I confess I was pretty damn impressed with The Walking Dead: A New Frontier episodes 1 and 2. I had previously written Telltale off as obnoxiously safe until I took a gander at Ties That Bind. Sure they weren’t rocking my world, but they seemed a step in the right direction with some promise in store. While there is still potential sneaking about, The Walking Dead: A New Frontier – Above the Law lands with a humdrum thud akin to duller days.
[There will not be any spoilers for The Walking Dead: A New Frontier – Above the Law, but I may end up discussing The Walking Dead: A New Frontier – Ties That Bind Parts 1 and 2, as well as the review of the episode (which you can find here). However, the rating at the bottom will be spoiler-free if you wish to skip there.]
Ties That Bind really ended on a hell of a promising note, huh? We find out boyish survivor Javier’s brother is not only alive but also a major figure in a notorious group called The New Frontier. Considering Ties That Bind was punchy (perhaps even too punchy), I was excited to see what Telltale would do with the revelation that was loaded with enough explosives to level a city. Especially as we’d get to see who are The New Frontier, a roguish group making trouble in the neighbourhood.
However, quickly you find out that perhaps The New Frontier’s power structure was a lot more fragile that you first thought, as it operates on a council of characters whose seat is fragile. So you’re dragged into this conflict, as David is one such council member caught in this struggle.
Except, well, why care? Sadly, The Walking Dead: A New Frontier – Above the Law never really sold me that The New Frontier’s problem was my problem. Sure, David is at the heart, but as Telltale is often quick to remind us: David and Javier’s relationship is “complicated” at best and “a mixture of bullying and partner-related conflict” at its bluntest point. So those in Camp David Can Play In Traffic As Far As I Care haven’t got much of a reason to opt for unravelling the mess rather than just sneaking your allies out.
However, we’ve done this “dragged into an intra-group conflict” tango before, as it is a common storyline within Telltale’s Walking Dead series. Usually, I feel invested in what is going on and the sides due to caring about the people involved. In this case, unfortunately, there is pretty much only Side David. From what I can tell, you can’t side against him. While this could have created drama from “not hurting the ones you care about”, considering not-Stephen King, stoned doctor and female leader have the personality of a bag of hammers and the depth of a muddy puddle you’re given no additional investment on top of “is David worth your time?”. Which for some, like me, it is hard to justify.
Although that isn’t to say Telltale doesn’t try to get you to care about David, as they use this episode to build a more holistic presentation of who he is. Not only the good but also the bad, as well as his defence and actions as events unravel. While I’m still veering towards not liking David, I could see others empathising with his opinions, actions and decisions. They even do a little pairing off against Clementine, whose history with The New Frontier gets brought up, with some enjoyable drama created.
There is also a great elaboration of Jesus. In the previous part, he turned up relatively near the end and never seemed to have much to say. In this part he seems to have made his way to the front, absolutely selling some scenes with a mixture of mild-mannered reasonableness and his combat scenes (that I confess at times abandon realism for the “cool factor”). I really dig the presence he seems to have picked up between episodes.
Overall, it seems like Telltale spent more time brushing up on characters of old, smoothing out the kinks while adding greater depth, volume and characterisation on top of what was there. While I do appreciate it, it seems to have come at a cost of the newer characters feeling two-dimensional.
Although while we’re on the subject of costs, this focus on improving the writing presentation in one area seems to have had an impact on the gameplay. It feels apt that Kate describes New Frontier as a cage, as The Walking Dead: A New Frontier – Above the Law feels in a similar way. While Ties That Bind offered a sensation of agency, I never really felt like I was adjusting the narrative by my own actions here. While free will is going to be impossible in a title like the Walking Dead, the illusion of choice seems to have dropped for the episode.
Similarly, while Ties That Bind offered something polished in the graphical department, Above the Law has stumbled by letting some graphical glitches between the bars. It isn’t too invasive or disruptive though, so there isn’t too much worry about it.
The final score of The Walking Dead: A New Frontier – Above the Law is a 7 out of 10. You may recall that I went for a 7.5 for the previous episodes, saying that it was on the cusp of something great after a long time spent releasing content with the emotion of a zombie. Sadly, while Above the Law does punch strong at times (e.g. Clementine’s tale), this is layered upon a tale about the New Frontier that is hard to care about. Something particularly concerning as, if the series name is something to go by, it is the centre piece of the series.
I did have a good time (hence the 7, which means “good” to me), but I do see unpopular habits from older titles (e.g. Game of Thrones) re-emerging like a swamp creature from the distant past. Maybe I do keep clinging too much to the days of the past too much? Maybe we live in an age where Telltale just can’t land a solid writing hit any more, but instead flirts with success? Maybe they’re simply favouring immediate quick success, then the lasting legacy Wolf Among Us and Walking Dead season 1 holds? I am still curious how they’ll finish this tale, hoping this will be the unavoidable “stumble in the series” that always appears in episodic games, but The Walking Dead: A New Frontier – Above the Law shows signs of limping on this narrative road.
A PC Review Key of The Walking Dead: A New Frontier – Above the Law was provided by Telltale for the purpose of this Review