Stepping into The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners for the first time starts off slow at first, but like the comics and show, things soon ramp up. There’s a ton to learn, from moving around with the Oculus Rift controller, to approaching and axing tied up walkers in a dark and dingy warehouse, to healing, finding food, and recycling broken objects at a repurposed bus you use as a home base. All of it is necessary to prepare yourself for what’s ahead. Yet, at the same time, it’s almost impossible to be truly ready for this free-roaming virtual reality zombie survival game.
“I think what players will pull away from the experience when they play it is that this is a Walking Dead game that lets you enter that world and allows you to go anywhere and be who you want to be,” Skydance Interactive creative director Adam Grantham told me after I played an early demo for Saints & Sinners.
The Walking Dead in New Orleans
Skydance Interactive worked closely with Skybound to create an original story set in The Walking Dead universe. In Saints & Sinners, players take the role of an unnamed character that the developers refer to as “The Tourist.” They must scavenge and survive through the remains of New Orleans, which turned into a city-sized archipelago when a massive hurricane hit around the same time the walker outbreak began. Although you pretty much act as a lone wolf, there are factions all vying for power and control over the city.
“We wanted to create a new enclave within the larger franchise, and give people new characters, world, and mysteries,” said Grantham. “New Orleans is also a bit surreal. It’s bizarre, and there’s something almost mystical about it.”
The player and the warring factions are primarily interested in something called The Reserve – an abandoned location that supposedly houses enough food, medicine, and weapons to survive the apocalypse indefinitely. These supplies were originally meant to be distributed by the National Guard as part of the post-hurricane disaster relief efforts, which were cut short by the undead. With its location lost, the place has taken on a mythic quality, with many doubting the place even exists. But pursuing these glimmers of hope, no matter how farfetched, fully embodies what The Walking Dead is about.
Meanwhile, players will interact with the different factions by choosing who to back or betray while fighting off walkers and making difficult moral choices that the series is known for. Players take a small boat to one of the city’s eight islands, which are populated with characters and the undead as you play. Meaning that returning to a location should have completely new people to deal with.
Living NPCs will dynamically react to their environment, which includes whether you wave a gun in their face. Interacting with them brings up two dialogue boxes to choose from, and those decisions will impact the world and how the narrative plays out for you.
“You can focus on being the kind of survivor you want to be, making the kind of moral statement you believe you would make in that situation,” Grantham explained.
Meeting new people and watching them die
My mission for the demo was to acquire specific equipment from a nearby faction hideout. After getting off the boat and sneaking my way past some walkers, a shotgun-toting woman shouted at me from a gaping hole in the side of a house, warning me to keep my distance. She then told me to speak to someone standing nearby if I needed something.
I was lightly armed with a pistol and knives, but I wasn’t ready for a big fight. So, I decided to hear the guy out and accepted his mission to liberate his brother from a nearby house. This version of Saints & Sinners doesn’t have much in the way of mission markers, so a real-life presenter had to guide me through some of it. Otherwise, I think the idea is for players to explore the city and discover hideouts for themselves.
In this case, “open world” is kind of a misleading term, which is why Skydance prefers to describe it as “free roaming.” The game isn’t as big as role-playing games like Fallout or Skyrim, and there’s no continuous connection from one zone to another, but each area is its own sandbox with different points of entry. The environment and its inhabitants will react to your decisions, and making too much noise may attract walkers in your direction.
It turns out I didn’t have to go far, since the house I needed to get into was right next door. I sneaked in by climbing up a storm drain to a landing, where there was an open window. I was spotted shortly after getting inside, so I instinctively pulled out my gun and started shooting.
Of course, chaos followed as other foes joined the fight. I quickly ran out of bullets, so I had to switch to my knives to finish the rest off. I lost a lot of health, but I miraculously made it. I don’t think they expected a random person to pop through the window and blast everyone.
Once I was done bandaging myself up, which requires the bandaging motion around my arm, the presenter told me that I could have negotiated with them for the brother’s release or to betray the other faction. It’s good to know that the NPCs of The Walking Dead are willing to chat with intruders, even as they climb in through windows, but I still felt that my way was more efficient.
Too bad the guy’s brother, who was hidden away in the bathroom, somehow died in the conflict. Bracing for another possible fight over this misunderstanding, I looted the shockingly sparse house for weapons and supplies and headed back.
The walker population had grown significantly while I was raiding the safehouse, but I was able to make it back next door without any problems. However, the cell leader had lost all interest in talking to me. There were no dialog options to report how my mission had failed or to figure out an alternate arrangement. Instead, he and all the nearby NPCs seemed more concerned with the group of walkers that had followed me back.
They began shooting, which I knew would attract even more of the undead, so I decided to make a dash for the unguarded house while they were distracted.
Apparently, there’s an event called “stirring the herd” that happens about 25 minutes into any given mission. That’s when a faction will start ringing church bells to manage the walker movements. Basically, it’s your cue to get out of the area before an unending horde of zombies arrives to destroy everything in sight.
No one seemed very concerned with me popping through the back door – probably because I was unarmed. Instead, the guards inside pulled out their guns to shoot walkers through the wide-open door. I made my way through the house and ended up outside on the front porch. The gang had set up a heavy barricade, which included a conveniently placed bookshelf that I could climb up to get up on the second-floor porch.
There, I found the equipment that I came for laid out neatly on a large bed while the battle continued to escalate downstairs. Now I just had to get out and make my way back to the boat – a task that was much easier said than done.
The walker population had grown to near overwhelming proportions, and I barely had any bullets left. I had a few melee weapons, but they could only be used a handful of times before breaking like plastic toys. I started by cutting down a few walkers, but they were quickly surrounding me, trying to tear me apart. So, I dashed back to the backyard, where the faction cell was still alive and presumably armed with infinite ammunition.
So, I made the obvious choice. I led the walkers to them so that they could kill them off. This is when things went totally nuts. The AI doesn’t always respond quickly to nearby walkers, and they tend to ignore the undead if there’s a fence or tree blocking their line of sight. I was fully immersed in the game at this point, because I was shouting at them for standing four feet away from walkers without doing anything. So, it was clear that using these people as a distraction meant that I had to bring the undead right up to their faces.
The other danger is that NPCs will return as zombies if they die from anything besides a head wound. These “fresh” walkers are a little stronger and harder to kill than the older ones. Proving the point, I broke my last knife while stabbing a newly turned NPC in the head. In retrospect, I can’t help wondering why he wasn’t completely eaten up by the horde. But at the time, all I was worried about was getting out alive.
It turns out rifling through a virtual reality backpack for a weapon, any weapon, can be a serious chore when groups of the undead are gnashing at you. I made my way into the house to catch my breath and bandage up. That’s when I got the idea to go back up to the second floor and jump down near the front of the house. Jumping from the second story cost me some health, but it was worth it.
There were a few stragglers on the main street, but the majority of them were in the backyard, presumably eating or getting shot. I managed to stagger my way back to the boat and completed my mission.
The Walking Dead is about more than survival
Although my adventure involved a lot of bloodshed, Grantham said that Saints & Sinners is about more than killing zombies and getting into gunfights. For instance, it was possible for me to get through the mission without killing anyone. Like the show and comics, the game will focus more on the human element, with moral choices that highlight the kind of person players are when thrown into the zombie apocalypse.
I only got a small taste of the dynamic action The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners has to offer. But as the game progresses, food and resources will grow ever scarcer while the walker population will continue to grow. In addition to dealing with people like me coming in to wreck their day, some NPCs will die as factions become more forceful and war with each other, resulting in fresh walkers dressed in body armor.
“That’s what we think the fans are craving,” said Grantham, discussing the game’s original story. “Rick was just a regular guy and Michonne was just a regular woman who became exceptional in response to these circumstances. So, you can imagine taking any collection of people after the walker outbreak and they’ll still embody that truth and what makes The Walking Dead exciting because the series is about what it means to be human in a world like this.”
The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners releases on January 23, 2020 on Steam. Although I played the demo on an Oculus Rift S, no platforms have been officially announced yet.