|Platform Win, Mac, iOS, Android, PS4, Xbox One|
|Publisher Telltale Games|
|Developer Telltale Games|
|Release Date Dec 19, 2016|
After two seasons of Telltale Games' brilliant interpretation of The Walking Dead, many players have figured out its real game: It's in guessing which choices really do alter the story, and which ones are optional conversations or decisions that still funnel into the narrative the game had in mind all along.
The first two episodes of The Walking Dead: Season Three — also known by the mouthful of a name The Walking Dead: The Telltale Series - A New Frontier — hew to that model. Players are given a new protagonist and can pour their rage into scenarios where a measured response would still end badly. Clementine, the only permanence in The Walking Dead's fickle and constantly reversible world, returns and is playable, but only in flashbacks. Most of the player's time will be spent with Javier Garcia, a former professional baseball player accompanying his brother's second wife and her distrustful stepchildren.
This review will follow the series as it develops, with updates as each chapter arrives detailing the current state of the game.
Clementine's retrospectives are harrowing
Walking Dead fans looking to jump back into Clementine's story with this new game should temper their expectations. The player only takes control of her in flashback chapters that do not affect the overall arc of the story or any relationship with a character in it. Her retrospectives are nonetheless harrowing. A flashback with Jane, the Season Two heroine who leads Clementine through a quavering puberty into her steely young adulthood, was legitimately sorrowful, and emblematic of The Walking Dead's remorseless prosecution of its story, allowing only the perfunctory objection from the player.
In the present day, the story is told through Javier, alienated from his family by his athletic celebrity and some vague, implied disgrace. The establishing sequence quickly connects Javier to the zombie apocalypse, and then puts him on the run with Kate, his sister-in-law, and her two tweenage kids.
Although this covers a lot of ground expediently, it plops the user into a new story without much context to shape Javier's character or help him respond to the conflicts in the story. In Season One, the player was a convicted murderer; saying nothing or safeguarding his past was a legitimate role-playing option. Season Two involved Clementine and some understanding of her history from the first season. Season Three strands us in the form of a new character with unknown relationships, making the dialogue choices a seat-of-the-pants affair.
Ultimately, Javier and his cohort reach a station rich with resources, and of course that is where the trouble begins. The first big choice presented to the user underlines Kate's status as the resented stepmother to her children. Inevitably, the player crosses paths with Clementine, in a luminously acted reunion that consolidates her as the central authority of this franchise, even if the player doesn't control her.
The story proceeds rotely from there, through a shootout with other survivors and then a visit to another settlement and an encounter with the faction that figures to be Season Three's ultimate antagonist. There is an unavoidable complication involving Clementine and a former associate of hers, which ends ... badly. This story conflict introduces Eleanor, a camp doctor, to conspicuously move things along. Both she and Tripp, the camp leader, are likable and honest enough, which makes the decision to side with either a question of which character appeals more on a gut level.
Nonetheless, nothing ever lasts in The Walking Dead, and Javier and his friends are soon on the move, separated from their loved ones. It's in this portion where I realized that the most violent and emotional choice the game offers still delivers the same story path as the most rational and measured decision. No matter how I negotiated the conflict, a major death and a near-fatal wound pushed everyone toward Richmond, Virginia, and their arrival delivered a cliffhanger leading into the third episode.
Two chapters in, Season Three of The Walking Dead feels almost like a reboot, gathering together all the concepts that gave the video game series its emotional force in the first two years and slamming them into two episodes. There is spontaneous violence and unexpected death, but no sense that the player truly could have avoided either. There's an urgency to reach another place, and the false sense of stability it promises.
Since I switched platforms from the Xbox 360 for this new season, my playthrough of the first two seasons was rebuilt with a kind of vague questionnaire of the choices, such that I could remember the ones I made. This placed Clementine's story into roughly the same form as it had existed for me previously.
Clementine, however, is not the main character. Not yet. This is Javier's show, which is fine, but I found it impossible to connect with a woman who is not his wife and children who are not his kids. It was hard to find any kind of emotional navigation point for Javier as I role-played him. Then, as Clementine, it was disappointing to know that any choice I made for her was little more than embroidery around her hard-edged backstory.
Don't get me wrong; it is wonderful to hear Clementine's voice and see the young woman she has become. But at the end of Season Two there was someone with her who is mentioned in these flashbacks but has yet to appear here. I very much fear what happened to take him away. Without a doubt, it is what made Clementine grow up so quickly since we last saw her.
All of the potential inside December's strong two-episode opening of The Walking Dead Season 3: A New Frontier is vaporized in the succeeding three episodes. Those who are especially attached to Clementine could, and probably should, skip this season altogether. Nothing in the story deepens her character or my understanding of her. Her supposed core motivation, finding A.J., the baby she rescued out of Season Two, is continually postponed to the point I no longer cared what became of the kid. Depending on what happens with a fourth season, and one is heavily implied, Season Three could end up as disposable to Telltale's contribute to The Walking Dead's canon as so many of the characters who inhabited it.
None of what made the first two seasons of The Walking Dead so good is borne out in episodes three through five of The New Frontier. Decisions, alliances, trusts, suspicions, the things that make it a story worth telling were serially discarded as the story chugged, almost on rails, to the conclusion I reached. I appreciated the game's final appraisals of my relationships with Kate and David, the brother with whom Javier is reunited in the cliffhanger at the end of episode two. I felt the descriptions were true to the choices I made and conversations I had. But I don't see how my relationship with David could be called anything but dysfunctional.
There appeared to be no way either to be completely loyal to Javier's brother or completely hostile to him. One would figure that a budding romance between a man's brother and his wife could force some clear choices, and characters who responded consistently in turn. But David can neither be alienated from the group nor bonded to Javier. An absolutely bizarre sequence midway through episode five, quickly shrugged off by every character in the room, convinced me David was no longer worth any investment.
It's bewildering to me how the writers of episode 5 could paint themselves into a corner by depending so much on David and then leave him out of its emotional climax, which is so telegraphed and so derivative of Season One as to be robbed of all impact. Others players may rightly feel that it cheapens what they did with Lee and Clementine five years ago.
a new frontier betrays all of the opening episodes' potential
The Walking Dead is at its best when it tries to sell me a sympathetic character and then gives me the chance to deny him or her my pity, and ask hard questions of my character in the process. This was an easy call call throughout Season Three, as no one was worth my pity in the first place. Season One's groundbreaking brilliance may have posed this series with an impossible encore, or at least a difficult exit, but Season Two still had all of the above. Season Three's characters are so emotionally inconsistent and so untroubled by that inconsistency among one another that the story's few attempts at the grand themes of people fighting to stay alive all end in frustrated and confusing outcomes.
Betrayal is a common device in Telltale's adaptations of The Walking Dead, and the worst one in A New Frontier was the betrayal of the potential established in those first two episodes. Once David entered the story as a main character, his scattershot motivation and all the expository dialogue with him ruined each opportunity to make Javier or Kate into characters I care about. Worse, the time the story has to spend on a weak character like David, and disposable implements like Jesus, Tripp and Eleanor obscures my memories of, and affection for, Clementine by making her like them. The best outcome of Season Three is that it's simply a forgettable interlude in her ongoing canon.
The Walking Dead Season 3: A New Frontier was reviewed using a pre-release Steam code provided by Telltale Games. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.About Polygon's Reviews