Despite appearances and obvious inspirations, Overkill's The Walking Dead often doesn't feel like a shooter at all. It takes the rules established by Robert Kirkman's comic series and its subsequent TV adaptation to heart in the wrong ways, imposing unbalanced rules on its missions that heavily restrict how you're able to play. Combined with a dizzying assortment of survival mechanics buried in unintuitive menus, meaningless customization options, and non-existent incentives to improve your gear, The Walking Dead feels unrefined and unfocused.
This iteration of The Walking Dead features a new cast of characters and little to no ties to the rest of the series' mythos. It's set in the heart of Washington D.C. as you establish a camp and attempt to survive as one of four playable characters. These characters are borderline lifeless, with no real stories of their own aside from previously released promotional material. Nothing about their personalities materializes through the game's story, and neither do stories between survivors within your own camp. The Walking Dead forces you to engage with your camp and its inhabitants between missions but gives you absolutely nothing to do or say to them, which makes it a struggle to care about their fates at all.
The overarching story is equally thin on details, with only slideshow animations and voiceovers providing context for each of your missions. The voice acting is monotone and dreary, the writing vague and uninteresting, merely existing only to give veiled purpose to the missions they precede without weaving a captivating story through them. Overkill plans to add more story content in the form of seasons, but its heartless premiere doesn't instill much confidence for where this story might go in the future.
In action, The Walking Dead presents itself as a first-person shooter, with the familiar trappings of cooperative play that games like Left 4 Dead and Payday successfully capture. But even though you might be equipped with two firearms and a melee weapon, The Walking Dead only encourages the use of the latter. Each main mission bears a meter that fills up whenever you make noise. Firing a weapon, triggering one of the many near-impossible-to-see traps, and even unavoidable enemy actions all contribute to this, and eventually summons waves of undead enemies towards you without reprieve.
The strength and scale of these waves is determined by one of three tiers that the meter bears, with each tier pushing you further towards insurmountable odds of failure. In fact, simply hitting the first tier makes most missions too difficult to continue, as the constantly spawning enemies can clutter the narrow linear walkways of most mission areas to the point of comedy. It's not uncommon to see doorways entirely blocked by hundreds of enemies, forcing you and your team to mindlessly chip away at the crowd only to have the same issue arise at the next chokepoint. It's wildly unbalanced and overly punishing, making most missions tediously long and frustrating.
Missions are diluted into more stealthy affairs as a result, which can be mildly entertaining when you're working closely with teammates. As part of a well-organized team you can keep noise to a minimum and circumvent enemies entirely, but it usually only takes one player not sticking to the script to ruin a run. Making matters worse, there's no support for voice chat in-game nor any other ways to communicate aside from text chat.
If The Walking Dead didn't make it feel mandatory to play with other people, this might not be as big of a problem as it seems. Missions are unnecessarily difficult to begin with but borderline impossible to play alone. The number of enemies doesn't scale and mission objectives don't change based on party size, making even early easy missions a chore to slog through without friends in tow. This is exacerbated by unreliable matchmaking; it's tough to find matches with other players currently, which can bring your progress through the game's story to a complete halt until you manage to find others to play with.
Even when you've overcome the technical hurdles of matchmaking and unnecessary difficulty spikes, The Walking Dead is just not engaging to play. Its missions all follow identical designs, populated by scores of undead enemies and sparse camps of armed human foes. You'll have to fight or avoid a group based on your strategy, then hunt for objects around the area to solve simple puzzles to progress. These puzzles never change beyond hunting down specific items and bringing them back to a location and are used as a poor method of pacing that just adds tedium to every mission. There are also no objective markers or other indications that would make these items easier to find, adding to the unnecessary frustration as you attempt to hunt down a single electrical fuse while enemies continually spawn around you.
In between standard story missions are simplistic wave-based survival modes where you'll have to fend off humans or the undead back at your home camp. This is the only mission type where you're free to work with the weapons you've unlocked, as noise isn't a factor. Gunplay emphasizes headshots, especially against zombie foes, and it can be exhilarating to pull off a string of them to down a small horde in no time. Outside of that, gunplay is mostly unremarkable, as are the weapons you'll find along the way. You're able to customize them with modifications, increasing range, damage, stability, and an abstract power value. These stats feel superfluous, and The Walking Dead never feeds them into its gameplay in a tangible way. It makes your starting weapons feel as effective as ones you've collected 10 hours in, which just makes the hunt for better loot meaningless.
The same can be said for the four playable characters. Each one has a unique gameplay mechanic, be it the ability to deploy medical kits for healing or flashbangs to blind enemies. Beyond physical items, each character also has their own unique skill tree that feeds into their type of playstyle. Aidan, who I spent most of my time playing, has skills that increase the amount of damage you can output when low on health, for example. But like the modifications to weapons, these skills never surface in a tangible way. No matter how many improvements to my personal stats I had unlocked, or which melee baseball bat I had equipped, zombies always required the same two light attacks or single heavy attack to kill.
From its restrictive mission structures, unbalanced difficulty and frustrating means of progression, The Walking Dead struggles to justify the time it requires from you.
The Walking Dead could easily be described as a management simulation as much as it can a first-person action game. Despite your camp feeling desolate and lifeless, you'll need to provide resources for upkeep costs, which impact your ability to progress. Your map is restricted by certain upgrades you've made to your camp, which can halt your progression and force tedious grinding to just continue with story missions. There's a frankly ridiculous number of upgrade trees to manage, pertaining to weapons training, medical facilities, radio outposts, and more. It's overwhelming trying to micromanage every aspect of your camp and frustrating that progression demands you engage with it regularly just to continue with missions. Coupled with unintuitive menus and a lack of teaching tools to guide you through all these subsystems, The Walking Dead doesn't make its secondary focus on survival management easy to parse or entertaining to engage with.
From its restrictive mission structures, unbalanced difficulty and frustrating means of progression, The Walking Dead struggles to justify the time it requires from you. It's a collection gameplay blueprints stacked upon one another without thoughtful consideration on how they might cohesively work together, wrapped up in a dull presentation and mundane combat that very rarely excites. The Walking Dead is a mess of scattered ideas and a lack of direction, and there's no reason to make sense of it all.