I often find it easy to forget or, perhaps a little more likely, dismiss the upcoming Gear VR system out of hand. It’s a clever idea, to take a modern high end phone which features the same or very similar screen as Oculus’ main VR efforts, put it in a specially designed housing and then use various sensors to deliver a VR experience without needing a high end computer to power it all.
Even more so than with the upcoming first generation of dedicated VR headsets, it’s easy to overlook the potential that the Gear VR holds, but CCP are eager to try and be the beacon for another form of VR with Gunjack. As with Eve: Valkyrie, it’s set in the same Eve game universe that CCP have built and cultivated over the years, but once again, this is a project that stands alone and looks to make the very best of the hardware available, this time by placing you in the seat of a mining ship gun turret.
“It basically started as a two person pitch and became a concept and went from there,” explained Jean-Charles Gadechon, Executive Producer at CCP Shanghai. “It’s always been an objective to make a VR experience out of Shanghai. Valkyrie is made in Newcastle, and it’s this big-ass, deep experience, AAA game in some ways, but I and a few others wanted to do something on a different scale.
“Mobile was a really cool platform for it, so we went in that direction, thinking of something that’s a bit more pick up and play, trying to go back to some of the inspiration of Galaga, Space Invaders and things like that.”
As I pointed out to Jean-Charles, CCP have almost lucked out in the suitability of their main franchise for VR spin offs. The lack of gravity, the graphical demands and the space combat are all naturally suited to the format.
“It’s true!” he replied. “A few questions I’m asked are like, ‘Why space?’ We’re like, ‘Well because we’ve been making space games for 13 years now, or more!’
“It works quite well [as a setting], and it’s also how we could pack so much into the game’s [graphics]. Now, if we had to do a whole city… we’ve done Cologne on a phone and that’s a lot, but with space, we could be smart about how we could pack so much content and performance into a phone.”
Getting perfect performance is rather an important factor for a VR game, and Gunjack did not disappoint. The controls and gameplay are also simplistic out of necessity, with the motion sensors letting you look around with your head to aim, while tapping on a little touchpad on the right hand side of the Innovator Edition Gear VR unit lets you fire, and swipes let you reload and use pickups you’ve acquired. Your job as a gunner is simply to shoot down everything that comes your way, and defend yourself and your ship from the attackers.
Trying to twist Valkyrie’s form of dogfighting to such minimalist inputs was never really on the cards, as Jean-Charles explained, “The idea is to keep it fairly simple, to not have too many things to do. There’s a lot you can do with head tracking, so it’s quite natural, but yeah, flying a proper plane and stuff, there’s a lot more to being a pilot than just head tracking and tapping. At the same time, I think what we learnt on that one is there’s actually quite a bit of stuff we can do with just a touch pad.”
Attacking ships come at you in formation from all angles, and despite generally feeling like I was on top of things, I found my health bar being sapped little by little until I was teetering on the brink of failure. I’d been making sure to use the pickups as and when I got them, whether they gave me a few moments of shielding, a more powerful cannon or homing missiles, yet as the main enemy ship zipped into the system and started to attack, I was left with a sliver of health.
Thankfully, as I shot the guns on the enemy ship before they could fire, pieces of debris were floating around, and firing at them would trigger the turret’s tractor beam, to drag it closer and attach it as some bonus armour. Needless to say, this saved me and I just about managed to defeat the enemy and complete the mission.
There are other concessions to be made to the control system. With the touchpad at eye level, playing the game will have you holding your hand at that height for several minutes at a time. I’m sure you all remember the science lessons at school, where you held your arm up in the air above the level of your heart and clenched your fist repeatedly to build up lactic acid. This is the human body which CCP are having to design around.
“Comfort in general is something we’re trying to be cautious about with VR,” Jean-Charles said. “just so that you adjust with your eyes, brain, having a thing on your face, and all that. Arm tiredness is one of them.
“The level you played, if you’ve done the whole mission, is like six or seven minutes. That was done as a demo, to pack in action and for you to get a good sense of it, but most missions will be three to four minutes for that reason [of comfort], and to make sure that it’s intense but it’s not twenty minutes, where you’re like ‘OK, guys. This is fun, but I can’t handle it.’
“So yeah, we’re being cautious of that and when we launch missions will be a little shorter than what you’ve played now, to counter some of that.”
As refined as Gunjack was, I must admit that I’m still not entirely convinced by the system as a whole. Whereas I’ll be telling you later today that Eve: Valkyrie is a shining example of the potential of the niche virtual reality market, though it’s going to beat them to market this year, Gear VR seems like it will fit an even smaller niche once again. Gunjack does a fine job of making the most of its capabilities, but I can’t help but feel the system as a whole needs more numerous compelling arguments for what it can do.