Guts, glory, and frustration in Overkill’s The Walking Dead beta

This past weekend, Overkill launched The Walking Dead’s (OTWD) second beta weekend, and we got to give it a try. It has two missions and four survivors, and a pretty deep progression system.

In case you were wondering, OTWD has almost nothing to do with the show, or the Telltale game series you’ve probably heard about recently. While set in Robert Kirkman’s TWD universe, it’s its own beast entirely. Everything about this version of TWD feels vicious and desperate. Whereas its precursor, Left 4 Dead 2 indulged in camp and humor, this game lunges face-first into grim desperation. You’re weak and vulnerable, the swarms of walkers are nigh-endless, bullets hurt, and death hides behind every corner. If you’re looking for a truly hardcore experience, this is it.

WALKERS!

This game is full of slow zombies that only go down with a headshot, in true TWD style. If your aim is true, a single bullet will do. There are melee weapons as well, which usually take two shots to kill a walker. You also have a melee stamina gauge, a la Dead Island, so don’t expect to stand in a doorway and go kill crazy on zombies like you did in L4D2.

However, multiple skilled survivors working together can kill quite a few zombies by melee attacking and falling back. The game desperately needs an aiming reticle for melee weapons, so we can aim for the head and do more damage. Right now, players have to sort of generally aim high and hope for the best, which doesn’t allow for the sort of precision that you can attempt with firearms.

Different melee weapons also work differently on walkers. A baseball bat attacks more slowly but is more likely to stumble walkers, while an iron machete is fast and is more likely to dismember them. (These are actually measurable stats you can look up while kitting out your characters.)

If a zombie gets close enough to get its hands on you, it grabs you. You then have the option to kill it or shove it away. If you choose to kill the zombie, you left click and your character stabs the zombie in the head, trying to land a kill. Chances are, your first hit won’t kill it, and your character aimed low. You have to push the mouse up and click again to hit it in the head or cheek, which will kill it. If you do it fast, you will minimize the amount of health lost from getting grabbed. If you screw up, killing the walker takes longer and costs you extra health.

If you choose to shove the walker, you get it off of you immediately, but at a large cost to your health, and the zombie is alive, and will eventually get up and try to kill you again. You can choose the “shove” option when you’re being swarmed by walkers, because if another walker grabs you, they will drag you to the ground and one of your teammates will need to kill the walkers attacking you and revive you. Also, if you’re very low on health when a zombie grabs you, you may go down instantly.

This creates a tense choice every time you’re attacked. Getting grabbed costs health either way, but shoving the zombie will cost you more. However, it may keep you alive. Killing zombies takes time, which you may not be able to spare in the midst of a swarm.

If you sneak up on a zombie, you can stealth kill it in a single quick blow, at no cost to your health. If you’re lucky, and your teammates’ fire has drawn a horde that you can sneak behind, you can land several stealth kills. 

Survivors also have to deal with special infected like bloaters and armored zombies. When you get close to bloaters, they fall over and burst, spraying you with viscous brown goo that obscures your vision. They also create a goo area that slows you down if you try to move through it, but doesn’t inhibit walkers at all. As a bonus, if you kill them from afar, they explode, killing all the walkers around them.

Armored zombies are wearing riot gear, and require several blows or bullets to the head to knock off their headgear so you can kill them. You also can’t kill them if they grab you, and can only shove them away. These enemies don’t make as much of an impact as the special infected of L4D2, but they help change up the pacing a bit.

Health is limited, with some regeneration. Most characters have three bars of health. If you’re shot or injured by a zombie, your health drops. If you still have any portion of a bar left, and you can avoid damage for a little while, you will regenerate the rest of that bar, but any bars that are fully lost stay gone unless you use healing items.

You can be incapacitated twice. If you go down a third time, you will die immediately. Each time you die, your respawn timer increases. Wise players facing bad odds can fall back and wait for their teammates to respawn. The game respawns you directly next to one of your teammates, which can thrust you into a difficult situation. This lets you provide immediate backup, but it can also get you grabbed right away, costing you precious health. I wish I could see where I was going to spawn in order to better prepare myself.

Note, you can’t injure your fellow teammates, which I’m greatly thankful for. This game is hard enough without an easy way to grief your teammates.

Gameplay

You play one of four survivors working for a guy named Anderson, who is running a survivor camp in Washington, DC. You get threatened by raiders called The Family. Your leader tells them to take a long walk off a short pier, and they send a herd of walkers to attack your camp (a time-honored TWD tradition). The first mission is a horde mode; waves of walkers smash down your gates and you have to kill them, repair the gates, and shut them.

The designers put a lot of thought into this map. There are three buildings with a central, open courtyard area with ammo, bandages, and wooden planks (essential for gate repair) spread throughout. The map is designed so that survivors can temporarily outrun zombies as they flood into the yard, run into buildings to fetch ammo, and then run out through the back door with zombies hot on your heels. The experience of looking for just a few more bullets and boards in this level feels maze-like and harrowing. The camp has three gates, and walkers slam each one down during each wave. If all three gates open, you have a minute to get at least one closed or you fail the mission immediately.

Map knowledge is essential, because re-arming and grabbing boards is key to surviving this level. It takes a few tries, but you can get familiar pretty quickly. I wish that the game told you when equipment was a level above or below you. I’ve run into the wrong area a few times, hoping to find ammo, but it turns out it was up a flight of stairs that I was now separated from by a pack of walkers.

Closing gates requires that you repair each side of the open gate, and then barricade the center. This requires three planks and survivors can only carry two each, and zombies are flooding in while you’re trying to make the necessary repairs. Teamwork is critical because zombies can and will grab you while you’re trying to get the gate closed.

You can’t run outside of the camp though, which was disappointing. It’d be terrific if one brave / suicidal survivor could run out and lure the walkers away so the rest of the team could get the repairs made, and then is stuck outside for the duration of the mission.

This mission occasionally lurches away from gritty realism though. There’s a doorway in one of the buildings that pops open about midway through the mission, and some walkers flow out. You can’t close this doorway or repair it, nor can you pass through it to another part of the map. It’s just a black rectangle with in invisible wall in front of it that occasionally spawns zombies. It makes the level more unpredictable, which is cool, but for a game that spends so much time feeling gritty and realistic, this seems odd.

After the dust settles, you find out that The Family has stolen your water purifier, and you have  to sneak through an infested DC neighborhood to get it back. This is an interesting mix of stealth gameplay, FPS action, and scavenging. The game’s promise, as well as its flaws, shine through in this mission.

Digging through buildings, searching for mission critical items and supplies feels great. You’re moving as fast as you can while being as quiet as possible, searching for the gear you’ll need to complete your mission. You don’t start with much gear, so getting crafting supplies that let you create bandages, molotovs, and other survival items is key.

This level feels like DC, which is great, but it’s disappointingly linear. While the game randomizes certain puzzle elements, you’re mostly taking the same route through the neighborhood every time. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s easy.

This mission introduces the noise mechanic. There’s a noise meter in your HUD, and if you start firing unsilenced guns, that meter will go up. Once it fills, one pip on the noise meter is filled in, and the meter empties. If you fill all three pips, the horde arrives, and the level will be flooded by walkers constantly, making success much more unlikely.

I like this mechanic, but it needs to be paired with better stealth mechanics when dealing with human enemies. I played this mission multiple times, and no group I was with was ever able to sneak past the first group of human enemies. This meant that we ended up in a gun fight every time, which means that we almost always triggered the herd’s arrival by the end of the mission.

Human enemy AI also feels weak sometimes. You can flank an enemy and shoot them, but even if you only pop them once and they don’t die, they don’t adjust their positioning and return fire because they’re so focused on your teammates.

That being said, once they’ve drawn a bead on you, they fire at you mercilessly. None of this “Oh wait, hold up, playability!” stuff that Call of Duty AI enemies do in the single player campaign. If you are out in the open and human enemies see you, they’re going to shoot at you until you’re dead or under cover again.

I was really hoping that I would be able to shoot enemy humans in the chest, and then watch them reanimate and attack their friends. In the TWD universe, everyone is already infected, so if you don’t die via grievous head wound, you’re coming back. However, that didn’t seem to hold true in OTWD much to my disappointment.

Killing enemies only nets you a bullet or two, but the enemy seems to be able to fire at you nigh-infinitely. You also can’t pick up their weapons. I was completely out of shotgun shells at one point, and would’ve loved to scavenge one of the enemy’s AK-47, but the game didn’t let me. Again, if you’re going to push realism, go all the way.

This applies to character movement as well. In one section, there are knee high hedges I can’t jump over. There are also small spaces I can’t scramble through. I get that Overkill wasn’t trying to remake Dying Light (plus parkour makes slow zombies pretty unthreatening). But players need to be able to look at their environment and know what to do. Nothing’s worse than running towards an area that you think is an easy escape to find that you are stuck in a dead end.

Successfully completing a mission nets you crafting parts and character XP. Failing a mission gives you nearly nothing, which is a little bit of a disappointment; especially given that these missions can be very long.

Characters & Progression

In OTWD, you play as one of four survivors, each with different traits and abilities. Aidan, the tank, has more health than other characters and gets a flashbang that stuns zombies. Heather, the scout, is better at spotting traps and gear, and gets a smoke grenade. Maya, the support, is better at reviving people and can drop a med bag that folks can use to heal. Grant can call out enemies’ presence, which increases the team’s damage against that enemy, and he can fling molotovs at walkers and people alike.

Character progression is broken into two trees - core abilities and character abilities. Core abilities improve your general abilities like starting ammo amounts, total health, melee combat ability, and carry capacity for crafting items. Character specific trees improve specific character class abilities and attributes. I wasn’t able to get any of these abilities during my game time, but a few of them will help address the fact that base survivors seems like out of shape cubicle mice with very, very small pockets.

Progression seems a bit slow, and part of this is due to the fact that you just don’t get much if you don’t succeed at a mission. I’m hoping the final game tunes this a bit. Also, since this is a cooperative game, a higher level player can still play with a lower level player who hasn’t unlocked as many advanced abilities. The game is hard enough that seeing XSteveX449 who plays this game 12 hours a day and has everything unlocked will be a relief.

You can switch out their weapons for any loadout you like, but each character has a tree of weapon bonuses for their specific starting gear. For example, Aidan starts with a shotgun and baseball bat, and if he invests in his character-specific weapon progression tree, he will always be better with that weapon than other characters.

Character progression is also tied to the level of your camp. You can spend crafting supplies to improve your camp, which unlocks more progression for your characters and improves the camp’s facilities.

Camp management is also a mini-game. You can create a building for each survivor that improves their efficacy while on missions. You station survivor NPCs in these buildings - the more survivors you station there, the better the building works. You can also send those NPCs out on field missions; if they succeed, you receive crafting parts.

I was hoping to see a little bit more of each individual character’s story, especially since there was such a strong emphasis on it in earlier teaser videos and background information, but hey, it’s a beta.

There are a limited number of vocal barks and callouts for each character, and I’m hoping that Overkill adds more for the final game, because it gets exhausting hearing the same voice lines over and over. That being said, Grant sounds like a crazy old man in every vocal bark, and I love it. When you pick up planks of wood, he ecstatically growls, “I CAN UUUUUSE THIS!” He responds to 2x4s the way most survivors might respond to a fully gassed-up chainsaw.

Walk on

OTWD is a harrowing, occasionally frustrating experience that shows a great deal of promise. If you preorder now, there’s one more closed beta weekend on October 19-22, and Overkill promises new content.