Virtual reality headsets and the potential that they currently offer is still very tricky to grasp. On the top end, PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive grab the headlines for the VR gaming experiences that they can offer, but for VR to truly gain a foothold, it has to do more than just be a novelty accessory for your PC or console. That’s especially true when they’re bound to cost a lot of money and require particular hardware to get the best experience.
But almost everyone seems to have a very capable VR device in their pockets already, with smartphones having long had the high pixel density screens and the processing power to deliver a more than adequate, truly mass market experience, when combined with a housing and some lenses.
Samsung’s Gear VR arrives in stores tomorrow in the US and is perhaps the highest profile example of this, with a variety of apps to let you explore 360 photos, sit in your own private cinema (or pretend to be an ant staring up at a monolithic phone), and even play a handful of games. Just as with VR’s top tier, it’s CCP Games leading charge with EVE: Gunjack, another spin off from their popular MMO universe, launching tomorrow alongside the system.
Each level starts with your character strapping himself into the seat of their gun turret, pulling the various bars and handles into place as an officer gives you a few words of advice and it ascends through the hull, exposing itself to the vastness of space bryond.
The attacking ships soon start to fly into view, coming in formation as they swoop past and eventually attack you directly. Aiming is as simple as moving your head to track them, while firing sees you pressing on the touchpad on the side of the Gear VR.
It’s wonderfully simple and intuitive to play, and it’s helped by the enemies coming at you in shoot ’em up-like formations and patterns, giving you the simple joy of trying to lead them and unleash a hail of bullets in their path.
Of course, as you progress to later levels, they start to throw trickier enemies your way. They start to fire missiles that you then need to target, rather than suicide attacking you, larger ships spawn smaller ones, asteroids will break up into a hail of smaller ships, other enemies teleport around, there are groups of puzzle-like shielded enemies, and so on.
At times, so many attackers come into view that it’s impossible to know who to shoot at first, let alone find time to swipe backwards and reload your main gun. You’re given a little assistance from enemies that drop power ups, ranging from repair kits and homing missiles to stasis fields, artillery cannons and more, but again, it’s tricky to know when to use them and when to hold onto them.
That ability to learn the patterns and improve your score lends it a good deal of replay potential, which is actually a necessity, when later levels are gated behind how many stars you’ve earnt – yes, each level has three score-based stars to award, in typical mobile game fashion.
Yet, there’s an inherent loneliness to the experience, when you think about it. It’s just you, the incoming swarms of enemies and the vast emptiness of space. I’m the only one defending this ship, it seems, and there’s no grander battle to be seen, no tracer fire from faux-comrades in arms further down the ship. It was part of the reason why I felt the need to take the Gear VR off and have a little break, after a few missions, emerging back into the real world and squinting in the light as I reminded myself of the corporeal existence of other people in the room.
The small scale feel of the battle was almost certainly down to the need to balance the game’s graphical demands with not wanting to run through half the phone’s battery in a single session. The graphics as a whole are pretty good, but won’t blow your socks off – real or virtual – like the impressive tech demos that are trotted out on stage at product launches, though this also feels like an attempt to avoid featuring too much unnecessary visual noise, as you try to pick out the small enemies that flit around against the dark background.
As for the Gear VR itself, it ultimately feels too limited in what it can do. It’s a far better integrated system and would certainly provide a more premium experience than Google Cardboard, thanks to the solid construction and the touchpad that allows you to tap and swipe in order to navigate menus, going beyond Cardboard’s single magnetic switch. Yet you’re restricted to only a handful of compatible top tier Samsung devices – the Samsung Galaxy Note5, Galaxy S6 edge+, Galaxy S6, Galaxy S6 edge – and that feels like it will limit the potential for VR to grow by way of mobile, by gating it off from the vast majority of smartphone users.
If you do find yourself picking up a Gear VR, though, then Gunjack certainly provides one of a handful of reasons to play with it. Much like it’s sister game, Valkyrie, it looks to be making the best use of the system, with a simplistic but fun shooter.