Promising a fresh take on the Left 4 Dead formula, with a sprinkling of Payday and the backdrop of the ever popular The Walking Dead series, I thought there wasn’t a lot to get wrong in Overkill’s The Walking Dead (OTWD). It would seem I was mistaken.
The typical mission structure follows a blend between the Left 4 Dead and Payday formula. Players are tasked with travelling through an overrun city and must collect various supplies and items, while also defending themselves from – sometimes with a strong offence – a rival faction called the Family. The game revolves around balancing progression, aggression and stealth, but the implementation of these styles often means they often end up tripping over one another.
It all begins with a base defence mission, in which myself and three other players had to fortify the defences in our immediate area while fighting back enemy hordes of zombies. It wasn’t immediately obvious to me, as the multiplayer lobby system had decided to spawn me into a game instantly – server issues were common within the first few days and still happen on the odd occasion now.
The base defence doesn’t offer anything new over the numerous times we’ve seen before and I felt it served as a really poor introduction to the game. You have to balance rebuilding a number of barriers while defending themselves and the rest of team from an onslaught of zombies. The durability of these barricades is often laughable with zombies knocking down barriers just after I’d rebuilt them – in the end I found it easier to focus my efforts on killing zombies. I also experienced a number of glitches that stopped me from rebuilding defences, even though I had the necessary materials.
It soon moves on from this to more dynamic levels. You have to try to progress through each level without making noise, avoiding falling into traps, triggering alarms and firing your guns, as too much noise brings a zombie horde down on you. The stealth system can feel a bit pointless at times, as several levels push you into a number of close-quarter gunfights, essentially forcing you to play loudly and attracting those zombies. Enemy gunfire also builds the noise meter, so players are forced to play aggressively in order limit the amount of noise the rival faction makes. It’s essentially a difficulty timer; take too long to reach the end of the level and the game will punish you.
That works conceptually, but the problem is that the enemy AI has pinpoint accuracy and, once one enemy in an area has been alerted, the entire group is suddenly away of your exact location. A constant barrage of incredibly accurate gunfire converges on your location, which also happens to alert the zombie hordes scattered across the level. This coupled with a stealth mechanic that often doesn’t work particularly well makes for a gaming experience that is far more frustrating than it is fun.
Where Left 4 Dead punished players for failing to work as a team and reacted naturally to the decisions made in-game, I found that OTWD rarely encourages teamwork between strangers – obviously playing with friends is going to provide the best experience. This can be boiled down to the fact that there is no in-game voice chat. Text chat can work during the quieter moments, but no one has the time to write down instructions during a scuffle. A rudimentary marking system is present, but it was never pointed out to me.
The best examples of teamwork revolved around simply reviving one another when downed, or huddling round and defending teammates tasked with fixing devices in order to progress – this often revolves around players wandering around a small area until they find all the correct items. There’s no moment-to-moment teamwork, because voice chat isn’t there. I understand that people can set up their own chats in third-party apps, but that’s rarely going to happen outside an established group of friends.
An RPG-like levelling system adds depth to each of the game’s four characters, with each one having their own special abilities, but it’s been used as a way to pad the game out. I’ve seen a number of people online stating that Overkill’s the Walking Dead is a lot easier once your character has levelled up, but this means replaying a number of the earlier missions in order to get over the currently unreasonable difficulty curve.
A rudimentary loot system has been added as a carrot to replay previous missions at a higher difficulty level in order to unlock more powerful gear – a staple of the Payday games – but the overly floaty guns and sluggish and repetitive melee combat meant that I never felt that I wanted to chase more powerful weapons. As someone who plays a lot of Destiny, you can’t implement a loot system if the weapons you’re dangling in front of the player aren’t actually fun to fire.
Payday’s design mentality also bleed over into a lack of checkpointing. There are checkpoints in single player, though I was often respawned at the start of the mission and had to travel back to where I died, but there’s none to be found online. The length of the missions coupled with the unfair AI often meant that 30 to 40 minutes of gameplay could be wiped out if the whole team went down. That’s a really big problem when considering that the server would occasionally kick me from the game for no apparent reason.
There are some nice ideas present in OTWD though. An ongoing meta camp game present outside of story missions is an excellent addition. Players must collect supplies to take back to camp, which includes water, food, medicine and other provisions. It feels similar to Metal Gear Solid V’s Mother Base feature and it’s a nice touch that fits not only with the lore of the Walking Dead universe, but also makes a lot of sense in a game so rooted in survival.
Unfortunately, the survivors in camp are nothing more than one dimensional avatars spouting generic one liners. It’s really a shame as this could have been an excellent vessel for added narrative clout or even a brilliant way of tapping into The Walking Dead lore. Just like the one-line spouting avatars, the rest of the presentation on offer here just feels very flat? Environments are muddy and brown, characters lack any real motivation, and the sound design leaves a lot to be desired.
Overkill’s The Walking Dead even falls short in the use of its license. The story is told through short CGI cutscenes spread between each of the missions and there are a number of lore-specific items dotted around each of the maps. There is very little dialogue during missions – other than the phrases that characters keep on repeating – and the links back to The Walking Dead honestly feels very loose.
Overkill’s The Walking Dead could have been something special, but it finds itself dragged down by poorly implemented and designed systems. There’s flashes of what could have been, and there’s a chance that Starbreeze will turn this game around in the coming months to rebuild from a poor launch, but as it stands I couldn’t even recommend this game to the most hardcore of The Walking Dead fans.