The Walking Dead: A New Frontier Review
Clementine will remember that, but Javier will wish he had more to do
In baseball, a bunt is one of the simplest plays a batter can make. Instead of swinging through the ball and hoping to hit it into the bleachers, the bat is held in such a way that the ball is only just tapped into the infield. Then the batter can outrun nearby fielders and take first base. Bunting is best used by the weaker hitters. The Walking Dead: A New Frontier feels just like such a play, advancing the game series to the next base, but seemingly no longer trying for a home run.
The first season of The Walking Dead helped Telltale Games surge to fame. Since its release in 2012, they have gone on to adapt massive franchises, like Batman and Guardians of the Galaxy, to their brand of storytelling. But Telltale has clearly not forgotten how important the zombie franchise was to their success. In the last five years, they have released several games in the series while their other titles languish with a solitary season. The Walking Dead: A New Frontier is the third main season in the franchise, and it consists of five episodes that focus on a new family group. While the third season is a compelling tale and offers more of the same, it stumbles in certain areas, and it is not because Clementine has been relegated to a side character.
Clementine returns, but this time you'll need her help
When you think of The Walking Dead game series, one character will come to mind almost immediately. Clementine is the girl you protected in the first season and the one you controlled in the second. But, this time, Clementine is a side character that 'will remember that.' Quite unlike the original game, she is now an experienced survivor with trust issues. The gut-wrenching finale of the second season is almost entirely glossed over via brief flashbacks. If you ended up with Jane, you probably will not enjoy these glimpses at Clementine's recent past. But, regardless of your season two finale choice, everything ends up the same for Clementine—she's alone and cynical. Not having Clem as the playable character may seem irrational, but it allows Telltale to approach the franchise from another direction and interpret her feelings from an outsider's perspective.
That outsider is Javier Garcia, a former professional baseball player, and the character you play as in this third season. At the time of the initial zombie outbreak, Javier was visiting his brother, David, because their father was on his deathbed. Javier arrived too late to say goodbye, but just in time to see his father rise from the dead and start eating family members. David went looking for medical help and the family became separated as the world was turned upside down. For the last four years Javier has been surviving on the road with David’s two children and their stepmom, Kate. We see snapshots of their adventures through effective flashbacks, but most of this new season takes place long after they left the family home. The survival of this slightly unconventional family unit is the heart of this third season.
The family's troubles are further complicated by a group calling themselves the New Frontier. Javier is taken hostage by members of this group because he took fuel from a seemingly deserted junkyard. He breaks free when their transport is driven off the road by a veteran survivor named Clementine, who was merely looking to acquire a vehicle. She agrees to help Javier find his family—trapped by a zombie herd—in exchange for a working vehicle. But the New Frontier tracks them to a relatively peaceful settlement, breaching its walls and killing innocent survivors. Stragglers join Javier’s group and they inadvertently make their way to the lion’s den, and to a chaotic family reunion.
Javier's family is worth protecting
The third season is all about second chances. Since David thought Javier was unreliable before the outbreak—he did throw away a promising baseball career by gambling—there is a strong desire to prove him wrong by protecting his family and starting fresh. We also learn that Kate's marriage to David was less than perfect. Does she deserve another chance at family life? Clementine no longer has the infant, AJ, and is struggling to find hope in others. Can she find another friend in this horrific world?
Trust is also an important part of the story. While players will be drawn towards aligning with Clem because of the previous games, the circumstances put adequate doubts into doing what she says every single time. We are Javier after all, and his family wants different things than Clem which encourages divergent paths. Clem is also jaded, and her opinion is skewed towards distrust against those that have yet to do anything obviously wrong. This is a good survival strategy, but perhaps not the only one, as Javier soon learns.
Like recent Telltale games, conversing with survivors is the biggest part of the experience. True to form, the dialogue tends to be sharp, witty, and interesting. There is usually a range of response options, from aggressive to cautious, or from silent to caring. Generally these responses only affect the immediate conversations but it all adjusts quite naturally and can lead to jokes or disapproval. All choices in conversations have a timer, even those during relatively peaceful exchanges. This ever-present countdown is often unnecessary and merely prevents players from taking their time to consider the options.
At certain points, there are binary choices because the moments are important. These choices are typically polar-opposites to force players to make the hard call and can sometimes alter future events in meaningful ways. You can choose to stay and fight attackers or help the wounded to safety; depending on your decision, you will either participate in a rudimentary surgery or say goodbye to an unlucky survivor. Later you can flee with Kate or meet up with a potential ally, but both choices lead to Javier in captivity. One of the most impactful choices involves Clementine and a survivor that recently lost a friend; that particular survivor can either die in the second episode or live through the entire season. There is a minor cascade effect with some choices, while other repercussions are delayed for a few episodes. Although there are deaths from specific actions, most decisions create subtle changes: rifts between survivors, different companions in future scenes, fist fights, or delayed criticism. The main sequence of events will remain unchanged, but all decisions are weaved into the narrative seamlessly.
The minimal interactive elements are not merged in quite as well, as they often appear to be an afterthought. There is very little of the traditional explorative adventure gameplay. Whereas the recent Batman game from Telltale had crime scene analysis, here you search tiny areas for a few items. The biggest explorable area is found in the first episode where you search a junkyard; there is not much more to do than siphon gas and poke a dirty mattress. In another episode, you must escape a makeshift prison, but all you do is grab a pipe, stand on a stool, and button-smash your way to freedom. There are even a few transitions from a conversation to an interactive screen just to pick up a single item or press one button. At times, the season is not much more than one conversation after another. The exploration bits have never been that good, but at least they put some distance between the rapid-fire events of the story. In the third season, when you are given something to do it is brief and insincere pandering.
The rest of the gameplay consists of those silly quick-time events that are still as useless as ever. Whenever the walkers (or humans) become a convenient threat, you can bet there will be large arrows or icons requiring button presses to avoid death. Like the previous seasons, they provide no real challenge aside from the first button press that can occur abruptly after a normal conversation. Some of the QTEs don't even need to be completed, as other characters will pull Javier to safety or step in to perform a mundane task. The action is rarely exciting, aside from segments in the last episode which integrate these QTEs with more care and higher stakes.
Interactive areas are few and far between, and they are usually shallow
It's no surprise, given the shallow gameplay, that this new season is one of the shortest five-episode games from Telltale so far. There is less than seven hours of entertainment which is mostly disappointing because of the loose structure. The first two episodes (released together) are only slightly longer than one of the bigger episodes from Telltale's previous games. Episodes 3 and 4 are like treading water because you end up doing the same type of things in the same location. And the last episode needed to have longer emotional conclusions because the end scenes are a rush. You also won't get adequate endings for all characters from a single playthrough. If the third season was accurately chopped into distinctive pieces, it would probably only consist of three strong episodes.
By now you may be used to these niggling issues from Telltale—the short episodes, the silly QTEs, and the lack of substantial gameplay—so it does not mean A New Frontier isn’t an enjoyable Telltale game. The direction and overall story is still compelling, scattered with choices that at least feel important. It is also refreshing to complete a main season of The Walking Dead with a handful of characters still alive. Replaying the adventure makes it easier to appreciate because of how conversations adapt and how decisions do change proceedings somewhat. Characters are generally interesting, mostly those closely related to Javier, and Clementine gets enough screen time to justify this being the third main season, although it may just be a pit stop to improve the characterization of the inevitable sequel. Fans of the series will likely enjoy what they see, even if some of the lustre has faded.
The third season looks fairly good, with clever uses of color and lighting. The environments are quite interesting, although that makes it even more disappointing because we can not properly explore them. The zombie variety is quite extensive, and there is enough gore to satisfy. Aside from a few framerate drops after scene transitions, teleporting horses, and a clumsy trailing camera in the rare explorable areas, there were no technical issues.
Worth playing for the Kenny flashbacks
The Walking Dead: A New Frontier is good, although not the best game from Telltale; it sits rather comfortably behind the first two seasons and is a little more enjoyable than the Michonne mini-series. Its gripping story is largely a success because of the supporting characters. Clementine’s role in the story, involving trust and second chances, is among its best parts. Javier and his new family become quite likable in time, and flashbacks open windows to important events. But it is hard to shake the general disappointments found in A New Frontier; the interactive gameplay is embarrassingly shallow, and the episodes could have been more distinct. You will still have to endure the dumb QTEs and choices that lead down the same path, but those are to be expected. Telltale will continue developing Walking Dead games—a fourth season is a sure bet—but with a little more effort they will hopefully make the next game a home run, now that all the bases are loaded.