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Review: The Walking Dead: A New Frontier: Ties That Bind

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A New Hope

For many people, a major family crisis can feel like the end of the world. Everything you know is falling apart, and you don't know if you'll ever make it to the other side. To juxtapose these conflicts against the literal apocalypse may seem a little on-the-nose, but crafting a strong relationship between the micro and the macro is what good storytelling is about.

That summarizes The Walking Dead: A New Frontier's two-part opener, Ties That Bind, fairly well, I think. It never loses sight of its characters, using drama to propel development and development to propel drama, as it should be. After The Walking Dead's disappointing second season, one that regularly mistook surface-level drama for long-term character development, it's refreshing to see the series back on track.

A New Frontier plays with the established Walking Dead tropes to great effect, especially if you're either a long-term or lapsed fan of the franchise. By the end of episode two, I was hooked, although there's still plenty of time for the season to falter -- I remember being similarly charmed by season two's premiere, and look how that turned out. But Ties That Bind is a stronger mission statement than anything we've seen in the last full season; for me, that's enough.

The Walking Dead: A New Frontier (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One, iOS, Android)
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Released: December 20, 2016
MSRP: $24.99

Although Clementine is back from the previous Walking Dead seasons, A New Frontier has a new playable character, Javier -- or "Javi," as he prefers to be called. The game opens right before the world realized the jig was up, with Javi rushing home for a family emergency and coming up short. His father has just passed away, and since this is a work of fiction with zombies in it, you can probably guess what happens next. But even though savvier players will be able to see the endpoint from the word go, the sequence is directed very well, making use of a free camera and untethered lighting. Some flair is exactly what this story needs, and it makes for a strong hook.

Ties That Bind's clever use of flashbacks keeps that momentum going even after the first title card and the first zombie shows up. Javi has the aforementioned father incident and a romantically tense scene with his brother's wife, Kate, all set before or very close to the apocalypse. Conversely, a much older Clementine is shown in the aftermath of season two, trying to raise the orphan AJ. It makes sense to show players what happened in between the Kenny Incident and her first meeting with Javi, if only to keep the audience up to speed, but of course you wouldn't show Clementine before the dead rose -- her formative years happened during the apocalypse.

This is further proof that A New Frontier understands character-motivated storytelling; in a lesser game, flashbacks would be a narrative crutch used in place of present-day character development, but here they inform current events on both a plot and character level. When a character "remembers that" in the past, you can be sure it will affect something in the future. It's the next level of gamified cause-and-effect, the choice-based gameplay pioneered by Telltale's first Walking Dead game.

Even though it's clear A New Frontier understand its characters, I was concerned about the game's plot. There's a small group of survivors (and one of them is a moody teen), a vaguely organized gang of violent murderers with both a logo and a catchy name, a community where the group of survivors thinks they'll be safe, until -- uh-oh! -- the murderers show up and start murdering. Hell, there's a character who looks and sounds like a heavier Kenny. The definition of insanity, et al. My only question was if the main bad guy would look more like The Governor or Negan.

But the longer it went, the more the game slowly upended my expectations. The group of survivors was Javi's family, so they already had a relationship and their bickering is toned down as a result. The moody teen is aware on some level that his bad moods aren't normal. A few of the violent murderers are less "violent murderers" and more "overly defensive but still a little reasonable." It's all very familiar, but the game takes what works about those clichés and tones down what doesn't.

Clementine also works, thank God. I was concerned we'd have a second case of diminishing returns, but she has a part to play in the larger story, and manages to split the difference between the hardasses and the more trusting survivors. Telltale claims that your Clementine will be shaped by a pre-game choice generator or imported save games from the first two seasons, but in my experience she's just different shades of "tough survivor with a softer interior."

My favorite story beats in Ties That Bind are unquestionably classified as spoilers, but they all spring from the same place: drama motivated by logical character action. Javi and the gang are proactive and well-defined, which makes their struggle to survive all the more compelling. If the first two episodes are any indication, A New Frontier will be a worthy follow-up to The Walking Dead, even if there's no chance it will be quite as revolutionary.

[This review is based on a pre-release build provided by the publisher and a screening held in Los Angeles, CA]

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The Walking Dead: A New Frontier: Ties That Bind reviewed by Mike Cosimano

8.5

GREAT

Impressive effort with a few noticeable problems holding it back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.
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Mike Cosimano
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