It's easy to feel a bit sick as you're floating a few hundred feet off the ground, held in place with an energy field. I take a minute to look around and figure out the best place to land, but my stomach lurches again as I fall onto the metal scaffolding that circles the room.
"We don’t recommend Strafe as anyone's first VR experience. We are building with skilled PC FPS players in mind, not the general VR audience," designer Thom Glunt told me later. Strafe, as you probably know from the amazing trailer, is a fast-paced throwback to games like Doom and Quake.
I've been sent a very early build to try in virtual reality and it's a very interesting experience. One that's proven a bit challenging as I zoom around the levels and look around to find my targets.
VR isn't easy
The version of the game I'm trying keeps the crosshair in front of your character's model, which gives you the freedom to look one way and fire in another. But to do that, the team has implemented some weird controls. For instance, the mouse moves your weapon up and down, while the vertical movement of your head is handled by your actual, physical head. To look up you literally look up, but if you want to aim up you have to use the mouse. It sounds a bit complicated when written out, but in practice it's instantly understandable.
"This scheme gives you all the accuracy of mouse and keyboard while still allowing you to feel a part of the world," Glunt explained. "You never lose track of which way is forward and you still get the VR magic of quickly turning to look over your shoulder at an approaching enemy."
"With that said we are going to give the player granular control of their experience since VR is still in its infancy and people have strong preferences as to what they like," he continued. The goal is to find something that works for skilled players, and I found myself able to pull off some difficult shots while darting my head around to keep track of the enemies that surround me.
There's also the challenge of giving the player information, which is trickier than it seems due to the fact you feel like you're inside the game. The ammo counter is right there on your gun, so you can look down to see how many shots you have left, but things like health and armor are harder challenges.
"The HUD has been hard to get feeling right and currently isn't ready to show off. Making a fixed reference to help people from feeling simulator sickness is a tough challenge," Glunt said.
"We want to keep the important information non blurry and visible for each eye to reduce strain. The approach we will most likely end up with is a HUD that physically feels close to the face with its display information projected a few feet out into the world space. This way you don't feel like the helmet is an unrealistically big bubble around your head and the information is clear and justified by art direction."
The conversation proved that the team wasn't just throwing in Rift support, they were approaching VR implementation in the right way, making sure the game actually made sense and was as comfortable as possible when played in virtual reality.
"VR really makes the bullet travel feel more impactful," Glunt said. "Feeling the spread of a gun's fire as it comes from the barrel in front of you and out to your enemy's face is very satisfying and easier to understand in 3D space." The game's retro-futuristic design, complete with huge, blocky pixels, also works well in virtual reality.
The game's environments and weapons have a sense of weight and reality that, oddly enough, is helped along by the stylized nature of the environment. It's like an ultra-violent, Quake-inspired Lego world, but you get to paint the walls with the blood of your enemies. Even this limited build is a blast, although I will admit I had to fight to keep my lunch down a few times.
This isn't a game that's going to slow down due to virtual reality, in fact the opposite happened. Expect an experience that, like the rest of the game, is aimed squarely at the ultra-hardcore virtual reality fans.
"It’s always fun when a fountain of blood and gibs sprays right at you or the ceiling drips blood from above," Glunt told Polygon. "Also we found strafing through projectiles a lot easier to navigate and may speed them up as a reaction to that, we weren’t expecting VR to make us want to speed anything up so that’s a cool discovery."