Overkill, the makers of Payday, have released their own mediocre co-op zombie survival shooter experience. Overkill’s The Walking Dead hasn’t improved much since the beta, and doesn’t bring anything new to the zombie survival genre.
OTWD is pretty, but doesn’t do anything that we haven’t seen before in a number of other post-apocalyptic first- or third-person games. As a city, DC has a lot of character, but you get very little of that in TWD. Fallout 3’s Capital Wasteland managed to evoke pathos and sadness for the vaporized American Dream, but OTWD’s dreary, same-ish maps have none of that. I would’ve killed a hundred walkers for a single scene of the four main characters staring at the Washington Monument in the distance, talking about their lives before, wondering how it all went wrong.
Worse still, levels are repurposed for multiple missions, reminding me of Dragon Age 2 in the worst possible way. For a $60 AAA title, there’s a surprising amount of repurposed content in this game.
As a big fan of the original Left 4 Dead series, I was hoping that this game would fill the hole in my heart where Telltale’s epic series used to be. But no such luck. The narrative attempts to be yet another gritty tale of survival, but leans on exhausted cliches.
The story, which centers around a camp of survivors, is told almost exclusively through dull still image montages with voice over performances from a single actor who does a lousy job. These cut scenes precede missions where you steal a water purifier back, steal a radio, scout a location, lather, rinse, repeat. There’s no sense of drama, tension, or stakes. You have no investment in the characters or their lives.
There’s very little banter, humor, or personality between the characters - and a little of that goes a long way. What L4D fan doesn’t remember how Francis hates everything, or the sexual tension between Louis and Zoey, or the hilarity of the endless Ellis and Coach one-liners? OTWD gives us none of that.
Overkill seemed to promise a plotline for each character with lush, pre-release YouTube videos, but we see none of that. Characters are distinguished by their skills, but there appears to be no individual stories whatsoever.
A few hours in, a key playable character gets killed in one of those cutscenes and all I could do was shrug. It’s 2018, not 1997; killing a playable character isn’t innovative anymore. The slain character is replaced immediately with another character with the exact same stats and abilities, removing any mechanical weight from the loss.
The story isn’t unpleasant or offensive, just a dull mayonnaise sandwich. Why would you eat it if there’s anything else available?
OTWD is a multiplayer co-op shooter. Core gameplay hasn’t changed much since the beta, (you can check out our coverage here). Unfortunately, what felt thrilling during the beta gets very old five to ten hours into the main game.
The gameplay breaks down into three basic forms. The first is a basic wave-clearing mode that requires you to protect your camp from waves of enemies. Walkers bash down your camp’s gates and you have to kill them and seal the gates up again. This game mode is fun the first five or six times you play it, but it gets old fast. You get to do this game mode again later with human enemies that attempt to break into your camp and either attempt to steal supplies or blow the place up by setting bombs. The enemy AI is pretty stupid and this game mode starts to feel like a chore even more quickly than the zombie version.
The second is linear missions that require you and your allies to sneak through DC killing walkers and rival survivors. During these missions, you explore areas of the city, searching for camp supplies, weapons, weapon mods, and other equipment that will keep your camp running and make you more effective in combat.
The game incorporates a noise meter that slowly fills the more often you use unsilenced firearms. If you fill the meter three times, the horde arrives, and zombies spill out of every available building.
This is a cool mechanic, but the accompanying stealth mechanics are pretty weak. It’s not always clear who can see you and how. I’ve played these types of missions for hours and I’ve never been able to complete a single one without getting into multiple gunfights with enemy survivors. Also, enemy survivors fire off their guns with wild abandon, completely unconcerned with alerting the undead hordes. It’d be much more interesting if they started going cat and mouse on you with melee weapons.
Missions often end with your buddy pulling up in a red truck to extract you. He’s always across the map from your location. You have to get to him, but the level is always filled with zombies by this point. This could be a thrilling run to safety, but instead usually ends up with one or two isolated survivors standing on something tall, waiting for dead players to respawn. Zombies stare at you fecklessly, making you think of the final, frenetic chapters of every chapter of L4D, and how much more fun those games were.
While it doesn’t seem to affect the stealth system, characters have a tendency to scream at the most inopportune times. Nearby zombies don’t hear your character scream “WE NEED A CHEM KIT OVER HERE!” but they will hear you thwack a machete through a skull from 15 feet away. It is immersion breaking and sloppy design, especially since there are whispered versions of the same vocal barks - the game just doesn’t seem to know when to play them.
OTWD seems to want to emphasize realism, but zombies smash open doors to endless black voids which vomit forth endless hordes of the undead. You can’t close the door, barricade it, or go through it to see where the zombies are coming from. There’s just an inaccessible void full of the undead. This dumb gameplay element shatters any suspension of disbelief.
These zombie voids are even more frustrating during the wave horde missions. Big double doors inside your base swing open and zombies pour out, but I’m not allowed to close and barricade these doors, but I have to close the three main gates in order to win the mission. Why? It shatters my suspension of disbelief. Not every game needs verisimilitude, but OTWD wants to be a realistic zombie apocalypse simulator, but also demands that I ignore the door in my base that opens into an endless interdimensional zombie void. Sorry, but no.
The last gameplay element is camp management. You assign NPC survivors to missions in exchange for resources, and hope they don’t die while in the field. You can also assign them to camp facilities that provide mechanical bonuses in combat. This all feels rote, and in the face of epic survival sims like Frostpunk, this management aspect feels half-baked. Camp facility assignments don’t seem to do much, so you just end up taking survivors off of them to do missions, and you assign each one to the proper role. The key to every management simulation is that it forces you to make hard decisions between two paths. Is it worth it to put Mike the sniper on a field mission or should we keep him at home to defend the base? If we do one and not the other, something changes. Not so in OTWD.
You can also upgrade your camp to improve its facilities, but this mainly serves as a resource speed bump to progressing through your survivor’s advancement tree. A long range radio doesn’t open up anything but the ability to buy new, minor abilities for your survivor characters. Developing your camp doesn’t feel like surmounting an obstacle and recreating society so much as dealing with a design flaw.
The survivors start off weak and slow. A few swings of a machete or bat tire them out and a quick sprint leaves them huffing and puffing. These aren’t L4D2 protagonists who can swing an axe all day or sprint for miles. These are normal people in a bad situation, and they play that way. They feel heavy, weak, and vulnerable. OTWD is a lot of things, but it’s not a power fantasy.
Every character has a unique, class-specific skill tree and a tree of core abilities. The core abilities are identical for every character but need to be leveled up individually. If you buy the stamina increase for Maya, it does not apply to Aidan. That choice isn’t inherently wrong, but it’s not exciting to buy the same upgrades four times.
Also, most of the class-specific trees don’t really give you new things to do so much as improve the things you do already. This is okay, but given the advancement systems seen in games like Horizon Zero Dawn and Shadow of War, it’d be great to buy new abilities for your characters. What if the scout was able to chain stealth kills together? Or what if the tank could draw aggro without firing guns and increasing the noise meter?
The advancement system feels like something from the mid-2000s. The AI, the gameplay, the camp management all feel old. OTWD had a four year development process and doesn’t seem to take into account any of the innovations that happened in gaming during that time.
“Your class ability is 10% better” and “Your machete is 10% more effective.” are not exciting advancements. And since OTWD is a cooperative shooter, you don’t have to worry as much about balancing abilities against each other. If you happen to get grouped with XMikeX77, the level 40 mega tank, great! He’s on your side! And it’s not like there are human opponents that are going to have to counter his OP baseball bat combo.
Then again, there are some characters that are distinctly better than others, and those definitely get played more.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the TWD universe is the fact that everyone is infected. A bite isn’t necessary for undead resurrection. If you die of a gunshot wound to the chest, you’re coming back as a zombie. Bled out from a knife wound to the leg? Zombie. Drowned? Zombie. Died of exposure? Zombie.
It would have been tremendous fun to give us the option to choke out a human guard or stab him in the back and leave him somewhere to turn and wreak havoc inside his own HQ. Heck, they’ve done it in the show. As a TWD deep nerd, this was really disappointing to me.
The game’s slogan is “think, fight, live” but the game gives you little room to outthink its obstacles. The levels are very linear, and play out more or less the same every time. A more open environment could’ve allowed you greater latitude for dealing with obstacles. What if we could route walker herds around the block, away from our team, or toward the enemy base, forcing them to deal with them? What if we were able to choose between going slow and using a generator to power up a forklift to open a locked gate or go loud with a stick of dynamite?
Where you can and cannot go is never strictly clear in OTWD. And when you’re being chased by walkers, that’s life or death information. Some debris you can climb over and stand on top of to avoid zombies. Some you can’t. You can’t, for some reason, climb a chain link fence. Yes, a lot of them have razor wire at the top, but I’d take laceration over mastication any day.
I wanted to get as much game time in as I could before judging OTWD. I kept playing it hoping I would start to like it. I wanted OTWD to be a gritty evolution of the L4D format, and instead I got yesteryear’s co-op survival shooter with poorly implemented stealth elements. It’s aggressively average, and I can’t recommend it for the $60 purchase price. According to Steam Chats, L4D2 actually has twice the average player base as OTWD (6000 vs 3000). Even though it’s comparatively ancient, I never have to wait for an L4D2 game. I’m at the 10th mission of OTWD, a week after release, and I already can’t find anyone to play with.