The third season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead opens on an unexpected scene. Rather than pulling back the curtains five years into the doomed zombie apocalypse, we’re thrown right back to the night it all started. And instead of being surrounded by the familiar faces of Clementine, Jane, or Kenny, we’re introduced to a whole new family. Within minutes it’s instantly clear that this is a game for players who’ve never touched The Walking Dead before.
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For the eagle eyed, this will have been obvious from the title: A New Frontier. While it also refers to a faction of people within the game itself, it’s far more a signpost as to the kind of experience players can expect. For those who’ve never played before, it’s a new journey to embark on. For those who are deeply familiar with the emotional torture of the previous seasons, this is the point where we head into fresh territory. It’s a chance to see the apocalypse through a fresh set of eyes and deal with the problems of a very different group. But while that brings a new angle to The Walking Dead, it does mean one of its strongest characters feels pushed to the sidelines a little.
A New Frontier begins with a two-parter in the great tradition of returning TV shows. Episodes one and two form Ties That Bind, a story that introduces new player character Javier; a Latino character that further demonstrates The Walking Dead’s commitment to representing America’s many cultures. After establishing the domestic mess that his extended family were in at the dawn of the apocalypse, the story jumps forward to the ‘present day’ of the series’ timeline, a couple of years after the finale of season two. Javier now travels the empty roads with the slim remains of his family: his niece Mariana, nephew Gabe, and sister-in-law Kate. It’s obvious that they’re struggling to make it as a unit of just four; fighting for the resources they need, and trying to keep teenage mood-swings under control.
For anyone who’s played through the previous seasons though, the long opening of A New Frontier will have you asking just one question: where is Clementine?
The keystone character in The Walking Dead – the young girl who players have shaped from eight-year-old orphan to 11-year-old survivalist – still remains one of the story’s headline characters, but she’s not the core protagonist. Across the first two episodes of A New Frontier you get to take control of her just twice, and only in flashbacks that detail what she’s been up to in the two years since we last saw her.
How you feel about that will colour your judgement of the series as a whole. From the standpoint of a new player it makes a lot of sense to replace Clementine as the fulcrum of the narrative; without those pre-formed emotional bonds, how effective could she be as a lead? But for those who really want to continue shaping and moulding Clem, A New Frontier appears to be denying that opportunity.
It’s not bad news, though. By casting Clem as an outsider to the family unit Javier has, we see the girl we know and love painted in new shades. She’s world-weary and defensive; an expert in survival compared to the somewhat naive Javier. Despite her tiny height and adorable hat, it’s clear from the moment she turns up that she’s going to be the one to pull Javier through this hell. And with the knowledge of two seasons behind them, veteran players are able to apply a certain amount of dramatic irony to the situation. Players know exactly what Clem is capable of, while Javier has no clue.
Not that Clem doesn’t have her own mysteries. We’ve been apart from her for two years, and her new 13-year-old self has clearly gone through even more than we had to subject her to in seasons one and two. That’s where those flashbacks come in. There’s one in each of the first two episodes, making it seem likely that it’ll be a format the entire season runs with, akin to TV shows like Lost and Arrow. Both parts of Ties That Bind address huge issues that were left hanging at the end of season two, so all those unanswered questions should hopefully be resolved by the series finale. And, since they’re just short sections, it will certainly have made an easier time for Telltale when it came to dealing with the trio of endings that players could have chosen at the finale of Clem’s last adventure.
As for what you’ll be doing in this season, it’s very much business as usual. There are zombies to beat with wrenches and crowbars, but humanity is – stop me if you’ve heard this one – the real enemy. There are people to trust and people to fear, and a whole lot of folk that fall somewhere in the murky in-between. Despite the change in perspective, there’s not a whole lot about the third season of The Walking Dead that feels fresh.
This does make me wonder about that whole ‘new players’ angle. Without any new mechanics or systems, I can’t see how this is a good entry point for players who didn’t start with season one. If you didn’t like the simple gameplay of the previous games, this won’t convince you. But if you’re happy to play along with interactive drama, you’d may as well start the story at the beginning. Season one, after all, remains one of gaming’s finest hours, and sets you up to be far more emotionally invested in season three. Which would then surely be better if it played harder on your emotional bonds with existing characters – hmm.
But, while the mould may be old, Telltale are still proving themselves as master storytellers. A New Frontier will surprise you; there was a moment where I loudly dropped the F-bomb as the story took a turn for the worst, suddenly aware of being alone in the room I was playing in. Videogames don’t evoke this reaction very often, and the fact that Telltale can so reliably manipulate our emotions is something to treasure, in a sick kind of way.
It’s worth noting that A New Frontier is the best The Walking Dead has ever looked. The improved version of the Telltale engine made its debut in Batman, but that game’s different art style made it difficult to tell. With familiar characters though you can really see the difference. The lighting is much stronger (great for creepy flashlight sequences) and, importantly, there’s far more zombie variety on show, each one incredibly detailed. It’s also better directed; cutscenes depicting struggles having a stronger feeling of heft, and there’s occasionally a nice bit of cinematic shaky cam. However, there are still numerous occasions in which the frame rate drops unacceptably low, though, which is an issue I’d really hoped Telltale would have under control now.
While A New Frontier may present a familiar package, it’s still part of the Walking Dead medium I return to again and again. And it’s with good reason: Telltale have a far more interesting narrative thread than Robert Kirkman’s comics or AMC’s show. Rick Grimes has been in a cycle of doom for years now; settling somewhere new, getting too big for his boots, and screwing it all up. He’s set in his ways and never learns from his mistakes. Clem’s story, on the other hand, is one of constant evolution. With each year she grows and is moulded by the world around her. And, even when she’s not the core focus, any chance to see her story develop is one I’ll jump on. No doubt plenty more people feel the same, and a love of that story is reason enough to return to The Walking Dead.