The people behind the PlayStation's Killzone franchise think they have the perfect solution for turning a first-person shooter into a fast, fun virtual reality game: It involves high-speed mechs, massive sports arenas and, of course, lots of gunfire.
Rigs has players stepping into near-future sports mechs to compete for high scores in front of massive audiences.
So far, developers Guerrilla Cambridge have only shown off a single mode for the mechanized sports league game, and it's a doozy. Power Slam combines light elements of soccer and basketball if both sports were played by jet-powered, weapon-bristling giant mechs.
The gameplay and concept would already be fun on its own, but it's absolutely stunning when combined with Project Morpheus.
Players sit in a chair, wearing the virtual reality headset, while holding a PlayStation 4 controller in their hands. The game controls as you would expect, with one major exception: Instead of aiming with the controller's right stick, you aim by looking around. Where you look is also where your mechanized combat suit turns.
The colorful spectacle of a massive arena with massive crowds serves as a fantastic backdrop to the game's almost surrealistic arena, which is a mass of looping, curving ramps and pathways all leading to a single, floating ring of steel. The object of the mode is to get your mech into overdrive by killing other mechs and then running up the ramps and jumping down through the hoop to score a point, before an opponent blows you up. The team with the most points scored at the end of the time limit wins.
It's a fast-paced, fun game of cat and mouse as teams try to overdrive their mechs and then protect the then glowing suit as it makes a run for the top of the arena and a point.
Each suit has weapons on both arms as well as the ability to distribute power in three different ways, by pressing different face buttons. The default distribution slowly auto-repairs the mech when it's not taking damage. A player can also switch to boost damage or boost speed. When in overdrive mode, all three distributions are active.
The game's concept was born out of the studio's desire to bring a first-person shooter to virtual reality.
"We wanted to be on Morpheus and we were looking for a solution that would allow us to do that," said Piers Jackson, game director at Guerrilla Cambridge. "Putting yourself in a mech, or a rig as we call it, and allowing you to move and fight really worked as a concept. It flourished from there. We got a lot of input from the team. We opened it up to the group and collected some ideas. Very early on we latched on to the idea of a sports angle to this, so we could challenge people and take it somewhere different and original that we hadn't seen before.
Guerrilla Cambridge art director Tom Jones added that they didn't want another generic, slow mech game.
"There's been a lot of effort to differentiating the art style in particular, because it's VR and you do get to be in them and drive them," Jones said. "Being faster, jumping high, it's a big part of the experience."
While the game will include other modes, the team decided they wanted to focus on showing off just one when the game was unveiled at E3.
"It has all the drama and tension you'd expect from a sport," Jackson said. "People can stop you the moment before you score, or as it's coming up to halftime, time runs out and you don't get the goal. That drama and tension of sports was central to what we wanted to achieve."
The inherent drama of the mode, Jones said, means that players are able to get a sense of the game and how fun it is with just five or 10 minutes of gameplay.
In action the game is all drama. Within seconds, players are on top of each other. The layered map means you're constantly looking up, down and around you trying to find targets and stay out of the thick of battle. The mechs move fast and can jump quite far. Some can double-jump; some can hover. Being able to switch power distribution on the fly makes for a lot more nuance than you might expect.
The most obvious innovation the game delivers, its use of virtual reality, is both stunning in its impact, but also almost forgettable in a very important way. When you first hop into the game, your world is completely taken over by the colorful, over-the-top aesthetics of Rigs. Everything is eye-catching. It feels as if you've been dipped into a better, more colorful reality.
While developers warned me to take it slow at first and not oversteer or aim by looking around too much, I found getting used to and even sort of mastering the controls effortless. You aim where you look; it's pretty natural — more natural than using your thumb to guide your gaze.
I only had a chance to play a single match, but it was one of the most memorable experiences I had at E3.
The game managed to capture the same sort of physical-world-meets-video-game fun found in things like laser tag, but it did it with a console. The sense of being there was so strong, it came as an afterthought, not a realization. It wasn't that I played the game marveling at how it was a fun virtual reality experience; it was that I was there, playing and then noticed later that it felt more like an in-person game than a virtual one.
In designing the game, the team pushed hard to differentiate Rigs from other mech games. The touchstone for their flavor of mechanized combat was sports. The game is meant to take place only about 50 years in the future. The goal was to show how various technologies might collide with various sports and result in the mechanized combat league.
"We felt that if we had to write a backstory and really explain it, we may have pushed too far into the future," Jackson said.
Art director Jones said in designing the look of the game they had to think of it as a sport first.
"So you want to have the real-world references," he said. "That's where a lot of sponsorship comes from, a lot of the color and making them look like multimillion-dollar machines where a lot of money has been spent. But that's more on a superficial level. We spent a lot of time trying to make things look as if they could really work. There's been a lot of head-scratching trying to figure that out. But at the core there's a semblance of mechanics, figuring out how the engine fits in and drives, all the suspension. The cool thing about that is, when you're in the game and you look around at your Rig, it has a sense of presence and reality.
"That's why we've embraced that style."
Jones worked hard with the virtual reality team to nail that, Jackson said.
"It's about power and light weight," he said. "That's the cornerstone of any sporting vehicle. You don't carry any excess weight. Everything is devoted to driving the vehicle. The blades on the bottom, the way the rigs are hollowed through, these are not tanks. They've never been designed as war machines. They've always been designed as sports vehicles."
Virtual reality has to be fun first, but a close second is making sure that the experiences — all delivered to a single person inside a headset — isn't completely isolating. Virtual reality, most people agree, also has to include a way to remove that in-built isolation.
For Rigs, that means using the television screen as a sort of window into the world of mechanized sports.
"We could do it in a number of ways, not least of them streaming, watching live streams of people playing," said Jackson. "The setup we have here is bespoke for E3. We're running on a network here with spectator kits watching the game going on, so people can see what's happening. But there's a number of ways we can do it."
The team, Jackson added, still hasn't settled on which approach might work best. But among the things the team is weighing is the value of eSports and the impact it might have on the game.
"We're all big fans of eSports," he said. "It's something we're not shying away from. We're reaching out to the community and talking with them about the possibility. Our goal up front, though, is to develop a first-person shooter and a sporting title and see where we go from there. One thing we do know from all our testing is that it is fun to watch. You can sit in the stands and watch a game and it's dramatic when people are scoring goals, getting takedowns, or denying attacks. It works well as a spectator sport."