A fresh take on a familiar universe in OVERKILL’s The Walking Dead
Released on Steam this past November, and coming to both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in February of 2019, OVERKILL’s The Walking Dead is a first-person shooter with a co-op twist. Set in Washington, D.C. and built off the official canon of The Walking Dead universe, players are tasked with working together as they try to survive in another take on Robert Kirkman’s post-apocalyptic nightmare.
Featuring elements of stealth and survival horror gameplay, no game based on The Walking Dead would be complete without a strong cast of characters and the development of the relationships between them. Here, we are introduced to four new survivors banded together in their struggle to keep on living from day to day.
Season Two of the game is underway, and OVERKILL is promising tons of changes as they continue to work on the game in the march to the console release. We chatted with Producer, Almir Listo, and Executive Producer, Saul Gascon about the stresses of taking on a popular IP and the experience of building this new addition to The Walking Dead universe with Unreal Engine 4. OVERKILL has been around for some time working on the PAYDAY series and brings a lot of development experience to the project. What led the team to The Walking Dead and how do you feel that previous experience has benefitted the development of the game?
Almir: After having made PAYDAY 2 we wanted to make something new, and when we sat down with Robert Kirkman talking about what we could do together, creating a co-operative experience for The Walking Dead felt like a perfect fit. Ever since OVERKILL Software was founded in 2009, we’ve specialized in co-op experiences. With Starbreeze Studios’ rich FPS heritage, we knew we could make something different and challenging that would live up to the ‘The Walking Dead’ brand, while at the same time making sure we kept the OVERKILL feel in the game.
Saul: Keeping the tone of the universe intact was key for us, so our relationship with Robert Kirkman was important. This close collaboration led us to create new characters that Robert made canon in the universe. For us as developers, being able to participate and create original stories in the universe shows that we understood him and The Walking Dead.
OVERKILL's The Walking Dead is touted as mixing a co-op FPS with elements of action games, RPGs, and even stealth and survival horror games. Tell us a little bit about the game and how you fit all those elements in cohesively.
Saul: We built the game with different mechanics from different games and genres to offer the deepest, most fun experience possible within the co-op FPS genre. The RPG elements and taking care of your camp (in a simplified RTS) keep players engaged for a long time. Upgrading their character, camps, and skills keep them interested while playing the action game elements. The stealth, horror and survival elements come naturally with the IP — it’s all about taking down that rival faction while trying to avoid the constant threat of walkers around you.
Taking on an IP like The Walking Dead likely comes with a ton of expectations from both fans and executives. How did you balance expectations alongside your own creative desires for the game? How did having Robert Kirkman on board help you along the way?
Almir: The collaboration with Robert Kirkman during the game creation has been a pleasure. He is a gamer at heart, and it’s always been easy to brainstorm together on how to best represent his universe in gameplay. The tension, the stress, the conflict and the crudity of his universe are in every pixel of the game.
For the cooperative aspect, this is very deep in our DNA at OVERKILL, and we’ve seen a great reaction from players on how we encourage them to work together towards a common goal and overcome the challenges we’ve placed in the way.
Was there any process in the development that was made particularly easy or efficient because of a tool in the Unreal Engine 4 suite?
Saul: Scripting and prototyping for level design and tech art with Blueprints really made it easier. Also, behavior trees and node-based materials etc. offers a great sandbox for prototyping and being creative.
The environments for the game are stunning and range from sunlit and decrepit streets to dark, eerie buildings on the edge of collapse. How did Unreal Engine 4 help you to create such a varied world?
Saul: We use our own lighting solution that we created for our Valhalla engine and we integrated into Unreal Engine as a plugin. That flexibility to be able to create and integrate our own custom solutions was invaluable.
Having hordes of walkers on the screen at the same time can be a hard thing to pull off without some hiccups. How did you achieve having so much going on while still maintaining a smoothly running game?
Saul: Crazy optimizations and custom solutions! Part of it is to bake out animations to textures, part of it is the reduction of draw calls by turning all zombie variations into one zombie — and selectively turning things on and off. Another thing that helped was custom movement code — the distance-based ticking of movement and brain component. Also, UEstats are awesome for helping pinpoint costs of all that creative flexibility.
Developing within The Walking Dead's universe, are there any Easter eggs or nods to the comic, television series or games that came before this for fans to look forward to?
Saul: In the game today, most nods to the other parts of the universe for the first season can be found in the VOs of the different characters. But then we also, of course, have Aidan's own version of the barbwire bat and Heather's crossbow, with the mechanic of retrieving arrows. But there will be more references to other parts of the universe included as we go along.
If you had to pick a single favorite tool within Unreal Engine 4, what would it be and why?
Saul: Blueprints and all their sophisticated and deeply integrated features. But we can’t answer a question like this without highlighting the reflection system. It can be used to do some very cool things if you know how to use it, including making the C++ code as flexible as a scripting language.
Tell us all the places people can stay caught up on OVERKILL's The Walking Dead.
Almir: For PC players, the Steam forums are where you can find the most details around the game and our continued development. However, we also recommend our website where we’ll continue to update with new content as new episodes come out, giving an overview of our universe relevant for all platforms and players.