The third season of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead is finally here, now called The Walking Dead: A New Frontier, continuing the franchise’s shambling episodic zombie action. Things start off with the two-parter Ties That Bind, and we’ll be talking about the intriguing two-parter Episode 1 & 2. As with any story-heavy game, there may be spoilers to follow, so tread with caution!
I’ve played through the first two seasons, so it was nice to come back to a series emphasizing explored the highs (and lows) of humanity during the zombie apocalypse. New characters are introduced, adventures and heartbreak await, and – thank goodness – it’s far better optimized than the developers’ last major effort, Batman: The Telltale Series.
Ties That Bind begins before the zombie apocalypse really hits; we’re introduced to Javi, the new main character. He returns home to find his father has died, arguing with his older Brother, David, over their roles in the family drama. In the process we’re also introduced to David’s wife, Kate, and two young children, Mariana and Gabe. We learn the brothers’ father had turned into a zombie, forcing them to kill him. Kate is injured during the scuffle and now the family attempts to rush off to the hospital.
After this brief prologue, four years later it’s revealed a zombie herd is on the move. Javi, Kate, Gabe, and Mariana have managed to stick together during this drastic change. During a supply stop they have a run in with a survivor group calling themselves the “New Frontier”. The small group becomes separated and Javi has a run-in with series favorite Clementine, having grown considerably since season 2. She’s a teenager now and isn’t scared to hold a gun or stand up for herself, even threatening to shoot Javi should it come down to it.
As the story progresses, Javi and Clementine are forced to work together to confront this new threat. The zombie herd is constantly on the move behind them, and with the other survivors starting to dwindle down with each new twist. Javi finds himself dealing with the aftermath of his choices to either keep everyone alive, or taking out those who don’t agree with him.
Telltale has been making leaps and bounds since they released the first season of their Walking Dead Series in 2012. Even players who don’t have access to previous saves in past episodes can craft their own through a prompt screen before even starting the first episode. They can decide how things went for Clementine in season 1 and 2 of the series which will play a part in how she reacts as a person through the third series.
They’ve done a good job keeping controls mostly the same, with a host of small touches and improvements to streamline the gameplay. One minor improvement is the small prompt that lets players know a button has been pressed or activated properly…with a small splash of blood, of course. This helps as there’s certainly a heavier focus on action compared to previous seasons in the series, which may surprise longtime fans hoping for a more purely narrative experience.
As before, action sequences are handled through quick-time events; missing a button prompt can result in a gory end for Javi or one of his family members. There’s also less focus on searching for supplies and useful items, which surprised me. Granted, this is just the premiere episode, so there’s potential for this core mechanic to be expanded upon later. However, the decisions and action take the main-stage here which felt different from past seasons.
While a couple of emotional chords are struck in the beginning, I did notice there was a heavier focus on decisions the player makes for their group of survivors. Should Javi gain the trust and goodwill of the kids to make them smile? Or should he make the decision of being a mean uncle by agreeing with Kate to continue moving forward to stay ahead of the herd? Survival is key here, so any haphazard choices could result in dire circumstances down the road.
The only downside I could find between episodes 1 and 2 were technical ones. While episode one was well optimized, the second one seemed to have issues. Episode two tended to take a long time to load between scenes, usually between thirty seconds to a minutes. During intense situations this broke immersion for me several times and ruined key moments taking place.
Visually speaking, A New Frontier shows substantial improvement from the original season one, which debuted way back in 2012. Character models have more variety, have a wider range of appearances, and their expressions come through better than ever. The environments were designed with loads of character, too, as the town of Prescott appears to be an abandoned airstrip with makeshift houses, jail, and even a bar built behind thick walls. There’s even a broken-down plane decorated with Christmas lights where residents hang out on and appear to be drinking. I would have loved to explore more of this area to learn more about its history, and perhaps in future episodes I will.
Zombies are prevalent, many in obvious states of decay. The majority are seen traveling in herds, but many manage to pop out in the unlikeliest of places. I loved small details, such as seeing the way they’re dressed or positioned in certain areas, usually giving clues to how they died. I found these additions to the regular narrative refreshing, especially considering how linear the rest of the story can be.
Unlike Telltale’s Batman series, there weren’t any major technical issues I experienced. Apart from the odd framerate drop of hint of slowdown when the action heated up, it’s clear Telltale’s engine is more than up to the task. Perhaps my only gripe is how the zombies sound. Granted, who really knows what the undead sound like, but the constant groans and gurgling when they move about does get old after a while. Unless a zombie is well hidden, their groaning becomes less terrifying as they no longer have the element of surprise. Their sound design felt a tad generic and made me wish for a bit of variety.
During certain scenes players can enjoy just how beautiful the lighting and the environments have become with these new updates. Episode two features some striking lighting effects with shafts of moonlight filtering in through the trees as the survivors are driving towards another town. Even the town of Prescott has plenty of character and attention to detail to it that makes it feel like a real town in the apocalypse.
Certain scenes and effects even drum up a bit of tension and panic in the moment. When tear gas is being thrown around Javi has to make his way blindly forward to reach Kate. While shooting through the gas all he can see are lurching, vague figures who could either be zombies or people trying to make an escape.
Suffice to say, Ties That Bind Part 1 & 2 emphasizes that The Walking Dead: A New Frontier is well optimized and ready for fans to return to the world of the living dead. Technically, the game performs better than most recent Telltale efforts, and this episode has a strong introduction that certainly keeps the player guessing, even if the pacing felt off in places. There were times certain scenes would have benefited from slower reveals, but this might improve in future installments. The characters are varied, the storyline is gaining traction, and there are a few twists in store for fans of this series.