PlayStation VR is the cheapest of the three main consumer-oriented virtual reality headsets launching this year, and Sony has done its best to make the device itself user-friendly above all else. Those efforts have paid off; the PlayStation VR unit is tremendously comfortable, even if you're wearing glasses.
But with virtual reality, the hardware is only half the comfort equation. VR developers have the tough task of making games that are immersive and fun without being nauseating. We had the chance to try a bunch of titles at a Sony event in New York City this week, and there's a lot of promise in the launch lineup.
Battlezone — the original 1980 arcade classic from Atari, not Activision's 1998 strategy game — is considered by some to be the first virtual reality arcade game, thanks to its use of pseudo-3D graphics in a first-person perspective, as well as viewing "goggles" that the player put their face into. So it's fitting that Rebellion Developments, which acquired the brand in 2013 from an Atari bankruptcy auction, is literally making a virtual reality Battlezone game.
In development for PlayStation VR (where it will debut exclusively as a launch title) and Oculus Rift, Battlezone brings its predecessor's wireframe aesthetic into the 21st century with a brightly colored low-poly art style that really pops in VR. As in the original game, you pilot a tank from a first-person perspective and have to take out enemy tanks and other threats. The game casts you as humanity's last hope against an evil corporation that has taken over the world.
I played a level from Battlezone's single-player campaign, strapping into a medium tank and heading out into a futuristic urban setting. The vehicle allowed me to switch between a heavy machine gun and an anti-tank cannon that fired arcing blasts. I used the left stick to move and the right stick to aim, and shifted my gaze with head movements. The interface was the coolest part of the experience — all the information you need is conveyed through the tank's HUD, including a radar module in the center that displays the locations of enemies.
Initially, I came across some piddly tanks that I was able to take out with some concentrated fire from the machine gun, but soon saw armored tanks that I had to flank if I wanted to inflict significant damage. The level did a great job of ramping up the challenge, gradually asking more of me. Stationary turrets sat slightly higher than the battlefield, forcing me to shift my eye level and aim upward. Then I had to deal with aerial drones flying around freely and raining fire from above. Finally, a swarm of tiny drones came at me, which is when the game prompted me to blow everything away with an EMP.
"a VR game from the ground up"
Battlezone's campaign is procedurally generated in an effort to make it more replayable. To be clear, the level layouts themselves don't change, but each time you start a new campaign, you'll see different maps, weapons and missions. And the missions are designed to be relatively bite-sized experiences, allowing people to play for as little as five minutes in a single session and feel like they still got a lot out of it. According to senior producer James Valls, Rebellion made that decision because the studio recognized that Battlezone is one of the games that may introduce people to virtual reality, and they might not be ready to play for lengthy sessions.
Valls said that Battlezone "is a VR game from the ground up," although he didn't rule out the possibility of a standard version and said that Rebellion is looking into it. He also couldn't say much about other potential modes, like multiplayer combat, since the game is still early in development. But the campaign level I played was a great demonstration of VR's capacity for immersion: Battlezone could certainly work on a TV, but it wouldn't make you feel like you were in the cockpit of a tank, manning the controls and scanning the environment for enemies. — Samit
Playing DriveClub in VR made me never want to try another racing game with a VR headset.
I was hoping I would enjoy it as a particularly immersive experience, especially since the demo station at Sony's event featured a racing wheel and foot pedals. And in the seconds before the race began, I was mesmerized by the ability to look around in the cockpit view — I could glance at my mirrors by moving my head slightly, and check my blind spots by actually turning around and looking over my shoulders.
It's possible that my brain was confused by the game
The very beginning of the race went fine, since it was on a straightaway. But the first turn was a sharp one that required a sudden deceleration, and that's when I started to feel queasy. Bumping other cars or the track's guardrails didn't seem to cause any issues. But when I slowed down to prepare for a turn, my stomach didn't like it. And the worst offenders were changes in elevation — the track had a couple of hills and dips, and although they were slight, they did not agree with me.
Here's my educated guess for why DriveClub in VR is nauseous. When you're actually driving a car, you feel G-forces on your body with acceleration, deceleration and elevation changes. It's possible that my brain was confused by the game, expecting to feel those forces and not receiving any external input aside from the force feedback provided by the wheel. I'm not really sure why that would be an issue in DriveClub and not in other fast-moving first-person VR games, but both Allegra and I felt very queasy after playing the demo.
David Alonzo, a producer at Sony Interactive Entertainment, told me that this was just a tech demo of DriveClub in VR; the company doesn't have any concrete plans for it at this point. And with Sony having shut down DriveClub developer Evolution Studios a few weeks ago, the future of the project is unclear. Whatever happens, it's going to need some work if Sony intends to release it publicly. — Samit
Rigs: Mechanized Combat League
Guerrilla Cambridge's Rigs: Mechanized Combat League sits in a Venn diagram that covers a lot of awesome video game concepts: sports, mechs, first-person arena combat, high scores and the future. But Daimion Pinnock, a senior producer on the game at publisher Sony Interactive Entertainment, acknowledged that the developer is designing Rigs with the awareness that it's not for everyone.
For one thing, it's a fast-paced game that brings you right into its first-person action, and the movement speed may be too much to bear — especially for VR novices. I don't have a ton of experience playing around with VR headsets, and I felt a twinge of nausea the first couple of times I executed a double-jump with my mech, or bounced backward after being struck with a melee attack.
In focus testing, the developers have found that people have trouble with a variety of movements — some struggle with getting sick while strafing, and others' stomachs don't like it when they look up and down. Pinnock said the team is focusing heavily on minimizing some of the motion in an effort to ease in new players along the "VR learning curve."
Before you load into a round, you see your teammate get picked up by robotic pincers — the kind you'd find in a claw-based vending machine — and placed into their rigs. This happens to you too, but I noticed that the screen faded to black as the claw came close; the image faded back into view when I was already in the rig. And when you die in a match, you get ejected out of your rig and get a bird's-eye perspective of the arena. Pinnock said it's a striking view, but because it can sicken people who aren't accustomed to VR, that effect was turned off during my demo.
I played a mode called Power Slam, a three-on-three game in which an array of curved ramps leads up to a ring that you must fall through in order to score. Thing is, you have to be in "overdrive" mode to score, and to reach that state, you need to get three kills in a row. Overdrive lasts for a limited time, and during that period, your rig's speed, attack power and repair capability are all boosted. That doesn't mean a rig in overdrive can't be stopped, of course, and there's a lot of strategy in figuring out ways to prevent your overdriving opponents from making it into the goal.
easing into the "VR learning curve"
Rigs is played with a standard PS4 controller, not the Move wands, because Guerrilla Cambridge felt that the DualShock 4 was "more representative of what the game is," according to Pinnock. You move with the left stick and turn with the right, but precise aiming of your guns is determined by your head movements. So it felt awesome when I looked up to see a rig a few levels above me, and shot him right out of the air. Different rigs have unique abilities: Mine could double-jump, but others can hover in midair, for example. And although it's a competitive multiplayer game, Rigs will also offer a career-style league for solo play. That should help acclimate players to the game's high-pressure competitive environment. — Samit
SuperHyperCube has no right to be so exhilarating. It's a slow-paced, geometric brain teaser in virtual reality — think Tetris, but with just one stack of blocks to navigate into a specifically shaped hole. Yet despite its unexciting premise, SuperHyperCube has the most potential to become a crossover hit.
I was drawn to play the otherwise unassuming game thanks to its recent 360-degree trailer, which allows viewers to pull the screen in all directions as an oddly shaped brick travels through space. That video shows off the essence of SuperHyperCube: It's not just a methodical puzzle game, but a space travel adventure of sorts. Using the DualShock 4 controller, players ship one block into a hole in a wall floating in space. This adds a block to your stack, which continues to grow over the course of your trip.
The game starts you off easy; guiding a stack of two or three horizontal bricks into a hole isn't especially hard. If you're confident in your solution to the puzzle, you can speed up the block formation's trip toward the hole.
Being good at a game isn't fun; getting good at it is
This is SuperHyperCube's best trick. Because its early levels are quite simple, I got cocky about my skills right quick. "Does this get any harder?" I asked the Sony rep guiding my demo, after quickly completing 10 or so of the puzzles.
With the headset on, I couldn't see him smile — a knowing smile of what was to come. With each pass through the '80s arcade-inspired, Tron-esque environment (think neon lights atop black backgrounds), the formation you're in charge of becomes more complicated. So do the holes. It probably isn't surprising that in my overconfidence, I repeatedly smashed my traveling stacks against the walls instead of the carved-out spaces within them. When that happens, you lose some of these blocks accordingly; by the end of the demo, I was left with just two remaining.
This wasn't frustrating. The building anxiety I experienced as the difficulty crept up on me, slowly but surely, was satisfying. Being good at a game from the start isn't fun; getting good at it is. That's the hypnotic power of the easily approachable, very stylish SuperHyperCube. — Allegra
Until Dawn: Rush of Blood ditches much of what I loved about last year's Until Dawn: In lieu of twitchy decision-making and chatty cutscenes, the VR prequel is a first-person rail shooter heavy on the jump scares. What it lacks in character development and replayability, however, is more than made up with its sheer sense of fun.
Rush of Blood is a fairly typical on-rails experience. I stepped into the scary head of Josh, one of Until Dawn's most damaged teens, for a haunted hayride through hell. Wielding dual shotguns, I sat in a rickety cart that trudged into the house of horrors. Although the scares are meant to be psychological — these are visions that a delirious Josh is having after his sisters die brutal, mysterious deaths — the atmosphere is reminiscent of an amusement park.
less charming than its predecessor
It's the creepiest theme park ever, of course; masked ghouls and deranged villains lunge at you, which wearing the PlayStation VR headset makes all the more frightening. I never felt inclined to jump out of my chair, but the pervasive sense of dread is undeniable. The cart stops and starts, speeds up and slows down; the most intense part of the demo I played came when several enemies popped in and out of view in the dark room I was forced to stop in.
The gunplay is less effective. Shooting at enemies is more annoying than fun, and I died several times thanks to my poor aim. The poor lighting of the course is good for setting the tone, but otherwise not great for getting through a level without having to restart a section.
More importantly, the entire experience feels, if not derivative, lacking in comparison to its predecessor. Rail shooters are great in virtual reality; playing Rush of Blood is virtually identical to a real theme park ride. I felt like I was actually in motion, and even when the enemies weren't terrifying, their proximity to my face was deeply unnerving. But Rush of Blood lacks Until Dawn's quirky charm, and the gameplay gets in the atmospheric horror's way more often than not. As a diversion from the PlayStation VR's other amusements, however, the rail shooter is fun for a short ride. — Allegra
Of the various PlayStation VR games I've tried thus far, Wayward Sky is the one I found most familiar — comfortably so.
A major reason for that "comfortable" part stems from director Chandana "Eka" Ekanayake's dedicated effort to make a game in virtual reality that was easy to play. Wayward Sky is a simple puzzle adventure, instantly recognizable to anyone who grew up on cartoony platformers and point-and-click titles. As a young pilot who loses her father to an airborne island's robot villains after a crash, players navigate small but cluttered maps and complete basic puzzles to progress.
In fact, Wayward Sky might seem too simple: Its basic premise doesn't readily suggest a VR experience, and neither does an actual playthrough at first. But when Ekanayake designed the game to be easy, he meant in more ways than just difficulty: As a fan of VR and a sufferer of motion sickness, he explained, he wanted his first project with the tech to specifically cater to people like him, whose stomachs turn with the often jerky camera movements caused by the PlayStation VR's head tracking.
easy on the eyes and stomach
How that is reflected in the game is subtle but, when you realize it, quite wonderful. Wayward Sky begins in a third-person perspective; the heroine is clearly visible as she's directed around walkways and platforms. Yet when she goes to solve one of the puzzles blocking her path, the game gently fades into first-person. This tweak is easy on the eyes and stomach, thanks to a subtle fade to black, and offers an immersive experience that the player might not otherwise expect.
Rare is the opportunity to look through the eyes of a hero while playing an adventure game; Wayward Sky gives us that chance without sacrificing our comfort. Its challenge might be otherwise nonexistent, but for a medium as temperamental as VR, that the developer is looking out for the player's physical well-being is appreciated. — Allegra