There’s a big divide between a game that demos well and one which can develop into a release that can captivate a player for hours at a time. When some of the main paradigms of gaming are challenged, as so many of them are with virtual reality, It can be difficult for early tech demos and prototypes to shift gears into something bigger.
And we saw yesterday with our first batch of VR games for HTC Vive under the microscope, that many of these games come from indie developers and have honed in on doing just a handful of things very well. To my mind, today’s selection shows how that next step is already being taken.
Budget Cuts | HTC Vive | Near Corporation | Demo
Though it’s currently just a pre-alpha demo, Budget Cuts easily provides one of those “I get it now!” moments for VR sceptics. It builds on the point and click movement method seen in other games by letting you fire a ball that turns into a portal for you to look thought before you teleport to that point.
And that’s vital, because you’re trying to be stealthy as you infiltrate a nondescript office building and try to approve your own job application. You’re avoiding robot guards, firing portals through vents, throwing knives and firing darts, with each successful hit seeing robots crumple to the ground with an overly cute cry of pain.
Everything is in place to make you feel like a badass super spy… who just so happens to be infiltrating an office. Even so, it’s very cool and already feels well polished, simplified enough to suit the controls available to you, but also cleverly constructed so you that find yourself crouching to peer through vents or work your way through a ceiling, cautiously lean around corners and so on. Capturing that feeling makes this one to pay an awful lot of attention to.
The only real disconnect is that deep in the back of your mind you know that none of this is real. Trying to sneak through a room in real life, you might crawl around, or at least stoop and balance yourself against a wall. There’s just something stopping me from trying to emulate that in Budget Cuts, where I’m much more likely to stay rooted to the spot and teleport a metre instead of walking there.
Perhaps it was the visibility of the chaperone. This was one of a handful of games that flashed up a warning saying that my 2m X 1.7m play area was too small – it demands 2m X 2m which I ignored. Another of note was Unseen Diplomacy, a similarly stealthy 4 minute demo that requires 3m X 4m, and with a lot of physical movement.
Final Approach | HTC Vive | Phaser Lock Interactive | £18.99
If you’re even vaguely familiar with a charming iOS game called Flight Control, you know exactly what Final Approach is all about. You play an all powerful air traffic controller, drawing lines of flight to bring planes into land safely, but this time you’re presiding over a gorgeous 3D map and are tracing your lines with height taken into account as well, not to mention the speed and larger turning circles of bigger planes.
You’re also not just in charge of calling planes in to land, but take helicopters to pick up items and deliver them elsewhere, taxi commercial flights from terminals, cater to military flights, send planes off to be repaired and manage crises yourself. Planes will often come in on fire and demand your assistance, forcing you to tap on a spot and man a hose, pull out an air horn to scare away seagulls and even sort through and fling luggage into the right baggage bins. Sadly, though it helps shake things up, at ground level, the game looks nowhere near as good as when seen from your god’s eye view.
It can feel very cool to be able to lean right into the airport and peer at the planes and workers up close, but at the same time, it’s quietly disconcerting that your actually stood thigh high, right in the middle of it. You also need to be wary of not having the headset secured properly, as you’ll be looking down a lot which can shift the focus if it’s not. It’s also difficult to keep track of your objectives sometimes, let alone have to move and look around yourself to spot new incoming flights.
In retrospect, adapting Flight Control to VR is a no brainer, but Phaser Lock Interactive have endeavoured to build on that games core idea, and pretty much pulled it off.
Hover Junkers | HTC Vive | Stress Level Zero | £26.99
As a first attempt at creating a virtual reality multiplayer shooter, Hover Junkers is pretty clever, but falls short of finding a lasting solution for others to follow. Instead of trying to have you run around an arena, as in a tradition FPS, you’re instead stood on a hover barge that you drive around and use as cover when firing at others.
In that regard, it actually works very well, with revolvers, shotguns and SMGs that are fun to use and feature clever reloading systems, if rather tricky to learn how to aim accurately. It’s quite cool and fun to try and hunker down behind a part of your junker and pop out to shoot your opponents – the game clearly does some minor guesswork to determine each player’s pose and position.
However, it’s just not that satisfying a game to play right now. The world tends towards the dull and brown, shrouded in fog to help keep the frame rate high, and the floating barges don’t result in the kinds of running battles that you might expect, but rather see people crash into each other and then take pot shots. It’s an interesting attempt, but not the multiplayer shooter I was hoping for.
Catlateral Damage | PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Ouya, Razer, HTC Vive | Chris Chung | £6.99
Cats knock stuff over, sometimes accidentally, sometimes out of some vindictive need to, well, mess with stuff. That’s basically the entire premise of Catlateral Damage; you’re a cat and you knock s*** over.
Having been out on PC for a year, an anniversary update added VR support, giving you two giants paws with which to swat at everything in reach. Except they’re not giant paws, you’ve actually been shrunk down to cat size.
It’s a nice and silly idea, but it doesn’t quite hang together for me. You get around as in most large scale VR games, by pointing and teleporting to where you want to go, but it feels as though the scale could be adjusted so that more things on a bookshelf are in reach and I’m not teleporting quite so often.
Essentially, this is a nice little extra for anyone who’s bought the game before, but falls into the same traps of “simulator” games on any platform, with not quite enough variety and substance to get by.
Vanishing Realms | HTC Vive | Indimo Labs | £14.99
Another game that demanded a 2m square, Vanishing Realms really puts the action into Action RPG. There are no dice rolls here, but rather the physical blocks and attacks of first person combat as you work your way through a mysterious castle and the surrounding area.
With night-time outside and rays of light from the moon cast through the occasional window, it’s got a nice atmosphere. It’s leant a foreboding edge by the stone skulls sculpted into the walls that question your presence, and the cryptic scrolls and books that you come across. They provide light clues as to what you need to do to solve some simplistic puzzles, such as finding a key to a door, finding and putting the right ingredient into a fire etc.
It’s the combat that really shines within VR though, thanks to the one to one motion controls and the chunky, human sized enemies that you face. The reanimated skeleton enemies have a sword and shield in hand, with a metal helmet on their head, making it tricky to land a blow that breaks past this. You first pick up a sword on its own, with a shield following not long after, so as the enemies get faster and more lively in their attacks, you start having to focus on blocking and parrying before you can exploit a weakness in their defence.
Fighting isn’t just up close and personal, but can be ranged as well, and after being lightly tormented by an archer as I worked my way up and around a large room, I got to buy one of my own. That let me exact vengeance, with a bow and arrow to let fly with. It was nicely integrated into the world as well, with one of my first tasks to hit a rope holding a rickety wooden bridge up, so that I could cross and reach the next area.
The game’s currently in Early Access, which includes two 1.5-2 hour long chapters to start with. Those are being polished until Indimio Labs are happy with them, before potentially adding more chapters down the line, so it’s understandable that there are a couple of rough edges. Smashing through crates takes a couple too many hits to be fun, for example, but more importantly, having your inventory and stats placed near your waist doesn’t work, as it forces you to look down into the smudgy periphery of the Vive’s lenses.
Those minor issues aside, Vanishing Realms is an exciting game that shows how VR can adapt existing ideas and really place you in the game.
After yesterday’s limitations, today’s games really show how developers are already finding their feet with VR games that feel like they’re approaching more fully fleshed out experiences, and not just fun demos to show to your family and friends.
Our thanks to Nvidia for loaning us a VR capable laptop for the purposes of reviewing the HTC Vive.