The Walking Dead Season 1 was good. Those were the last words I said I was ever going to say about it, 3 years and nearly 10 hours of podcast recordings later, and I stand by that assessment. By introducing the series’s main character, Clementine, as non player controlled, and inviting us to mold her perceptions of the world based on the actions of our character, Lee, TWD managed to form a bond that was nigh unbreakable.
I also thought that it didn’t need a direct sequel, and if it had one, that we should not play as Clementine. Season 2 was both a direct sequel, picking up soon after Lee’s death, and placed the 11 year old main character under our direct control. No longer driven (haunted) by “Clementine will remember that,” the second season suffered story wise. While most of the blame could be placed on a weaker story overall, my main pain point lay with the multiple situations where the group’s survival was placed on the shoulders of Clem.
Sure, she was super mature for her age, and yes, she may have, MAY HAVE, been born in Themyscria with Diana Prince herself, but there is no way any of that burden should have been hers alone to carry. And yet it was. And because it was, we find ourselves in A New Frontier, the first two chapters of The Walking Dead’s 3rd season.
So why all the rambling at the beginning about the first two seasons if this review is about the 3rd one? 2 reasons: 1. I just played the 2nd season last week to prepare for A New Frontier, and I had opinions to share, and 2. It speaks directly to why I think that, even though we are only two chapters in, TWDS3 is fundamentally better than its predecessor.
A New Frontier opens at the start of the outbreak, before people found out that they were in a world of shit and everything they knew was about to change. Javier Garcia, Javi to his friends and family, is quite literally running home to see his father before he passes on. He’s late, and as we come to find out from his brother, David, who is waiting outside while drinking a beer, this is not the first time Javi’s missed something important. What follows is a beautiful piece of storytelling that works both as an introduction, and a chilling reminder of what it was that the walking dead took from Robert Kirkman’s world.
The story then jumps forwards a few years to find Javi driving a van, his sister-in-law in the passenger seat and his niece and nephew behind him. With no explanation of the time in between, we quickly learn that the new family unit has basically survived by moving around in their van, scavenging, as you do in a zombie apocalypse, to survive. The current threat that keeps their keisters in motion is a herd of “muertos” that feels like it is constantly on their tail. Stopping to hopefully find some gas and supplies in a junkyard on the way, things take a decidedly Walking Dead turn and Javier wakes up in a truck next to a surly dude with a brand on his neck.
Trying to plead his case to the man driving the truck, both Javi and the driver miss the tree falling into the street. Que crashed truck. Enter Clementine, holding a pretty sizable shotgun to Javi’s back. This one action, her appearance as an NPC again, makes A New Frontier immediately better than the second season. I immediately started measuring my responses, leveraging what I know of my Clem’s interactions against a weird, intrinsic need to not disappoint her. To not leave. In a way, Javi, in my hands, becomes Lee 2.0.
I’m not going to touch on the rest of the story to avoid spoilers, but I was far more impressed with the additional characters introduced on Javi and Clem’s journey then I was with the crop throughout Season 2. Nearly everyone you meet feels fleshed out and real, with only one or two coming off as your standard tropish survivors, whether it be tough but teddy bearish lawman, or the off-kilter psycho that’s sick of obeying the rules. There were also a number of classic Walking Dead moments, with one that even seemed ripped straight from the TV show in terms of both ruthlessness and shock.
Those moments would mean nothing, though, if they weren’t tempered by quiet, almost tranquil, interactions. So often, and this was especially true of the later episodes of Game of Thrones, these moments are simply skipped over for big choices and bigger set pieces. A New Frontier uses flashbacks to not only cool the action, but also deliver pieces of missing time from both Clem and Javi’s stories. I take exception with a death depicted in one of those flashbacks, as the character I knew from the second season always felt stronger than how they let themselves go out, but given the circumstances, I understand the choice made.
In addition to diving into Clementine’s past through flashbacks, Telltale makes a concession when starting a new game for those of us that might have played the others on a different console, or find ourselves without our previous save files. Offering the chance to Build-A-Clem, Telltale presents a tool similar to the Dragon Age Keep that Bioware used to allow their players stories to carry over between console generations. It presents choices regarding lessons that Lee would have taught her, as well as choices she would have made during Season 2, including whether she ended the game with Kenny or Jane. Should you choose not to do this, there is also an option for random generation as well as importing a saved game, should you have one.
I would be remiss not mentioning the graphical upgrade to the Telltale Tool, which goes further beyond what even their most recent outing, the stellar Batman, seemed capable of. The character models, while still maintaining the inked to life aesthetic of Season 1, are their most detailed yet, and is shown off with some beautifully framed closeups during conversations. The zombies themselves still look like their gore is painted on instead of actually erupting from their bodies, but it works for the level of body horror Telltale seems to be going for; never enough to gross you out, but more than enough to convey that there is nothing human left.
The new engine also loses a lot of the customary Telltale jank that comes with their games, though, as with Batman, I am interested to see if it shows up later in the series. I am also happy to report that the game itself never died or froze on me. I was however, heart broken to find my chapter 1 save gone when I loaded this up the next night to start chapter 2. I have no idea where it went, or what happened, but it was 100% responsible for this review arriving now instead of Tuesday morning. I hate making excuses, but lost saves is something that can’t be accepted at any point of the game.
Given where Episode 2 leaves us, I am truly looking forward to see where A New Frontier goes. Javier is a charming character with a deep backstory, and they way his family is introduced throughout the past and present leads to an immediate investment in his future. Add in some shady actions on Clementine’s part, as well as the overwhelming desire to keep her around, and I feel that TWD is back on the right track. Telltale continues to impress.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!