Season Two, based on Clementine’s age. She and Javier don’t instantly get along, the years of pain that accompanied her fight to simply survive making her wary of getting too close. However, the last time we saw her, it was on something of a cliffhanger and she had other people with her, depending on your choices. Those story threads are to be played out and wrapped up in flashbacks over the course of the season, just as some of Javier and his family’s story are given context by returning to moments before the outbreak. However, what will be fascinating to see is if and how Clementine’s flashbacks can spread their tendrils and come to affect the story that is now unfolding much later.
Telltale games are often at their best when they give you difficult or impossible decisions to make, and they cleverly lean on the possibility of players having an existing relationship with Clementine. It’s quite easy to instinctively want to side with her, but some of the situations you find yourself in might dictate that you’re better off selling her down the river or trusting in her own ability – an interesting point that came from talking to Telltale’s Job Stauffer after playing is that players seem to be split in their decision making largely depending on whether or not they played Season Two, which I have not.
One potential problem is that gamers have become used to the kinds of peril and decisions that you can make in Telltale games. You can certainly play with your head and your heart, trying to embody Javier and see the world from his perspective or taking the grander view as a player who has known Clementine for the last few years, or you can gamble against what Telltale will and won’t do.
In my personal play through the game, Clementine is exceedingly pissed off and feeling repeatedly betrayed by Javier, but I’d put good money on the fact that Telltale won’t kill her off and that she’ll be forced to stick with the group against a greater evil. I dare them to prove me wrong and surprise me, but that’s just one way in which the game can and does surprise, with each episode ending on a bit of a cliffhanger.
There is a slightly jarring leap from the end of the first episode to the start of the second, which then proceeds to escalate incredibly quickly and practically without warning. It’s all a bit too sudden, not letting you even vaguely feel settled before tearing everything down around you, but it adds to the at-times breathless pace of the story and keeps you off balance.
It’s not entirely successful in other areas either, and some of that comes down to the script, with a few moments that feature clumsy and awkward dialogue – then again, how do you actually talk to teenagers? Then there’s the budding romance options that crop up but feel odd in context, and just having that option took me out of the moment a little, even if it’s better fleshed out in the second episode.
Telltale have gone to a lot of effort to improve their in-house game engine over the last couple of years, and there are some parts of A New Frontier that really flaunt this improvement. Cities are now starting to become overgrown and reclaimed by nature, and there’s one or two shots that evoke the same kind of decaying beauty of The Last of Us. It can look quite simply fantastic, and part of that is surely down to leaving the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 behind, in order to focus on getting the best out of fewer and more powerful platforms.
Whether you’re a returning fan, a lapsed player or a complete newcomer, The Walking Dead: A New Frontier gets off to a good and welcoming start, with more than a few twists and turns packed into the two-part episode. While it’s not perfect, that extra time has given Telltale room to breathe life into a new and interesting cast of admittedly flawed characters, build new relationships and present them with new and immediate dangers, always with the threat of zombies in the background.
Version tested: PC