The train drops me off in Tynewich. It's raining, like always. As the train leaves I cross the tracks immediately rather than exploring on this side, a superstitious act I repeat every mission because it worked one time.
It works again and I find my target quickly. He wears the distinctive red of a drug supplier carrying a new substance called HYPE. There's a police officer walking in the same direction, so I casually trail both. We pass ugly council houses and the visibility circle around me pulses in and out like a heartbeat, growing larger every time I step from a pool of shadow into the light of a streetlamp.
Finally the target and the police officer separate. I follow the red man until a particularly dark shadow shrinks the visibility circle around me to almost nothing, at which point I opportunistically whip out my pistol and shoot him. The police officer immediately rounds the corner, having not gone nearly as far as I hoped. I sprint back toward the train, hoping for one of those moments where it arrives just after I cross the tracks, cutting off my pursuers. It does not, and there are now three of them on my tail.
This is Walking Heavy, a top-down game of stealth and assassination set in grimy gangster Britain, in which you're a hitman brought out of retirement to clean up the streets (although you can also raise a bit of money on the side buying and selling drugs). It's the creation of solo developer Gregory Oldham, who released it on Steam last year to the kind of quiet response that greets so many indie games. I asked him about why he made Walking Heavy, and how he feels about it the two years he spent on it.
PC Gamer: So many of the best stealth games have been first-person or had tight views that limit what you can see. What inspired you to make a stealth game with a godlike top-down perspective?
Gregory Oldham: I’m an architect by profession, so any kind of orthographic projection is my gig, I particularly appreciate the simplicity and beauty of isometric graphics in videogames as I grew up playing The Sims, Age of Empires 2, Command & Conquer, et cetera on PC, so isometric graphics are what I know and love.
As Walking Heavy started life as a real-time isometric crime strategy game (I was thinking Gangsters: Organised Crime 2, but based in a contemporary UK) I never thought of it as a stealth shooter until much further on in the development when I was forced to abandon a lot of the grander ideas I’d had for the game in favor of actually finishing the project.
That’s how I landed on this combination, and once I started to add the mechanics which allowed it to become a stealth game (shadows, the visibility circle, et cetera) I started to like what I was seeing.
I appreciate the stealth circle, the way it pulses as you pass through streetlights and shadows. It seems more visually appealing than, say, giving vision cones to the cops. Where did you get that idea? Did you try alternatives?
I knew that visibility cones would be ugly with potentially so many police on screen at any one time, so I was looking for a ‘catch-all’ type solution. First I didn’t have any visual cue in place for how visible you were, the idea was that you would eventually get used to the visibility distances—but I soon realized this would be far from ideal. So I decided to try physically representing the variable which dictated visibility distances as a circle with variable radius as a debug feature, and I liked how it looked so it became a permanent feature.
It feels like a very focused game, all about recreating one experience. You walk up to someone, shoot them, leave. This one set of actions repeated with relatively little variation. Obviously most games can be boiled down to one repeated sequence, but Walking Heavy feels pre-boiled, like the summary of the core is almost the whole. What is it about this experience that appeals to you?
I originally had so much more planned for Walking Heavy. My original train of thought was an open-ended criminal sandbox based in the UK, however as just one guy developing the game after work and on free weekends I had to scale it back massively to stand a chance of finishing the project.
So after a while I started to envisage something which still embodied sandbox, open world and RPG elements—but would play out like a casual/arcade-style experience, where the player repeats one process over and over on increasingly different levels whilst earning more money to purchase better guns and equipment to adapt the way you play.
With the online leaderboards and purchasable weapons/gadgets the idea is that players will be incentivized to keep playing to unlock new items and dominate the top spot on the leaderboard (currently Level 103, held by one of my work colleagues!).
This said I haven’t abandoned everything I had in store for the game originally, I’ve simply got it to a point where it was ready for release—I’m still working on new content and plan on adding much more to the game—the next update will feature new building types and rooftop access.
It's focused but there are extra modes like Rampage. Is that one specifically inspired by the old-school GTA games?
The title of rampage mode is indeed a homage to GTA, and I guess the gameplay is too! I put rampage mode in as a departure from the stealth gameplay of the main career which punishes players for going loco, instead rewarding players for their ability to mow down hordes of pixelated police-men, and providing a chance to earn more cash to spend in career mode. The idea is that the two modes are polar-opposite in gameplay style, but are closely linked as you will need to play career mode to buy better weapons for rampage, and rampage can provide some extra financial support to afford the weapons.
The dialogue reminds me of GTA London, but also of Guy Ritchie movies, of English gangster stories in general. What made you choose that setting?
I chose to set Walking Heavy in England quite simply because that’s where I’m from (Manchester) and I really wanted to make something which could capture the feel of grimy British council estates, bathed in orange argon street lighting and swept by torrential rain showers. I was also able to have fun with the level names, creating an English town name generator from a list of prefixes and suffixes (although this occasionally gives some interesting place names).
The dialogue became a side-effect of this decision. I had a laugh writing it and took the piss a bit. Anyone who knows their English street slang will see all sort of dialect from Cockney to Scouse thrown in, so where in the UK the fictional city is supposed to be, I’m not even sure myself.
Basing the game in the UK also influenced the decision to give the majority of police tasers as most of our police don’t carry guns. I feel like this works in favor of the game as it allowed me to introduce different types of enemy so there is a difference between the main police carrying tasers who deploy swarm tactics, and the rarer armed police who can take you out from a distance.
I keep getting tased by cops around corners I didn't realize were there. Why do you hate me, Greg?
Two words: Infra-Red Goggles. If you can save up the ten grand price tag they’ll solve all of your problems.
The soundtrack's very atmospheric. How did you track down a composer, and what did you request?
I originally threw a load of tracks by Burial in as placeholders—I wanted a soundtrack which would capture the grit and brutality of the urban environments being created in the game. Eventually a friend put me in touch with a friend of his who makes his own electronic music, VHSX (check out his Soundcloud), we had a chat about what I wanted to achieve and he fired across a few tracks he’d already created and they were ideal.
You've been making Walking Heavy for two years. Has it been anything like you expected?
Not at all, I decided to learn game making because I just wanted to learn computer coding as a bit of a side project, I didn’t intend at the time to create a finished game and release it on Steam. But I found the process of creating the game so rewarding and addictive that it ended up snowballing into what it is now.
The process wasn’t easy though, I came up against serious optimization issues and basically had to re-invent the way I was doing things, which meant restarting the project a total of five times before I got it right. Even now I reckon there’s plenty of code I could do with streamlining. If I hadn’t been enjoying making the game so much it would have been shelved after attempt two or three for sure.
How was the launch? Are you satisfied with Walking Heavy's reception?
My launch was at best mediocre, I was so busy trying to juggle my day job and finish the game that my marketing strategy was pretty lackluster. I created a website, set up all the social media accounts and posted a few bits but never managed to make a success of it. In the end I decided I’m not a marketing whizz, nor did I have a budget to pay a marketing whizz to do the job for me, so I just crossed my fingers and hit release.
As such the download figures have been pretty low, but of those who have played I’ve received positive feedback, so I can’t complain about that.
How much of the game is in the demo? Do you think it's been worth making one?
The demo lets you play the first five levels. The idea is to hopefully draw a player in enough to get them to spend £3.99 on the full version, or not if they decide they don’t like it. The demo was very little extra work on top of the finished game and I feel it’s only fair to let people try before they buy.
What are you working on now?
More content for Walking Heavy. Whilst the game isn’t officially an alpha release I still feel like there is much more I can add. I hope to release a few more updates before moving onto another project. Currently I’m adding more building sprites to add some visual variety to each level—some of these buildings will also give you rooftop access, allowing you to snipe targets from afar and over the tops of other buildings. Hopefully this release will drop in the next couple of weeks.
The idea is to keep adding elements which enrich the gaming experience. I’m hoping to eventually add vehicles, more side tasks and better AI aimed at giving the different targets randomly generated routines to assist with their assassinations.
Do you have advice for new players?
I’d recommend putting a skill point or two into your connections stat early on, you don’t want to find yourself without ammo and searching for the one ammo supplier on the entire level.
Whilst all of the stats have benefits, speed and marksmanship are probably the most rewarding places to put a lot of your points—marksmanship in particular if you want to start dabbling with longer-range weaponry like the M4 and sniper rifle.
Finally I’d recommend investing in a silencer early on, it’ll save you a lot of grief from the police.
Walking Heavy is available on Steam.