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Damaged Core: How to make a shooter work in VR

High Voltage's Conduit series landed on Wii and mobile. Now the team is attempting a shooter in VR

Matt Leone has written about games for three decades, focusing on behind-the-scenes coverage of the industry, including books on Final Fantasy 7 and Street Fighter 2.

Like a benchmark, any time a new platform comes along, people try to make first-person shooters for it. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. It happened on Wii and mobile, and now it's happening in VR.

Developer High Voltage Software has been through each of those phases, developing the Conduit series on Wii and later overseeing a mobile port. Now it's developing Damaged Core, a first-person shooter for the Oculus Rift.

While in many ways shooters seem like a natural fit for VR, with the player looking through the eyes of the main character, they don't always work as well as they seem because the amount of movement often makes players feel uncomfortable. High Voltage's solution was to take out the movement.

In Damaged Core, you can't walk or run. Instead, you teleport between stationary enemies (or orbs floating in the sky if you need a bird's eye view). You play an AI and the enemies are robots, so you jump into a robot body, shoot the enemies in your view, then hop out before all the nearby robots turn on you. You can teleport into most enemies you can see, though in some cases they might not be immediately available and have a shield you have to shoot off first, for instance.

Damaged Core

In practice, movement feels great. It's easy to target an enemy and "inhabit" them, and the strategy seems to be more about choosing where to teleport than having perfect aim. When I played it at a recent press event, the most exciting moments came not from killing enemies, but from abandoning bodies at the last possible second. It's like a game of hot potato, using up what you can from one robot then finding another to keep the streak going.

In the level I tried, it seemed like many of the enemies stood still to accommodate this design, giving off a bit of a shooting gallery feel. High Voltage chief creative officer Eric Nofsinger says the team showed the level I played to show how the mechanics work, and that other levels will have more enemies that rush you like you might expect from a traditional shooter.

"On that level, I'd say because of the space it is — the open, almost arena-style play space of that level, which is one of our smallest levels — they tend to give you a little bit more room and not get up on you," says Nofsinger.

Because of that open space, where enemies spawn all over and sometimes behind you, I also turned around a lot while playing. The developers seemingly anticipated this, since at the press event one booth attendee's job was to stand next to the player and hold the cord that sticks out of the headset, moving it as players turned so no one got tangled in the cord.

Damaged Core

Producer Doug Seebach says he hasn't seen many issues with players getting tangled in the cord, and that players who get to understand the game's flow often look 90 degrees to their right or left, and then return their view to the center where they began, and repeat that sequence. Nofsinger adds that in the development team's office, many choose to play sitting down in a swivel chair rather than standing up like at the press event.

As a base concept, though, Damaged Core is already a lot of fun. The rhythm of hopping between characters came because of VR limitations, but feels like something that would be fun in any format.

And as the game plays out, Nofsinger says the team has plenty of other twists on the formula in the works — like a Valkyrie enemy that you inhabit then aim its missiles by tilting your head, and different generations of enemies that you can't inhabit until you upgrade to a certain level. The game will also have bosses, many of which you can't inhabit, and a story worked on by BioShock Infinite and Saints Row writer Drew Holmes.

High Voltage doesn't have any multiplayer plans, and is currently preparing for a spring 2016 launch.

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