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The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners

The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners

Written by Rob Larkin on 2/26/2020 for VIVE  
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I would love to say I enjoyed my time with The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners, but I fear how Joe from the Claimers might emerge from offscreen, loudly proclaim "That is a lie!" and I'd get a beating worse than the nausea the game seemed to constantly be assaulting me with. I did not enjoy playing this game. I did not even enjoy re-loading the game onto my PC. While it would be easy to just leave it at that and tank the final score, I also recognize that as far as VR games go, this is a very good piece of software that deserves a more nuanced look than my simple experience. Because if you separate my own personal shortcomings from those of the game, of the Steam service providing the hosting, and of the hardware on which it was running; there is much better experience to be had than the one I received. 

Let's start inward with myself. Let's get this out of the way first off: if you do not already fully have your VR legs, if you are still prone to nausea when playing various VR titles, then run from the game like you would run from a horde of walkers. I think in my time with VR, in the dozen or so titles I've played, this is no better than 3rd worst game for inducing VR nausea that I've personally played. It tops the list for Vive games with PSVR games making up the entirety of the balance. Much of this is my fault for never having gotten over the hurdle. I know to avoid the really bad ones, and while this game won't have you doing mid air back flips or shooting down a rollercoaster, it also presents no teleportation option for locomotion and has some other quirks I'll get into more later, all of which add to the queasy. I'm not going to deduct any points from the final score because I'm still a VR landlubber, but it frames my entire experience when I struggled to get more than 30 minutes of playtime in at a stretch before everything started feeling strained in my brain. 

Now let's look outward - at hardware on which it was running and the service which was providing the download, because while the initial download was fine and good, getting this game to update on my hard drive was a terrible burden. Normally hardware and download issues are something I would never even raise in a review, not just because they don't necessarily represent the normative experience of playing that game, but also because I don't even have the ability in truly differentiate whether it was the game or Steam itself causing the problem. However, when you're already struggling physically with a game you must play and then get taxed mentally troubleshooting update problems, that compounding assault on the senses becomes relevant, especially when it was the update that was promising to fix many of the physical issues. Initial download, fine; team to update and everything goes sideways. First Steam complained I didn't have enough free space for the download (I did). Then, I spend time clearing all my download caches and clearing more space. Then I figure it's going to need the entire space of the updated game (40GBs) because sometimes download services get silly like that and want to reinstall the patch with the existing game on entirely clean disc space. Fine, whatever, I clear out more than the space of the game, still says not enough space. It wasn't until I actually removed the initial install and re-downloaded the entire payload from scratch that I was ever able to be successful in applying the patch. To be fair, I'm just as likely to chalk this up to Steam as I am to the game and again won't deduct anything from the final score of the title for this hassle, but I think it's worth noting because when I'm already up against it, dramas like that are exactly the type of thing that will push you over the edge to let the game itself just go lie peacefully in your Steam purchased and never played graveyard. 

Now let's look at the shortcomings of the game itself, for it is not without fault. The game claims to support both seated and standing play, but there is some sort of glitch where if you stand, you now play the game as a 9 foot tall behemoth. I tried re-calibrating my room, I tired swapping in and out of my Steam VR home, I tried both the review version and the release version with the latest patch, all to no avail. When standing, you're a Sasquatch. I feel strongly this is a glitch because even bending all the way down and laying your controllers on the floor still make them hover a foot or two off the game world's ground. Room scale is not officially supported, although you can lumber your Chewbacca legs around the parameters of your room space while you play and I didn't notice many issues there. Seated play corrects your perspective, and works mostly pretty well except for now you've got a game which heavily relies on mapping your weapon holders to your real world hips and your gaming chair is going to put big armrests in the way of those very same hips you need to reach. Seated gaming is fine and good when you're VR'ing into a spaceship, but in a game where you are meant to to be moving the world on your won two legs it doesn't actually let you do that. Your choice is to tower above the world on stilts or fumble about it awkwardly reaching around armrests to grab your pistol. If you ever wanted to know how difficult it would be to survive the zombie-pocalyse in a wheelchair, this is the game that's ready to show you. Why a designer would only map the game properly to seated play on PC makes no sense. That's something you would only do if you were on PSVR or something, right? Hmm, more on that later...

There were other locomotion glitches upon release. Some were patched (crouching was mapped to a button not your body, fixed), others not yet (vaulting over an obstacle still seems wonky and often leaves your perspective even higher than before you started the move), and others you get accustomed to over time (braining a walker with a knife doesn't require power as much as it does a long arc with your swing). But overall, the locomotion itself is my biggest complaint with the game, and for a guy struggling with VR sickness it's hits me right in my crit point. The designers do over a tunnel vision mode while moving that blacks out your peripheral vision to help reduce nausea, and commendations are deserved for the attempt, but in a a game where the next walker could be around any corner it's not an ideal solution, and I simply found it didn't really help me anyway. 

It's not all warts and missteps though, there are plenty of positives to get excited about once you look beyond them. First of all the scale of this game is great. While the locales themselves map down into smaller discrete blocks before you have to load screen into a new few blocks in another district, a flooded New Orleans present itself as a great location to both separate itself from the rest of TWD cannon as well as provide decent chunks of territory to explore in manageable pieces. This is by no means an open world game, but the sections are open enough, providing multiple routes to a given goal, meaningful side quests, and drags NPCs into the story line just as much as the protagonist. It's small enough to work in VR, providing quicker 30 minute scopes of tasks to get done, just about when the real-world nausea might set in, but don't confuse this with a a one-off tech demo. It is a full featured game that might have smaller blocks of play area but stitches them together well to be long enough to cross the threshold into AAA territory, and large enough not to get bored scavenging for supplies along the way.

That scavenging speaks to a game loop that is great too. You quickly find yourself with a home base in none other than a graveyard. How a school bus managed to park there I'm not sure, but it provides easy access to all of your recipes, equipment, and supplies. At its heart this game is about VR combat, both of the melee and ranged variety. The crafting loop is included to make sure you have the gear you need to stay healthy, keep your stamina up, and have the arsenal at your side to keep pace with the ramping enemies. It's not just the walkers that are at your back, you've got multiple factions of human opponents too. What they might lack in terms of underwhelming AI and combat difficulty they make up for in fleshing out the story (while the zombies shuffle along it is the human foot solderers that are the brain-dead). The name of the game for everyone is survival, and you feel that tension throughout the game. It's all about resources and the struggle to secure them. This is made clear as main premise in the opening scene: your quest it to uncover an old FEMA stash of limitless weapons, food, supplies lost when the levies broke. Until you get there it's time to craft your way up the ladder.  

For the most part we stick with TWD lore: headshots are all that counts and you can "disguise" your scent in walker guts, there's even an achievement for that last bit. However, there are a few instances where standard video game tropes creep in and we divert from that rich backstory. For example, there are exploding zombies that will injure you with a poison cloud if you take one out at too close a range. It's a tired type of zombie that doesn't really hold a lot of inthrall consistence with the pseudoscience behind most of these outbreak narratives, nor does it hold true in this one, but they're there anyway. But then again the original Walking Dead lore also has it's own problems in that arena, such as zombies being completely impervious to any human death-state save a brain injury even though, you know, a complete lack of oxygen from being drowned or buried under a mudslide would lead to brain death yet the walkers seem to be able to survive indefinitely without oxygen. I guess it's cooler to have something jump out at you from the mud. That bit of lore does of course carry into the game. Empty your arsenal into a walker's chest and it will still shuffle toward you. One makeshift blade to the skull and down goes Frazier.

There are other tropes though too, some human factions borrow heavily from games you've played before. At some points, between the crafting and the factions the game feels like Fallout VR in the Bayou where the super mutants and ghouls were replaced by walkers. I mean that in a good way because like a Bethesda game it also gives you meaningful quests from NPCs with their own backstories, multiple avenues to achieve your objectives, and meaningful choices not just in your route but also even in your dialogue trees. How much of the truth do you want to reveal to a given character? Will you be the Sinner or the Saint? It's right there in the title. 

In other ways it mimics Dying Light by aping its concept of harder enemies at sundown. Every time you load into a play area a wristwatch starts a 30 minute countdown before the "bells chime" and the sound of that racket stirs up the undead from every corner into a horde like onslaught. Death has consequences, you will drop your gear and supplies where you fell and re-spawn with a chance to reclaim them. Just how deep you were from the start point of that map might determine how likely you are to make a go at actually getting it back though. Because unlike a Bethesda game save points are basically non-existent outside of entering a new area or a new day on the in-game clock. 

But I think what I liked most about the game was how well it served to present so many gear options and information with such minimal HUD. The end result was a very satisfying and immersive experience. your gear is mapped logical to your body. Reach down to your hips for two small weapon slots, over your right shoulder for that larger shotgun or rifle. Your backpack is over your left shoulder, pull it out to cycle through your stowed gear. On your left chest pocket is your trusty flashlight that always seems to run out of battery at the worst moments, and on your right is your journal proving in game objectives, maps, quests, etc. It doesn't take long until it's all second nature and that becomes essential because this is not a run n' gun shooter. Every move you make must be deliberate. This is a game about survival, not heroics. Got an injury, you have to wrap the bandage around your arm loop after loop. Reloading a weapon involved not only ejecting the old clip or shells, but inserting the new and cocking the hammer. You can easily take on a walker or two at time, and you can carefully manipulate your route and actions to line them up just so, but if you get overwhelmed, that's when it's game over. Run out of bullets with too many bearing down on you and you're finished. Even pulling out that knife at the last moment might not be enough, because while it takes a careful blow to sink it in to the first's skull it also takes effort to remove it after that oh so satisfying squish, and let's not even speak of the terror when the blade breaks off and you've still got more walkers chomping at your flesh. As a concept this works tremendously but it's execution is not flawless. At times the hardware itself gets in the way, forcing you into two handed moves like cocking a gun where VR wands actually have to clack together against one another to pantomime the virtual action in the real world. 

The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners is a very good game, but it has its problems. It draws you into an incredible, immersive world built on a well-founded backstory and then snaps you right back out with some terrible locomotion controls and intricate movements that clatter your VR wands against the real world. I give it every bit of credit for the world it builds, but it must suffer every bit of deserved criticism for the ways it failed to get the movement right to navigate that world. In many ways I couldn't shake the feeling that this was a best in show PSVR title that got ported over to the Vive. It has all this weight and meat on its bones and then runs into a wall with an implementation detail, the kind that feels like a compromise made on lesser hardware that translates poorly when freed from those constraints. The game is being made for PSVR, with a release coming later in the spring, and for that reason those suspicions just nag at me that the entire development of this game had that secondary system in mind and as such never truly realizes it's greatest PC potential. 

I did not enjoy The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners, but shouldn't it say a lot about this game that I would have a negative time and yet want to find the positives so badly. 

The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners is a great game. It's just that maybe it's not a great game for you. Maybe, like me, you don't have your VR legs enough to enjoy it. Maybe you want a little bit more from the PC hardware you have to run it on and won't accept the compromises this game makes. Maybe you just have TWD fatigue. If those things don't stand in your way, then what is on offer is an incredible and immersive experience. A well-developed virtual playground to craft and battle your way through a rich world and story that is only let down by an implementation that just screams compromise to make way for a PSVR release. Maybe in a few months you're that PSVR reader already bound by that system led here to this PC review, in which case boy do I have an amazing game for you... But for the rest of us in the now looking to play The Walking Dead and stretch our PCs to the limit in doings so, what I have is an amazing world and story to go with a rather awkward VR perspective to view it through.

 

Rating: 8 Good

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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 First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.  
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...

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