Late zombie mayhem and a cliffhanger conclusion can’t quite save Above the Law. The third episode of the New Frontier makes great narrative strides, but it runs too much on autopilot along the way. While the story itself is satisfying to watch--especially in how it ups the stakes for protagonist Javi Garcia--this is one of those Walking Dead episodes that’s much more of an interactive movie than an adventure game.
Like this season's first episode, Above the Law kicks things off with a flashback. This brief look into the past helps establish the leading foursome as something of an alternative family unit for the zombie apocalypse. It’s also oddly hopeful in contrast with the present, which is full of hardships and unexpected curveballs.
The themes about the importance of family ties in a world where nobody can be trusted aren’t exactly subtle here, but they work, thanks mainly to the advancement of the relationship brewing between Javi and Kate. Now that their predictable mutual attraction is finally addressed, we get to see the group dynamic shift in meaningful ways.
Seeing these events transpire is gratifying, despite feeling overly predictable. Richmond is exactly the cesspool it appears to be. Clementine returns at the most opportune moment and is every bit the pint-sized badass she was last time out. David is a serial abuser and blowhard practically begging you to steal his wife. Jesus is wise and cool. Tripp is gruff but lovable. And, yes, Above the Law features speeches from corrupt people about how you have to do whatever it takes to survive in a world where the dead walk around and eat people.
Most of the above is Walking Dead 101. Nobody will be surprised that those elements are big parts of this episode. Nonetheless, the superb quality of the script, voice acting, and animation (which is smoother and more lifelike than in previous episodes, with no jarring jerks or hiccups that have been relatively common in the past) makes everything compelling to watch even though you get the sense that the story is pretty blatantly maneuvering everyone into place.
The lack of meaningful choices proves to be the bigger sin--you might as well get some popcorn out for the first 45 minutes or so of Above the Law.
The lack of meaningful choices proves to be the bigger sin--you might as well get some popcorn out for the first 45 minutes or so of Above the Law. It’s easy to forget you’re doing anything but watching an animated movie...and then you wind up getting killed when zombies show up after the midpoint and you’re sitting back from the keyboard or with the gamepad in your lap as a spectator. A fair number of dialogue options appear in the early stages of the episode, but none of them seem to really impact the direction of the story. Most result in typical Telltale feedback like “Kate will remember that” and have no immediate effect on other characters.
The action heats up toward the end of the episode when the truth about Richmond’s leadership is revealed through a nod back to what happened to Prescott in Episode 2. Also, a handful of challenging battles with humans and zombies require multiple clicks of keys in order to avoid a chomp or shot in the face. Although the surprise of having to twitch-click your way through battles is tough to handle at first, given the lightweight first two-thirds of the game, nothing here provides any serious obstacles.
Everything concludes with a revenge-fueled fight that, while somewhat satisfying, ends in such a copycat way that it takes you right out of the game if you're familiar with the TV show. Instead of something original and natural, you get a forced (and all too familiar) scene that immediately recalls a series-famous trope. As a result, the scene is more derivative than shocking (although you’ll still need a strong stomach to endure the entire thing--at least if you go for the most extreme final stroke.)
In other words, bring on Episode 4. As much as Above the Law advances A New Frontier’s narrative and sets up what will inevitably be a chaotic battle for Richmond, there just isn’t enough to do this time around. Telltale’s Walking Dead series always treads the line between interactive fiction and adventure game, but here the whole production tips over the edge to the point where you feel like you’re watching a movie. Granted, it’s a pretty good movie. It’s filled with realistic characters, intense scenes, and some of the most brutal violence depicted in the franchise thus far. But it’s essentially a movie nonetheless, with too many compromises made to manipulate the plot and characters into position for the upcoming finale.