Almost everything sounds immeasurably cooler if you append it with “… in space”. Ice cream, horror films, sex, dinosaurs, they’re all cooler in space. In fact, the only thing I can think of being diminished by being in outer space is food. So what are you going to do to stand out against the growing crowd of VR first person shooters? Well, have it in space, of course!
One fun fact about Space Junkies is that Ubisoft first tested it and VR on astronauts, to learn about motion sickness. As Adrian Lacey, producer at Ubisoft Montpellier, recalled, “We learnt a lot about motion sickness and how people are impacted by it, so like in car sickness. We actually worked with a couple of French astronauts, and it was weird. We had a professional test pilot who’s been to outer space, like, six times, and it was making me laugh because we put him in the game and he was saying, ‘Oh, I’ll be sick straight away!’ He’s a test pilot, he’s flying in space, doing these crazy things, but it’s like a formula 1 simulator. He has an extremely high refresh rate sensitivity, so simulators make him sick, anything. One of the other astronauts didn’t care, he was just like, ‘Oh yeah, he’s a wimp!'”
But what do these astronauts think of the game now? Ubisoft haven’t gone to find out. “The funny thing is when you put astronauts in VR, they just want a simulator!” Adrian laughed.
The key to getting zero-G movement right rests very much in the control scheme. The biggest thing to get used to if you’re a newcomer to first person VR is that you’re leading your direction with your head, instead of using the analogue sticks, but outside of that, these controls are pretty easy to pick up and play with if you’re familiar with a standard FPS. There is, however, a more interactive twist to them, especially with dual motion controls as found on Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, where you have grip buttons and these are used for you to manually reach out and grab weapons that are floating in space for you.
By default, you have a standard fast-firing pistol on your hip that you can fall back on, reloading it by flicking your wrist when the barrel pops forward to show that it’s empty. You can dual wield these and some of the other weapons, but things get more interesting when you’re using two-handed guns. The rail gun requires that you hold a handle on the side for it to charge up, the shotgun has you have to manually pump it to eject the spent cartridges, while the explosive slingshot has you pulling it back. There’s a great physicality to all of this, especially when you reach over your shoulder and find a shield and sword.
At least, there’s a lot of physicality on Rift and Vive, but on PlayStation VR you don’t have quite as much flexibility. The game still looks and plays great, but it’s given a different tone through only having support for DualShock 4.
“One of the big things for us is the sticks and D-pad,” Adrian said. “The Move is older hardware so they didn’t have those sticks. We did look at Aim, but then we lost that two handed feel, and we didn’t want to go down that road because it was something different. We have started looking at a 3D rudder system, which is a pad combined with Move, but at the moment we’re focussed on the pad. ”
The game feels a lot more freeform on Rift, but still works well on PSVR. Still, this is only really a concern when factoring in that there’s cross-platform multiplayer, and differences in player capabilities can come into play. Naturally that’s something Ubisoft are aware of.
Adrian explained, “There are a couple of areas, like the shield which is actually positionally tracked and free movement on other headsets, so you can block behind, you can block above, etc. but on PSVR it’s basically a fixed position. On the flip side, there’s other weapons that give you an advantage because the reload isn’t on [your motions]. Like the shotgun that’s quicker on PSVR.
“Until we have those communities playing on a regular basis and we get those stats back, it’s very hard for us to balance it out. That’s the part of being live; we balance on a live basis.”
The handful of arenas are nice and compact, with plenty of angles and cover to use to your advantage. They go from weird alien asteroids to space stations and back again. A big part of the game is sound, where you can listen closely for the propulsion or gunfire of others. It’s important to get the drop on people, but even then you also need to be accurate.
Outside of being set in space and using VR, there’s a rather old-school sensibility to how the game works. It’s reminiscent of Deathmatch classics Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament, the way in which you gain an advantage from learning the maps. You start off with a stock weapon, but armour, health and different guns can be found in set locations and reappear on timers – these timers help give you an indication of when other players might have passed through. You do still have different characters to unlock and choose from, but these are only there to shift the fundamental stats of Health, Speed and Agility back and forth. There’s no special character abilities, as you’d find in a hero shooter.
That doesn’t mean the game doesn’t have personality. For a competitive shooter, there’s actually a rather nice and relaxed feel to it thanks to the pre-match lobbies, where you can hang out with people, try out some guns, play with a beachball and generally just fly around in zero-G, throw some shapes with the hand gestures.
If there’s one place where I feel Space Junkies misses out, it’s in the number of players in a match. It’s up to four players, either in a free for all or split into pairs. That’s great for games of cat and mouse through the levels, but it’s lower than found in any of the other head to head shooters found on VR. Just looking at PSVR, Firewall is two teams of four, RIGS two teams of three, and the soon to be defunct StarBlood Arena goes up to eight as well. Thankfully, that’s on Ubisoft’s to-do list – “We will look to increase the number of players as we fill out post launch,” Adrian said.
He continued, “We have a live plan, so we have more content coming. I think one of the big things we saw that a lot of games didn’t have is regular updates. People are used to regular updates, extra content, maps, new stuff, new skins. I think that’s important to give that to players nowadays, so we have stuff that will drop every 3 or 4 weeks in different episodes. ”
Even then, I do worry about the potential skill gap that could soon emerge and how that might affect the game’s longevity for some. Even in the demo session, one of us was clearly far more experienced and superior in VR, and though I got a few kills, I was mainly on the wrong end of some big beat downs. With more people in a match, the better players can still stand out, but they can be ganged up on, to a certain extent, or their prowess spread across a larger pool of players.
There’s a lot of promise for Space Junkies, and as Ubisoft talk about having regular content drops, of how it soft launched in VR arcades and they’ve been pitching it to esports player, it’s clear that this game is being thought of as a long term prospect for the company. At the simplest level, it’s fun to test yourself against others in intuitive zero-G combat.
But now that Nintendo are stepping into VR (news that came out on the day we went to play Space Junkies), I had to ask if there was Labo VR support in the works.
“I’d love to do it on Switch,” Adrian laughed. “I think it’d be great! With those controllers? I’d love to do it on Switch VR, I’m just not sure it’s going to work just yet – I don’t think it’s got enough power [for Space Junkies] – but it means they believe in VR, see? So who knows, Switch 2 might be VR compatible too!”