Friday, 8 September 2017

The Walking Dead: The New Frontier - Review

Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Platforms: Android, iOS, PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One

[Warning: This review contains spoilers for previous seasons of The Walking Dead game. Read on at your own risk.]

The first season of The Walking Dead game was one of the highlights of 2012. It cemented Telltale’s now long-running formula, for better or worse, with a modified form of point-and-click adventure games. 400 Days continued that trend with its novel story-telling structure, and Telltale showed that their formula wasn’t simply a one-hit wonder when they released The Wolf Among Us, perhaps the most underrated of their licensed adaptations so far.

Then, season two hit, and I don’t think I’m the only who’d suggest that it was perhaps something of a disappointment. An awkward pace and some dumb character writing didn’t help matters, but it was the season’s muddled focus that ultimately made it a much weaker offer than its predecessor. Characters like Luke and Sarah were built up over the course of four episodes only to be unceremoniously killed, seemingly at random, with very little pay-off. Meanwhile, far less interesting characters (like Jane), were thrust into the limelight. In short, season two was not all that good, meaning The New Frontier had a lot to make up for.

And does it? Well...that’s debatable. What’s interesting right off the bat is how the game sets up the player’s relationship to Clementine. Season 1 had players interact with Clementine through Lee; shaping her world-view, for better or worse, as her teacher and guardian. Season two then had the interesting twist of having players directly control Clem, which was interesting if only because it made you wonder whether, in order to protect her, players would make more selfish decisions than usual; an intriguing aspect of the season that Telltale never really explored.

In contrast, The New Frontier casts you as Javier, a disgraced professional baseball star, who, following the onset of the outbreak, is left to take care of his nephew and niece alongside his sister-in-law, Kate. With his brother missing, Telltale cast Javier as the reluctant father figure (how reluctant depends on your dialogue choices), in effect mirroring Lee.

This is interesting precisely because of how each season has explored the player’s relationship to Clementine. In many ways, The New Frontier is the reverse of season two: you’re no longer controlling Clem, aside from a few minor flashback sequences, but are instead interacting with her through another character like in season one. Except, this is a very different Clementine from the we first encountered five years ago.

I bring up Clementine a lot, because, despite not being the focus of this season in the way she previously was, she’s still the heart and soul of this series and by far the best written part of it. Seeing her turn up, toting a shotgun, is both hilarious and horrifying. Many doomsday-based shows have explored the way that the new world order, or lack of it, changes children the most, but for The Walking Dead game this notion is far more earned. We’ve seen Clementine transform over the course of the series, giving the process that much more impact.

It’s a good job she’s there, too, because the rest of season is rather limp when left to stand on its own merits. Javier and Kate make for decent central pair for the plot to revolve around, the two are relatable, and have their share of flaws. Both are thrust into the role as makeshift parents that they never really asked for (Kate is only a step-mum to David’s kids), and a central theme of the season is the concept of what family is when everything begins to fall apart.

This would be interesting, even if it is the same, slightly hokey and somewhat overwrought ground that the rest of the The Walking Dead franchise, in all its forms, has mined for some time now. Yet, aside from Javier and Kate, almost every other character is either thoroughly unlikeable, or a complete moron.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with Javier's brother, David. Without going too far into spoiler territory, the relationship between Javier and David is the focus of a large portion of The New Frontier’s storyline, with the game even playing out flashbacks pre-apocalypse in order to flesh out the two characters and how they interact with one another. David is an ex-military man, the good son who thinks he’s done the “right thing” all his life only to find that, when he returns to civilian life, he doesn’t really fit in.

This would be a decent topic to explore and Telltale do, to a degree, do that, only they drop the ball when it comes to writing the characters. David is a thoroughly loathsome character by the end of the game, both idiotic and patronising depending on the given scene. It’s clear what the intention was; contrasting Kate’s optimistic idealism with David’s military hard-headedness, yet that doesn’t play out in the game. David’s choices are almost always entirely wrong, and the fact that the character remains unlikeable to boot makes many of the decisions in The New Frontier even easier to "solve", because there’s not really a choice to be made.

It doesn’t help that Telltale’s writing frequently positions the main female character as little more than a “thing”; a prize for both Javier and David to fight over. There’s a flashback sequence later on in the series where Javier can throw a game of baseball, deliberately missing the shot in order make his brother feel better. Likewise, there’s another scene where the brothers play dominoes, and let’s just say David doesn’t like it if he loses.

There’s a metaphor here; Javier can “lose” in order to satisfy David; hiding his (potential) feelings for Kate. Blood is thicker than water and all that. Only, this metaphor leaves Kate as merely a game piece; a ball between two squabbling brothers with little agency of her own. Considering that Kate is one of the few things that Telltale gets right with The New Frontier, it’s baffling that this subtext permeates the whole season and that Telltale deliberately place emphasis on it.

The New Frontier is a strange addition to The Walking Dead series. It’s arguably tighter and better thought out than season two ever was, mainly thanks to the fact that it doesn’t feel as if it’s being made up on the fly. There are interesting moments here, mainly thanks to its central cast of Clementine, Javier and Kate. Everything around them is poorly stitched together, however, leaving most of The New Frontier disappointing to play through, as it reaches for something interesting, and then goes and scuppers it all with dumb and lazy writing.

“Clementine’s adventures will continue”, the game cheerfully announces when you finish the fifth episode. Given how the series has played out so far, and given how lacklustre Telltale’s other, recent efforts have been, it’s debatable whether or not this is a good thing…


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