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The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners Revives a Tired Gaming Genre

The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners is the latest in a long line of video games based on Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. The most prominent among them is Telltale’s story-focused adventure games, but at New York Comic-Con 2019, CBR got some hands-on time with the upcoming VR game Saints and Sinners, and it looks to be the series’ high point in terms of gameplay.

The game's first trailer didn't give an in-depth view of the gameplay, though it showcases the story’s morally murky atmosphere. The developers estimate the larger story, which we still have few details on, will take about 15 hours to play through. If it’s anything like that trailer, it’s sure to be gripping, but what about the gameplay?

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Odds are players are familiar with Saints and Sinners' style of gameplay. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the genre will feel at home in seconds. That sense of comfort is important, as players see this type of world through an entirely new lens. Like The Last of US, ZombiU and many other undead thrillers, it’s a survival action game with low supplies of weapons, a stressful item management system and, of course, hordes upon hordes of undead. But where many of zombie games have started to become overly familiar, Saints and Sinners immediately feels fresh and fun due to depth added through the immersive VR headset and controls.

Where many virtual reality games tend to fine-tune the entire experience around a specific gameplay mechanic, like the way Superheat VR plays with the passage of time, Saints and Sinners takes a much more ambitious route. In a decision that may eventually come back to haunt the developers, it is a fully fledged single-player campaign, complete with a larger story and sandbox-like environments to explore.

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In CBR’s hands-on session with an early level of the game, the player was tasked with traversing a single location and navigating complex scenarios through speech and/or action. Set in a fairly unremarkable neighborhood in New Orleans after the zombie apocalypse, the player had to attempt to talk down two rival groups and resolve the situation before zombies began plaguing the neighborhood. There were plenty of ways to go about resolving the disagreement, but it seems they all eventually lead to violence against one of the groups.

Thankfully, the actual combat in the game is some of the most satisfying in a virtual reality game. With multiple different weapon and enemy types to balance, there’s tons of depth (and a steep learning curve), but a clear John Wick-like quality once you actually get the hang of it. For example, the player can hold two small weapons and a large weapon, with extras in a backpack.

To grab the large weapon, like an assault rifle or baseball bat, players reach behind their back right shoulder and hold down one of the triggers. To grab either of the smaller weapons, like a handgun or a knife, they reach down to their left or right hip. If a zombie is nearby, it’s less of an immediate threat and won’t require a bullet, but they can be difficult to stab perfectly. The fastest way to dispatch a walker is to move close, grab it with one hand using the controller’s trigger, then grab the knife with the other hand, flip it in that hand using one of the controller’s buttons and thrust the weapon into the zombie’s skull. It takes some getting used to, but after about half an hour we were doing it with ease.

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On the other hand, actions like this open the player up to enemy fire, so the player has to keep an eye out for humans and use one of the guns to keep them away. Even the guns have a complex, mini game-like reloading system, requiring emptying out the magazine, replacing it and cocking the weapon. Because of this, enemy encounter is a time-management problem as well, because running out of bullets when surrounded by a horde of zombies is the last place you’ll want to be.

In the admittedly short playtime we had with The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners, the game showed mountains of depth in terms of understanding the combat systems at play. It wasn’t quite as polished as some of the VR games focused around a particular gimmick, sometimes leading to a stab that glances off a villain’s head. What it lacks in polish, it makes up for in ambition, and though it may eventually run dry around the 10th hour or so. When Sinners and Saints works, it works, delivering some of the most rewarding combat in any game over the past few years.

The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners releases January 23, 2020.

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