Developed by Payday and Payday 2 creators Overkill Software and published by parent company Starbreeze, Overkill's The Walking Dead tries putting the Swedish studios on the map of the once popular zombie shooter genre, but how well have they pulled it off?
The zombie-killing co-op experience has been well explored by various developers by now and it's clear that said experience has been somewhat played out. Overkill, however, grabbed the torch from former episodic narrative giant Telltale Games to make a game based in the Walking Dead universe. Unlike the heartwrenching Telltale series, Overkill leans less on narrative and consequence and more on cooperative gameplay. A new take on the Walking Dead's video game legacy, but it's a familiar experience that channels the feel of other, more stable experiences we've learned to love or at least enjoy. Left 4 Dead and Dead Island, as well as Techland's later game Dying Light, come to mind, although it closer to the former in terms of mission structure.
The game follows four survivors in a zombie-infested Washington D.C., with Grant, Maya, Aiden, and Heather being the already unlocked characters, all playable and all sporting a different set of skills and weapons. No major comic characters for the fans to recognise, then. Each of the characters is upgradeable after finishing a mission but not in the hub (which is really odd). Instead, you have to go back to the main menu where you can upgrade class as well as core skills. The different skill sets and weapon combinations need to be well utilised if you're to survive in the four-player co-op missions and to get through even the first level is surprisingly tough. Not being able to get a whole group together for our first session, yours truly hopped into a game with three random players online. Worth noting is the fact that there isn't really a viable way to opt out of the co-op aspect as you either have to go up against the horde with other players or go at it alone with nothing but useless AI to help out (and we do not recommend the latter).
With the scene set, it's time to jump into the action. With no instructions whatsoever, we were dropped into the game's hub area where you can get ready for a mission and regroup after, picking up rewards for a job well done. We had a look around, and it actually took us a while to work out what we were supposed to do to actually begin a mission, to the frustration of our teammates no doubt, but after running around aimlessly for a while and talking to characters who didn't give us much information, we found a green, animated square by a gate and quickly found out that standing on it triggered the mission to start.
The missions are close in design to those of genre classic Left 4 Dead and put you and your squad through challenges, not only regarding differing objectives and hordes of undead, but also an enemy faction called The Family. These human enemies hand the players more problems than one might think too since there's a sound meter to worry about in the game. As the meter goes up, more zombies are attracted to your location, sending more enemies to your location in turn. And it's not just your guns that make noise as players have to take the human enemies out, preferably in a stealthy manner with either Heather's crossbow or melee weapons, to make for a smoother way through the missions.
These missions are all map-based, as there's no open world concept here. You start at one point and end at another, take on a new mission and do the same on a different map. The dark streets of D.C. don't differ too much from each other in terms of the overall visuals; it's grey, broken concrete buildings and streets filled with equally grey (less concrete) undead hordes with occasional rays of sunlight shining upon them. As for the objectives, there are some fun ones to experience, and there's everything from simple "go there, do that" missions to puzzle-like combinations where players need to figure out how to proceed.
If a player goes down, they can get picked up and healed by support character Maya, but if the entire team goes down (which is definitely going to happen, considering how challenging the game actually is and with the lack of information new players are handed when getting into the game) you have to start the mission all over again, no matter how close to the exit the team is at the time of death. Some of the levels are pretty lengthy as well, so a good team, a good loadout, and communication is key to said team's survival. The melee and gunplay is generally very generic feeling, gunplay being the more satisfying of the two, but with the stealth mechanic so well integrated, it's best not to use too much firepower. Ammunition is also very sparse, making for another reason to use your upgradable, moddable melee weapons.
Sadly, this instalment in the Walking Dead franchise feels very repetitive. Even though the mission objectives differ, most of them are very robotic and stiff in terms of their structure. Slice, bash, heal a teammate, power up a generator and survive or die. Combat never feels interesting and the story certainly isn't the focus of the game. It's straightforward for a survival game with very little tying it to the fiction surrounding the comics (or rest of the franchise for that matter). As for other issues, the servers are somewhat unstable, kicking players frequently when joining or starting a mission. Loading times are also quite frustratingly long, and a minute (sometimes two) can go by with a static photo of a zombie flashing on the screen as you contemplate pulling your hair out.
All of that being said though, if you have a full squad and you're ready for some simple zombie-slaying co-op adventures, Overkill's The Walking Dead can be quite fun. Just don't get scared off by the frustrating first mission or the loading times.