This is how I'd love to play all first-person shooters from now on, but it's also completely impractical.
Of course, that's not what I'm thinking as I stand in a crowded upstairs conference room at the Los Angeles Convention Center while looking out across the surface of a strange planet, fake, plastic gun in my sweaty, real hands.
What I think is: This is cool as fuck!
What I'm playing isn't really even a game; it's a stripped-down tech demo from Impulse Gear. The demo combines the virtual reality of Project Morpheus with the body tracking of the PlayStation 4 and the gun aiming of PlayStation Move's Sharpshooter peripheral.
The graphics are passable, but certainly not up to the high fidelity one expects from a PS4 game. But I don't for an instant think about that. Instead, I marvel at not just being inside the game, but having the game track my gun movements and aiming; my ducking, leaning and spinning around.
"Another writer warns me off the tech demo."
Even before I get a chance to drop into the game — actually, when I first walk into the room that serves as temporary home to a Project Morpheus "arcade" — another writer warns me off the tech demo. You might not want to try that if you have a thing about spiders, he says, looking slightly wild-eyed. He said he had to stop the demo after being confronted by a virtual space arachnid in the game.
So I approach the game with a slight bit of trepidation, especially after the bicycle VR demo plucked at my fear of heights.
After I slip on the headset gear, one of the folks demoing the tech hands me a modified Sharpshooter. It's worth noting that I've always been a big fan of the PlayStation 3's Sharpshooter. The collapsible collection of molded plastic and screws loosely resembles some sort of automatic weapon, and is designed to house both the Move wand and its odd little Navigation controller. The snow cone-shaped Move controller slips into the nose of the gun, the other controller into the foregrip.
I loved the Sharpshooter so much that for my review of Killzone 3 in 2011, I actually played through the entire game with it. At the time, I called the controller proof that motion controls could work in a first-person shooter. So I am familiar, even enjoy, the sometimes slightly loose aiming of the molded-plastic rifle.
This particular Sharpshooter has been heavily modified. In fact, all that's left of the original peripheral is the shell, Seth Lusi, founder of Impulse Gear, tells me in an email interview the week after the show.
"The experimental controller just used the shell of the Sharpshooter and Navigation controller," he says. "I can't go into specifics, but it actually has a controller integrated into it and it is just using the plastic from the Sharpshooter, Navigation controller and the ball for tracking from the Move. It also has an extra analog stick mounted on the back (the original Sharpshooter with Navigation controller only had one analog stick)."
All of that tech jammed into the slim lines of the collapsible shell is mostly for prototyping what can be done with a first-person shooter in VR, Lusi explains.
"The intention is to look at an all-new integrated controller in the future with a better form factor and tracking, if things move forward," he says. "Right now it is still just an experiment and not a product or even a prototype for a product."
As accustomed as I am to the feel of the Sharpshooter in my hands, it's amazing to see its virtual representation — a generic battle rifle — respond with near-perfect precision to my real-world movements. When I lift the gun up to my shoulder, as if to aim down sights, I see my virtual arms do the same and, incredibly, notice that this particular virtual weapon has a slightly magnified scope that actually works when I hold it up to my virtual eye. A red laser also helps with aiming.
The prototype is designed to be played in two different ways. Players can either use the front thumbstick to move and the back thumbstick to aim, or they can use their body and where they are looking to aim.
"When standing we have created our prototype so that you can perform all rotation just by you turning your whole body," Lusi says. "You physically turn around to rotate and this is mapped 1:1 in game. You can also walk a little within the tracking view of the camera, but with the limited space at E3 we were not encouraging this.
"We do still have the second stick for rotation if you are sitting (and cannot rotate your whole body as far as you need to) or for more advanced players who are comfortable using the stick to rotate and they want to keep their feet planted (and not rotate their whole body).
"We are still doing a lot of experimentation to see what is going to work best for the widest range of users."
The prototype opens with the player in a bare room that looks a bit like an inactive holodeck. After a few seconds of growing accustomed to the room, the walls melt away to reveal an interstellar landscape on some unknown planet. And there are giant red spiders here.
They creepy-crawl their way toward me in pairs and I easily pick them off by pointing the plastic toy in my hands down at the ground and firing at them. As I progress through the landscape things become increasingly difficult, but the fun keeps up.
Figures in blue-tinged armor and glowing facemasks start to walk over the hill toward me. They carry rifles not unlike my own. I can see their aim and typically can scramble out of the way of their fire. I book it forward using my thumbstick and stop just behind an upright chunk of alien stone. As I crouch down in the real world, my virtual counterpart does the same. Then we both lean to the left, rifle firmly tucked into the pit where shoulder meets chest. We lift the rifle, aim through the slightly magnified scope and pop off a shot, downing one of the aliens. I swivel and lean in the other direction, quickly taking out the second alien.
In the distance, I see a cluster of three aliens hiding behind a rock just below a cliff face. I can't help but notice that the cliff eases down to my level like an onramp. I run for it, crouching as I approach the aliens from above, then drop next to them, spin and fire. Suddenly, I notice something a bit surprising: a cord wrapping around my midsection. It's the connector to my virtual gear, a tether to reality, which in my excitement I forgot even existed.
In my moment of confusion, the aliens kill me. I take a second run at the area, clearing out the cluster and then methodically working up the slow hill of the planet surface. Armored aliens and spiders begin to swarm me. I'm shifting left and right, moving the rifle quickly from target to target, mostly hitting what I'm aiming at.
It's a blending of motion controls, virtual reality and surround sound that pulls me at me like few games have before. I'm sure I'll one day grow accustomed to this feeling, but right now, right here, I feel like I'm playing my first video game ever.
The satisfaction and fun of playing a shooter with one-to-one controls in a full virtual reality setting can't be overstated. That said, I still think this tech has a long way to go. And not because it isn't good, or I wouldn't buy it.
Virtual reality will most certainly find a stalwart fanbase, but I don't think it, or any of the innovations that come with it, will find mainstream consumer success, not yet.
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