Animated corpses are disgusting in two dimensions - will we be able to stomach them in virtual reality?
Games from The Walking Dead franchise must seem cursed. First, Telltale Games - the developer of the successful adventure series - went out of business, then Overkill's The Walking Dead from Starbreeze and Overkill was scrapped after only three months because license owner Skybound Entertainment wasn't satisfied with the game's sub-par quality.
Now, The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners has been unleashed. It's a virtual reality game by Skydance Interactive, and it's available on PC right now, with versions for PlayStation VR and Oculus Quest set to follow. In the last couple of weeks, however, the game has received a fair amount of attention, partly due to the fact that large-scale VR games with a playtime of over 10 hours are still relatively scarce. That, and we're also talking about a game from a major franchise that has been released as a VR exclusive. Also, the first trailer showed some very brutal scenes that left some viewers baffled - including yours truly. Nevertheless, we jumped at the chance to put on the Rift headset and enter this morbid world.
Of course, we were greeted first by a tutorial. These can be interesting in VR titles because they showcase the developer's approach in terms of how we will interact with our virtual environment using motion controllers. In this case, it becomes evident right away that Skydance has put a lot of thought into the core mechanics. It's pretty standard that you're able to attach weapons and equipment to certain parts of the body, like holsters, ammo pouches, backpacks and so on, however, the first surprise came when we were told to bandage our arm (with realistic motions) in order to heal up. What's more, this action felt natural and intuitive. They also put a lot of effort into the weapon handling. For example, there is an automatic pistol where you have to pull back the slide to get it ready to fire, and a revolver that needs to be loaded by chambering every single bullet. Also, you can stabilise your weapon by using both hands. With stabbing weapons, you can even choose whether to hold them in a forehanded or backhanded stance.
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Aside from standard tutorials for movement, crouching and climbing, we were also shown a glimpse of the comms system, which lets you choose from several pre-set options. Because the games also enjoy a similar art style, we were reminded of Telltale's The Walking Dead. Straight away we were wondering if the game would confront us with difficult moral decisions as the award-winning series did. The answer was waiting for us in the story campaign, which lasts around 12 to 15 hours (or even more, depending on your playstyle).
At the beginning of the game, we had to creep across a dark graveyard in the swamps of New Orleans, and it was there that we met the first zombies. At that point, we were relieved that the graphics are somewhat stylised, akin to the graphic novels that started it all. A more photo-realistic approach definitely would've turned our stomach, as the action can be really disgusting at times. The approach is a physical one, and in a similar vein to the recent VR hit Boneworks, all objects have realistic collision detection and even a simulated sense of weight. In effect, it can mean that our virtual hands don't align with our real hands as they can't penetrate other objects and the things we're holding can collide with other solid items too.
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That takes a bit of getting used to, but it allows for a much more grounded experience. It means that fighting these walkers is a bone-chilling experience where you might have to force a shiv or screwdriver deep into a zombie's skulls until their brains are finally destroyed and they collapse. Then, your weapon might get stuck, and we've struggled to remove a spiked bat from a dead enemy's head in time to fight the next one. Even totally desperate actions are intuitively handled, like keeping a zombie from biting you by grabbing its forehead with your off-hand, and then splitting its skull with your revolver. Saints & Sinners has some of the most graphic violence we've ever come across in all our years of gaming, so it's safe to say that the age restrictions for this one should definitely be followed.
Back to the game, and soon we found ourselves in a makeshift base made up of an old school bus and some workbenches, where the crafting of weapons and supplies takes place (which is kind of mandatory for an open-world game in this day and age). As a stranger to New Orleans, the player is referred to as "The Tourist" by locals, who have ganged up into warring factions. Similar to A Fistful of Dollars, you're tolerated by these groups and can do some errands for them, although sometimes these missions involve tricky dilemmas. The main quest is to find 'The Repository', a fabled army reserve, and you'll have to make some deals in order to get there.
Starting from your hideout, you can visit the various neighbourhoods of New Orleans, most of which are pretty small and involve only a handful of traversable roads. Still, there are more than enough scary buildings to sneak around as you rummage through the shelves and drawers of long-deceased strangers, using your flashlight in the dark, always listening out for the audible cues that alert you to the presence of both walkers and human enemies alike. The intensity of this type of stealth gameplay is so captivating that it followed us into our dreams every night after playing the game.
The reason for this degree of realism is some fairly typical hardcore mechanics, like the inability to save the game while out in the wild, the fact that you mustn't be caught out in the dark, the scarcity of supplies, and the fragility of your weapons. If you die, you get exactly one shot at recovering your backpack or you lose all of your gear, just like Zombi U back in the day. What's more, with every day that passes, supplies dwindle and the undead grow in number. Even if you reload a previous save state, most supplies will be redistributed differently.
During the adventure at hand, should you observe an NPC being killed by walkers you'd be well-advised to destroy their brain to keep them from coming back to life... Again, these are situations where we were thankful for the somewhat artificial-looking character design, as the twitching bodies are hard enough to bear as it is. On top of all that, most of the food is rotten, so while it replenishes stamina, it can hurt overall health, so you have to look for medicine as well, or make your own snacks. Survival is dependent on scrounging enough supplies, upgrading workbenches, and finding secret crafting recipes. Armed with killer crossbows and katana-style swords, you become much more confident as the game progresses, but what the dead lack in intelligence, they make up for with numbers.
All in all, The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners conjures up an atmosphere like tough zombie survival games Dying Light or State of Decay, only here it feels much more intense due to the use of virtual reality. The detailed, carefully crafted world and smart design choices add to that intensity and we liked that you can approach problems in various ways thanks to the open-world design. You can look for secret routes, disarm traps and sneak, or you can go in guns blazing, even throwing in a couple of grenades for good measure. And of course, the Saints & Sinners part of the title already alludes to some of the choices that you're going to have to make, whether you like it or not. Those decisions don't go as deep as they did in Telltale's adventures, but being able to make important choices only adds to the sense of immersion.
In other words, this new Walking Dead game has lived up to our expectations. Sure, it would be nice if the maps were a bit larger, if the NPCs were smarter, and if we could personalise the controls more. However, we can only praise Skydance for reacting to criticism quickly, and because of this, we can forgive them the fact that the curse of The Walking Dead seems to has struck again, albeit in a much less severe form. It seems like the developers ran out of time before the end and weren't able to include things like the subtitles that were promised. Still, their enthusiasm is evident and we're hopeful that future patches will improve the game even further. However, even in its current state, we enjoyed our time in New Orleans and when playing with the Oculus Rift CV1, we didn't come across any major technical issues. For people who can stomach the violence, Saints & Sinners is definitely worth a look.
8 / 10
Extremely captivating atmosphere, refined game mechanics, good value.
Relatively small game maps, a couple of minor technical issues, extremely violent.