There’s arguably never been a worse time to release a Walking Dead video game. Will The Walking Dead – A New Frontier fare better than the TV series?
The Walking Dead TV series is in its biggest slump since the farm dirge of season 2, and what should have been a series highpoint – the introduction of Negan, King Ezekiel and Shiva – has seen viewing figures dive dramatically.
Telltale Games didn’t know the wider franchise would be unusually unpopular when they, along with Robert Kirkman’s mixed media production company, Skybound, slated the release third season of the popular adventure game. Tying in with AMC’s series would have seemed like the smart money to any observer, but the diminishing audience response to the show must have been making Telltale nervous.
Does Telltale’s The Walking Dead – A New Frontier stand on its own, then?
The Walking Dead – A New Frontier: Ties That Bind, Part 1
Unusually, Telltale decided to drop the first two episodes to their third season of The Walking Dead in one go. It makes sense from a narrative perspective, as the events of the two are bound together, but rather than releasing a ‘feature length’ episode and making it one long story – as is the standard in the world of TV – they’ve chosen a different road.
That road, it has to be said, might not be popular with everyone when they realise the implication. Yes, you do get your hands on the next episode sooner (yay!) but it also effectively reduces the length of the series, at least, in terms of elapsed time. It’s perhaps a sign of the increased workload faced by Telltale, as they take on more and more properties and projects, that they’re burning the candle at both ends somewhat. As long as the standard stays high then they’ll stay in favour, but Minecraft Story Mode was pretty poor (if you’re not a big fan of the building game that spawned it) and lately it’s become apparent their ageing engine is starting to creak.
There are a few stutters and stammers in A New Frontier: Ties That Bind, Part 1. Nothing as serious as the Assassin’s Creed Unity-esque face melting issue from their latest Batman series, but its definitely more noticeable than it once was; in particular during a couple of higher-octane action sequences, with a little too much happening on-screen at once.
Other than that, though, the presentation is still up there with Telltale’s best.
The first episode also has a lot to cover. It introduces a new protagonist, a new family, and a new scenario. It also rolls us back in time to the onset of the apocalypse, for the first time since Lee Everett’s ill-fated ride in a police car. If not for the Firewatch-esque prologue – where players can build a background history for the series if they’ve been unable to carry over an old save, if for example, they previously played on the PS3 or Xbox 360 – you’d be forgiven for thinking the series is starting fresh.
In some respects, you can understand Telltale going to that extent with The Walking Dead – A New Frontier. After the first season, even with all the choices, things largely finished up the same. With the second season, though, the potential for radiant plot lines left de facto protagonist Clementine in half a dozen drastically different scenarios, so you can forgive the writers for feeling a fresh start might un-muddy the waters.
It does serve to make the waters less muddy, at least a little, but it’s also somewhat distracting.
You’re supposed to getting to know new protagonist Javier and his family – both through the prologue/flashback sections, and also in the present day, post-apocalyptic world – and growing to care about them, quickly. If you’re not invested in the personalities involved then the decisions, from awkward dialogue choices to life-or-death judgement calls, then The Walking Dead – A New Frontier has failed before its even begun.
You do spend an awful lot of time wondering when you’re going to run into Clementine, though. We’ve all seen her in the promo images and trailers, so we know she’s coming, and the feeling of anticipation is difficult to overcome.
Thankfully she does arrive and the pressure of the situation is somewhat released. That’s not to say that the game isn’t as tense and stressful as its predecessors, or any less filled with difficult choices, but the return of Clementine – like the return of Kenny in season two – has a peculiar effect on most players. Gone are the bumbling-in-the-dark decisions of Lee Everett in the first season, where you’re truly bouncing from one decision to the next with no idea what to do. All of a sudden you have a trusted advisor by your side, someone with whom you’ve been through a hell of a lot, and you find yourself siding with them more often than not.
However as you may expect in The Walking Dead, a series that relies on that ever-hanging sword of Damocles, that warm fuzzy feeling doesn’t last long and it’s not long before everything goes to hell. The drama kicks up a notch, the episode ends, and we’re suddenly very grateful that A New Frontier: Ties That Bind, Part 2 is ready to go.
The Walking Dead – A New Frontier: Ties That Bind, Part 2
A New Frontier: Ties That Bind, Part 2 picks up where episode one leaves off, more or less, save for another flashback sequence with Javier and his family. It’s here that we run into a dialogue issue that to be fair doesn’t often crop up in Telltale games, but is far more prevalent in open-world RPGs like Fallout and The Elder Scrolls: the misleading dialogue option.
We’ve all been there. You’re talking to some NPCs in Fallout 4 and you pick what appears to be, at first glance and based on the limited snippet shown on screen, a pretty safe dialogue choice. You’re then mortified as your character says the first safe bit, then follows it up with calling everyone ******* ***** and telling them that they’re going to **** them in the *** with a big fucking ****. The NPC then attacks you, unsurprisingly, and you’re left having to kill them, still not really sure how that all came to pass.
You forgive that sort of thing in a game like Fallout because, in all honesty, you were probably going to murder them in the face anyway, so it’s kind of a moot point. But in a Telltale game this issue is particularly egregious because dialogue is basically the only string you have to your bow, and on this occasion, it happens to fall on an important dialogue choice. Javier goes off script, puts his big foot in it, and the game helpfully reminds you that everyone “will remember that”.
Thanks, Telltale. We’ll let you know later if that particular decision comes back to bite us, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say, “yes, probably,” given the person we said it to isn’t exactly mellow and easy-going.
Dialogue isn’t the only string to your bow, of course, but the range of options in Telltale’s latter games are veering down a different path to where they started. Point and click sequences, where you have to spend time interrogating NPCs and finding objects to progress to the next area are very few and far between, while the combat sections are out in force. These combat sequences amount to little more than quick time events, when you strip them down to their component parts. While they’re usually fine, the button press sequence is sometimes jumbled up enough, with a point-and-shoot or analogue stick wiggle thrown in, that you’re going to get caught out a couple of times.
They’re not difficult, per se, but if modern cinematic action games like Uncharted 4 or Tomb Raider have taught us anything, nothing takes the wind out of an action sequence’s sails like failing a quick time event and having to watch – and hammer buttons through – the whole section several times over.
The couple of niggly issues from the first episode of The Walking Dead – A New Frontier also rear their heads in the Ties That Bind, Part 2. Specifically, that’s the visuals becoming a little rough around the edges – particularly in a fog-heavy action sequence – and the appearance of a familiar face who leads the decision-making process somewhat.
You’re presented with a mysterious stranger in a tense moment, whom you’re supposed to be as suspicious and wary of as Javier and his comrades, but unfortunately this person is so iconic from The Walking Dead‘s comic books (and latterly the TV series) that it’s impossible not to feel instantly energised by their arrival. There are no trust issues, there’s no danger of us accidentally shooting them; we know this is one of the good guys and everybody loves them. It takes the sting out of the sequence, and – much like with Clementine – it’s another character whom we feel predisposed to agree with.
Still, even with these little niggles, it’s another belter of an episode delivered with traditional Telltale aplomb. In particular, the TV-like cold starts on display in The Walking Dead – A New Frontier are indicators that – along with games like Uncharted 4 and Until Dawn – games developers are picking up some serious presentation chops from other media.
The Walking Dead – A New Frontier: Ties That Bind, Parts 1 and 2 will definitely leave you wanting more. Check back with us in March for an updated review to include episode three, and a final score when the series closes in summer.