Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, iOS, Android
Let’s be frank. If you are reading this review, you already know what to expect from a game that bears the name Telltale’s The Walking Dead: A New Frontier. We’ve been through two full seasons, two spin-offs, and a ton of other Telltale properties by now. We know the formula. It’s the zombie apocalypse, you are desperately trying to survive, your choices will determine who lives or who dies. And, trust us, people are going to die.
The worry most Walking Dead fans had was that the formula was getting stale. There are only so many times we can be surprised by finding a safe-haven, getting comfortable, and having that peace ruined by zombies. Eventually, we become desensitized to tragedy – which is exactly what has happened to the former protagonist of the series, Clementine.
Same Story, Fresh Blood
In a way, Clementine becomes a symbol for the player, even though the player doesn’t directly control her this time around. She’s been through hell and back, and she knows that tragedy awaits in the future. Nowhere is safe. Nothing can save you. The walkers are coming and the only thing you can do is try to survive.
And if Clementine is representative of the player, then her companion and protagonist, Javier, is oddly representative of Telltale themselves as they constantly look for new and inventive ways to present us with the zombie apocalypse. Javier has been through the same hell that Clementine has, but still looks at the world with fresh eyes. He is put into new situations and is faced with impossible decisions time and again. He’s a free thinker and a bit of a wild card, even though he is very dedicated to his family.
It’s Javier’s unique approach to the zombie apocalypse that makes the game feel fresh, even though the formula is about as old as some of the rotting walkers that are shambling around. Its Javier’s behavior that makes Clementine, and conversely the player, find motivation in an otherwise bleak reality. The fact that the player primarily controls Javier makes everything oddly, but pleasingly, cyclical. It’s as if the player is interacting with themselves outside of their own body.
Can You Ever Leave The Past Behind?
But making the same old zombie apocalypse feel new again was no easy task, and Telltale wasn’t going to accomplish this solely through interesting characters and solid writing. So The Walking Dead: A New Frontier has a whole host of new features, some of which fans have been asking for, and some of which we didn’t even knew we wanted.
The first is the new save import system. The Walking Dead: A New Frontier changes (and drastically so) based on what you did in The Walking Dead Seasons 1 and 2. But it’s been a while since we guided Lee and Kenny through the zombie wasteland, and despite Telltale’s usage of cloud syncing for your save files there are any number of ways you could have lost your original playthroughs. Luckily, Telltale has included a story recreation tool which will allow you to quickly go through the events of Seasons 1 and 2 in order to set up the scenario you want to play.
I highly recommend using this tool, even if you do have your save files left over from the first two seasons. While using it does introduce a certain level of artificiality to the events of A New Frontier, it also crafts the narrative that you are most interested in being a part of. This increases player immersion in a rather profound way, and that serves to offset whatever narrative fidelity is lost by allowing you to craft Clementine’s past to your liking.
There is also a third option if you don’t want to use your save files or the new story creation tool. You can start the game raw and many details involving Clementine’s past will be altered or omitted. In this scenario, Javier is your main character in the strictest of senses. Clementine is just a mysterious stranger he meets on his travels. While I personally have an emotional attachment to Clementine and would prefer to dive deeper into her story, the Javier-centric playthrough is an equally valid story option to pursue.
An Uncanny Facelift
Telltale made a few adjustments to gameplay and graphics as well. Quick time events especially got a dynamic upgrade in this title. Buttons and key commands now show up within the environment, attached to and moving with the enemies around you. This makes them feel more organic and integrated with the play-space, rather than complete breaks from the gameplay experience. Telltale also took great care with the pacing of these QTEs, keeping them short and avoiding huge loading screens before or after.
But while the advancements in the QTE U.I. are fantastic, the basic game interface changes are questionable. The size of text has shrunk, a natural consequence of the game’s increased resolution. However, it’s shrunk so far that names of intractable people and objects are no longer shown near the pointer when you mouse over them. Instead, their names are shown in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. It reminds me of the old interface from classic LucasArts or Sierra Games, and frankly it feels like a step backward. While removing more text from the screen does feel more cinematic, causing the player’s eyes to dart around the screen to figure out what they are looking at is unnecessary. It’s OK for a video game to embrace the things that make it uniquely a game. We don’t have to try to make our games feel more like TV or movies if it impacts usability.
A New Frontier has also received an overall graphical upgrade and it’s mostly positive. The heavy dark lines around characters have thinned out some. Models have become far more detailed, textures are more muted and lighting effects have been drastically polished. However, this graphical upgrade does make the game look less like a comic book than its predecessors, which does create an odd and sometimes unsettling uncanny valley effect. The animations are so refined that it offsets some of the creepiness, but there are still times that the characters look more like mannequins than human beings.
A Little Positivity Goes A Long Way
While these improvements are all nice, a Telltale game is going to make or break itself with its story, and The Walking Dead: A New Frontier does not disappoint. It subverts the expectations of a Walking Dead game by allowing good things to happen to you every once in a while. When you expect someone to be dead, they are alive. When you expect someone to betray you, they don’t. At this point, Telltale is screwing with the player’s head, forcing them to forget everything they’ve learned about the zombie apocalypse, and to great effect. Leaving the player uncertain about their choices just makes the consequences of those choices more profound.
The Walking Dead: A New Frontier continues to prove that Telltale Games are masters of storytelling. They know exactly how to craft a narrative that gets you attached to the characters you are controlling, invested in their choices, and devastated by the tragic consequences of those choices. Telltale’s The Walking Dead continues to be the best piece of zombie media currently available. No zombie movie, TV show, or comic even come close to portraying the hardships and terror of a post-apocalyptic universe the way this series can. It’s the pinnacle of the zombie genre and deserves to be experienced by everyone.