My dad gave me and my brother some mugs for Christmas last year. They’re those heat sensitive ones that reveals a secret message once you fill them with a hot liquid and, because he’s my dad, he found mugs with messages to match each of our jobs. Mine says “Video Games have prepared me for the zombie apocalypse”. Thanks to The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners, I got to put that theory to the test in VR.
Zombie fiction has had a huge influence on pop culture over the last decade, from those scares of the dead coming back to life in early cinema to its more recent use as a narrative tool to explore humanity’s baser instincts. One popular offshoot from all this is are zombie apocalypse survivalists, with the best known example The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks. How would you prepare? How would you scavenge and survive? What would it take to fight off zombies?
Video games are no stranger zombie apocalypse survival games, but none of them feel as violent and visceral as The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners. This is a game that has fully embraced everything that first person VR can do and applies it to The Walking Dead franchise.
There’s a real physicality to everything in the game. You have all your gear on your body, with a weapon holster on either hip, a larger weapon on your right shoulder, flashlight and notebook on your chest, and a backpack that you can pull off your right shoulder. Pick anything up and you have to hold onto it with the grip buttons on the Oculus Touch controllers – there’s options here that cater to different VR controllers – and if it’s a two-handed object, you need to align your hands in a way that makes sense. There’s a kind of visual haptic feedback here, so holding a fire axe one-handed will have it visually swaying around unless you steady it with a second hand. Obviously it has no real weight in your hands, but it gives that small bit of added immersion.
There’s also an impressive freedom to how you can explore the world. You have free movement as opposed to teleporting to get around, but it goes beyond that with being able to grab onto and pull yourself over walls and ledges. You can even pull yourself up drain pipes and poles to Nathan Drake your way into a house… so long as you don’t run out of stamina and fall back to the ground! It means you’ve got plenty of options for getting around each area.
Naturally, to fight zombies you have to remove the head or destroy the brain, and Saints & Sinners takes this to heart with melee weapons my go-to when dealing with lone zombies. Though there’s none of the presumably horrific sensation of actually shoving a knife, screwdriver, shiv, or broken bottle into a human skull – funnily enough, it’s not something I ever want to try in real life – you still have all of the visual and auditory feedback here. Not only that, but you can’t just poke, you have to stab and then push to deal the final killing blow to the undead, before then having to yank the blade back out to free it. It’s pretty grim when you think about it.
A single zombie is no problem to deal with, but as multiple undead groans start to come from nearby, you’ll have to be wary of your surroundings. Fighting multiple zombies is tough, given the way you have to physically take them down and free your weapon, but you can buy yourself a little time by grabbing their heads and shoving them into one another, use sharper or more bludgeoning weapons like a fire axe or katana, or better yet use any of the ranged weapons to start picking them off before they get too close.
From basic pistols to revolvers and shotguns, you’ve got plenty of options, but anything that makes a loud noise will start to attract nearby zombies, who’ll walk or stagger after you. They’re implacable, so as your stamina runs out from sprinting away, they’re almost certainly still hot on your heels. Let them get too close, and they’ll grab onto your arm before trying to take a bite. You’ve got to shake them off like Taylor Swift to free your arm and then shove them away, or it’ll be game over.
But this is much more than just a zombie battler. Saints & Sinners takes place in a New Orleans that has been flooded by a Katrina-like hurricane. Just as the government was responding to one catastrophe, the zombie virus broke out, dooming the city to remain a flooded disaster zone. Still, people have survived there against all the odds, and it’s this factional world that you step into.
There’s a survival slant to the game, beyond the simple moment-to-moment combat. Once introduced to the world, you find a safe house of sorts in an abandoned bus, setting up shop with a few workbenches just outside. As you play, your melee weapons will steadily deteriorate before eventually breaking, and you’ll obviously run out of ammo for your guns as well – thankfully holding them up to your face will give you the lowdown on their stats. You can scrap all of these before they break, and any of the things you find out in New Orleans, back on the bus, getting the materials to create new weapons, new guns, explosives, not to mention essential supplies like bandages and medicine – applying bandages has you literally wrap them around your arm, which is pretty natty.
An overarching story leads you through New Orleans on the hunt of a Cold War bunker full of supplies. Set across multiple days with a main story and side quests within that, you’ll hop onto a skiff and make your way to different parts of the flooded city, engaging with different factions and making choices along the way.
Our time with the game came at the very start, taking a quest from a distraught woman asking us to off her zombified husband and retrieve his wedding ring. This suburban area was relatively quiet with zombies coming in ones, maybe twos, but get deeper into the game and the city and the areas you visit will be much busier with more zombies and human characters along with the ever present undead. The Tower gang that runs this town loves to rile things up by tolling church bells on the hour, so it’s a good thing that you have a watch to remind you when it’s time to book a ticket out of there.
The game is coming to Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Valve Index and other SteamVR headsets next week, but Skydance Interactive are hard at work translating it to the lower powered PlayStation VR for this spring. There’s even plans to bring it to Oculus Quest, so you can fight zombies in the middle of a park, a library, cafe, or wherever you like.
A few years on from the launch of VR, and we’re really starting to see the kinds of games that virtual reality is able to create, fully immersing you in a world with an impressive freeform feeling and physicality to your interactions. The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners is one of those games, just so long as you’re not grossed out by the visceral acts as you fight zombies.