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Hands-on with The Walking Dead's weird new approach to virtual reality

Last night, Starbreeze kicked off E3 with a surprise announcement: It had developed a new virtual reality headset called StarVR alongside its upcoming game based on The Walking Dead. We were in attendance at the announcement and were able to get a hands on with what Starbreeze is calling "Overkill's The Walking Dead VR experience," a StarVR demo crafted for E3.

There are two immediately noteworthy things about this demo for StarVR. First, you play as a character in a wheelchair who is being pushed through an area by another character. This means you have no free movement. It's essentially an on-rails experience and suggests that Starbreeze hasn't yet decided how it wants to approach controls with the new hardware.

Second, the hardware itself, while technically impressive, is clearly still very young. The early version of StarVR that we tried could not yet accommodate glasses and more or less required help from others to get it properly attached and removed.

While that made my experience with Overkill's The Walking Dead blurrier than I might have liked, it didn't take away from how impressive the technology behind it was. StarVR's major claim to fame is a 210 degree field of view, which Starbreeze says provides full immersion better than any other current VR headset.

While the veracity of that claim can be argued, there's no denying that once I was inside the world of Overkill's The Walking Dead with the StarVR on, everything else fades away. I played in a loud, crowded party setting but as soon as the headset was on, other conversations going on around me disappeared.

From the start, Overkill's The Walking Dead gives a distinct sense of dread and helplessness that is often missing from horror games. For the first minute or so, all I could do was look around as two out-of-sight characters had an argument about whether or not they could afford to push my wheelchair. In the distance, I could vaguely make out the hungry growls of hordes of the undead somewhere just outside.

While it all feels immersive enough from the start, the reality of virtual reality really sinks in once one of the other characters begins pushing your wheelchair. The sensation of movement within this world — even as I was sitting still in the real world — is astonishing and made at least one other person who tried the demo before me a little light-headed.

About halfway through the demo, I was handed a shotgun. Both in the game and in real life. In a moment that reminded me of the weird dual realities I was currently existing in, a Starbreeze rep places a plastic toy shotgun into my hands, just as a character handed me a virtual shotgun in the game. The "real" fake shotgun had special sensors attached to it so that the game could track it. As I aimed in the real world, I aimed in the game.

The effect is cool, if a little goofy. Starbreeze isn't ready to confirm whether this shotgun add-on will actually potentially be something it will sell with the game. In fact, it's not even saying whether Overkill's The Walking Dead will be StarVR exclusive or whether this is just a cool test created to show off the new technology.

My biggest concern is that between the lack of free movement and the plastic toy shotgun, Overkill's The Walking Dead, in this form, feels more like a '90s arcade game than a modern shooter. Holding and aiming a weapon in the real world as it happens in game feels completely different from the average shooters, but the demo is clearly built with a lot of auto-aim correction built in. Zombies who I'm pretty sure I completely missed crumpled to the ground in detailed but seemingly pre-canned animations.

This demo is also currently missing any of the co-op elements that developer Overkill has become so well-regarded for. During the announcement of StarVR, it's reiterated that this will be a co-op shooter, so that problem will be solved at some point.

For now, Overkill's The Walking Dead is simultaneously a cool, short experience showing off some tech that has a lot of potential but also a slight warning sign. There's little doubt the full game will be more fleshed out than the experience presented here; I just hope it doesn't get lost in the gimmickry of adapting to new hardware.