The Walking Dead: A New Frontier – Above The Law PC Review
It was a mere three months since the release of the first two episodes of The Walking Dead: Season 3 when we finally got to play this episode, and my poor, video game addled mind could barely remember what had happened. Thankfully, there was a fairly comprehensive recap. Such a gap does, however, mean that Telltale had a job to reestablish the pathos they had set up in the first episodes. This review is going to focus on the storytelling of the episode – the central feature of any Telltale game. It’s going to come across as overly negative but all I can say in my defence is that my love for Telltale Games is what makes me expect something more from them than the average narrative driven game.
This episode sees the assemblage of survivors, left at the gates of Richmond in the last episode, try to survive the New Frontier. Accompanied by a few flashbacks and fights, we follow Javier as he navigates the demands of survival and brotherly love.
To kick off, this episode if full of strange and nonsensical situations. For example, two characters, who claim they’re about to eat a meal, discuss which of their dishes is best in front of a table with just creamed spinach and chocolate cake atop it. Now, I’m not a post apocalyptic American but that doesn’t seem like a well balanced meal to me. Besides which, they don’t start eating it for ages. Is creamed spinach a cold dish? Isn’t it a side? Richmond – the only place in the apocalypse you are more likely to die of a coronary and not from a walker. In addition, some characters do not realistically explain things. In one confrontation, Javier is asked to explain why he stole some fuel. I wanted him to be truthful – that he didn’t think it belonged to anyone at all and he was simply scavenging. But this was not an option; the closest is that Javier can claim he thought it didn’t belong to those accusing him, but this has the unfortunate consequence that he still admits to theft.
The narrative dissonance (which I wrote about in my last review for the first two episodes) is still very much present here. I highly doubt this will be the last time I criticise the story for this either. Just to briefly recap: since I as the player care so much about Clementine, Javier cares excessively for Clementine, even though he has only known her for about three or four days and often favours her at the expense of his own brother. It would make sense if Javier, having lost his niece, feels responsible for this similarly aged but more badass young girl, but that never happens. Additionally, the brother has been set up as a total jerk, eliminating any complicated emotional ties Javier would surely have toward his bother. These familial ties are brought to the fore in a surface way – for example, you can have Javier unfailingly declare trust in his brother and even defy an emotional Clementine to help your brother – but there was no actual, emotional conflict for the player. This is simply the consequence of introducing a character with an extensive history, evidenced only through a series of flashbacks, and having them make decisions about a well loved character. To have the choice based system so corrupted, especially in an episode singularly dominated by choices, is a serious flaw.
In fact, this episode contained no moments of pause. You know the ones I mean – where the player can walk around and chat to the other characters, develop their relationships or find items required for the next section. It is this free roam element which makes Telltale games something more than an interactive novel. They also give an important contrast to the high octane moments of spamming E and Q to defeat zombies or fight other humans. When I think back to my favourite moments in seasons 1 and 2, it is not the action sequences which I remember the most. This is, after all, a point and click game – action is not exactly where it thrives. Instead, it is these quiet moments: when Lee taught Clementine to shoot or when Clementine caught up with Kenny in season 2. This episode was strangely lacking in these moments. There was no tearful reunion between brothers and there was no real mourning for the dead. We move from fierce debate in a cell, to a tense but unemotional catch-up with a long lost brother, to a confrontational leadership meeting, to a zombie fight, to a human fight and we finish off with a verbal confrontation (…did I mention spoilers?).
It is a shame that this season is so emotionally lacking. There was one excellent moment but dented somewhat by the illogical nature of the scenario. In a flashback explaining how Clementine was separated from AJ, we learn that she had stolen medicine from her own group in order to heal the toddler. The reasons given that her group would not give the medicine were that AJ was a lost cause and as good as dead. So when they decide to force her to leave in punishment for the theft, I was sorely confused that the group decide to keep AJ with them and that Clementine was made to leave alone. Why would the group, which saw AJ as a waste of resources, want to keep hold of a toddler they thought was dying? Still, it was crushing to see Clementine say goodbye to AJ. And yet, this moment made me hanker for a season 3 in which the player could see how Clementine had to care for a baby in a hostile world, where a baby’s cry could mean death to them both and where her decisions no longer risked just her own life, but the life of her ward. It would have been a nice mirror to season 1.
Lastly, there is also a general problem with flashbacks in choice based games. Ultimately, you know that certain events are bound to happen, by virtue of playing predominantly in the present. As such, when Clementine is given the option of stealing medicine, and the player already knows that she will fall out with the owners regardless, of course the player is going to choose to steal it. It would make no sense not to. This makes the choice largely redundant.
All of these criticisms are so pertinent because Telltale games are their stories. We don’t play for mechanics or for showing up our friends online or for sick graphics. The narrative, dialogue and voice acting are the central purpose of the game. And yet this episode was full of smack in the face imagery (a candle being blown out in front of a wedding photo) and some smack in the face foreshadowing (‘We love him and nothing is going to change that – not ever…’).
So what is the game doing right at this point? There is some wonderful cinematography – many of the screenshots I have taken evidence some beautifully, well balanced scenes and fluid action sequences. And as usual, the voice acting is some of the best in the industry. The overall story is at least engaging, even if on a micro level, it is not convincing. My playthrough was technically proficient and the score was excellent in this episode.
All of these issues don’t make this episode necessarily bad – just ‘fine’ or ‘good’, and certainly not the excellence which we are used to from Telltale. Looking at it in hindsight, I was too generous in my rating of the first episodes. This episode is a marginal improvement but not enough to raise the score a whole point.
Telltale have surprised me before, and for Clementine’s sake, I hope they manage it again by the end of this season. Otherwise, The Walking Dead: A New Frontier may join the series with a whimper, rather than a ferocious zombie bite.