This week in Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners.
I know it's not been very long since my last dispatch from the VR ivory tower, or "i-VR-y tower", or even something else that's not as crap. But A.) it is still January at time of writing, the Siberian gulag of release months. B.) If I'm serious about VR being good and the way forward for immersive gaming - and I should stress, I do genuinely think that; people tell me they often can't tell if I'm being sarcastic because I have what's medically known as "resting bitch voice" - then like the coronavirus, we'd all better get used to hearing about it.
And C.) after Boneworks was a VR game that impressed me by feeling like a "game" game rather than a heavily cut-down VR "experience" that, once the tech stops being novel, will feel akin to holding a press conference to show off a lovely, sparkly giraffe you made out of tin foil, here comes another "game" game that manages to improve upon it (switch to ominous tone of voice) in some areas (meaningful look to camera, back to normal voice): The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners, another bloody spin-off from The Walking Dead; that shit's spun off more times than a poorly secured fan belt. Maybe it would be simpler to just declare that every zombie property is a Walking Dead spin-off; that way, we can put all the zombie apocalypse crap into one convenient basket that we could then drop-kick off a pier at our leisure. But I digress.
The first area in which The Walking Dead: Baits & Switches exceeds Boneworks is story, because it actually fucking has one. The city of New Orleans has been classically zombie apocalypse'd, and catastrophically flooded as well, although apparently, that was unrelated; that was just, you know, Tuesday. You are a famous wandering scavenger known as "The Tourist"; so this must be some ways into the zombie apocalypse, at a point when enough survivors can hang around being bored for long enough that they've got time to go on the social media that no longer exists, and there can be such a thing as a "famous scavenger", and everyone gossips about who they've shot and what gas stations they've cleaned out for bog roll and donuts this week.
You've come in search of a buried treasure called "The Reserve", a bunker full of all the bog roll and donuts one could ever need, but your search for it is complicated by the city being split between two factions: The Tower, an organized community that rules with an iron fist and want to carefully ration the donuts, and The Reclaimed, a coalition of free-spirited exiles who want to throw all the bog roll over the trees in The Tower's front garden. So once again, it's fascists vs. nutters; seems like every time we have to worry about picking a faction to side with in a "choices matter" game, it boils down to fascists vs. nutters. And this is never as complicated an issue as these games seem to think; yes, it's nice to have some laws written down when Johnny Fuckface eats everyone else's pie rations, but it is equally nice to not enslave people. This is not a difficult middle ground to reach; just snap the elastic band on your wrist every time you feel like enslaving someone.
I wouldn't worry too much about the factions. In practical terms, they're identical: they take over a building or area; if you stand in the threshold, they'll sling insults like teenagers from a car window; advance one inch, and they mark you for death; then run away, stealth around, murder them all, hand out Werther's Originals. It doesn't seem to matter in the long run; they won't remember next time, and then, at the very end of the game, you just pull whatever levers you fancy on the various Endingtron 3000s, and then close your eyes tight and imagine a wonderful, appropriate ending to the faction story, because the game won't fucking show you one.
You're more on the fringe of the faction plot than involved in it, I suspect because every time you're in a room with an important character, there's a risk you'll get bored and stick a screwdriver up their nose, possibly after they insist on restarting the conversation from scratch again because you drifted more than ten centimeters away to pick up some salad tongs, which might as well bring us to the combat. It's similar to Boneworks, but the physics-based melee combat is a lot better, as your knives and nail-covered baseball bats embed themselves in the enemy with a sound like a very large dog stepping in a bowl of freshly-prepared breakfast cereal, whereas in Boneworks, you don't so much strike enemies as very aggressively wipe them with things.
Also, there's that better variety of guns I was asking for, including shotguns and revolvers and explosives, but somehow, they don't have the same satisfying feel. It's the little things; it's the sound, it's the slides being a bit more finicky, it's the way ammunition doesn't go into the guns so much as disappear the moment it's vaguely near it. "Gun-Tor accepts your sacrifice! OM-NOM-NOM-NOM-NOM! You are granted a boon of six more dead cunts!"
Not that Walking Dead: Bangers & Mash needs much gun variety, considering every enemy dies from a single headshot from the starting pistol. Even if you don't trust your aim, you can easily grab a zombie's forehead and hold him there while you put the gun to his chin, stab him in the eye, write swear words on his face in felt-tip; whatever you want, he can't do shit. And the zombies are rarely in large enough swarms to require a change of strategy; guns are better saved for humans, but you're supposed to try to stealth around them, and at any case, you still don't really need more than the starting pistol, because a two-handed weapon is an ungainly elephant's knob, wobbling around on your arm, knocking over expensive vases while you're staggering around trying to load shells into the thing under enemy fire.
And meanwhile, the pistols are bingo-bango-quick-draw finger guns of death, so if you're finished adding "faction plot" to the list of things that aren't worth worrying about, why don't you stick "weapon upgrades" on there as well? Bit of a shame, actually, because they're what the whole fucking game is based around. The main reason you leave your wank-den every day and explore one of the regions of New Orleans is to loot another samey building for crafting materials, and the rather anomalously large quantity of barbecue lighters that lie around, in order to upgrade your equipment workbenches and make better stuff that you mostly don't need; you spend most of your time creeping around dark rooms, opening cupboard after cupboard, holding random garbage up to your shoulder like a sailor feeding his parrot, and hoping it'll actually go into your backpack this time and not dribble all down your shoulder like a squirt of cracker-y bird shit.
In summary, it'd be nice if this game based largely around prepping had something worth prepping for; it's almost more fun to go in as un-prepped as possible, just pick up the nearest beer bottle when there's a zombie in the way, and give him the old Newcastle astigmatism, because after I finished the final level, seen my unsatisfying ending, and gone into post-credits mode, I looked over the arsenal of weapons I'd assembled and barely used and wondered if there had been a point to any of it. I decided then to load up all my weapons, go out into the city, and finally see what happens if you stay out past the time limit when the bells ring and all the zombies allegedly go bananas. So I did that, and this really dramatic music started playing, some angry zombies shambled over, and I shot them all in the head. Then I listened to the dramatic music for a bit, then I got bored and went home; it was like working security at a disappointing Pink Floyd concert.
- They call him "The Secret Shopper": Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I mean, for one thing, you need to understand that it's possible to be both a nutter AND a fascist
- I mean even I did the nutters vs fascists thing in my second novel