I was walking up a sandy rise toward a two-story-tall mud building when the man in black rounded a corner and opened fire with an AK-47 from less than 100 yards away.
One moment the street was deserted, and then suddenly my holographic sight was full of black. I flinched, dropping the muzzle of my own weapon at the same time he opened fire. Totally unprotected and with my heart pounding out of my chest, my animal brain took over and I started to backpedal as fast as I could.
I was midway through my second bounding stride when the side of my CPU gave way. The solid state drive felt hot under my bare foot. The screens inside my Oculus Rift froze, and then went black as the fans inside the computer case squealed with an awful ratcheting sound. It took me a full day to coax the thing back to life. I think I broke a mount on the motherboard, which now sort of flutters sickeningly in the breeze. I must have yanked on some cables as well, because now the USB bus flickers on and off with some regularity.
But now, when I can actually get the computer to turn on, when I can get it to recognize all the peripherals I need it to recognize, all I want to do is play Onward. The virtual reality first-person shooter has its hooks in deep, my friends. And, if I’m being completely honest, I’m not quite sure how to feel about that.
Onward is one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done with a computer. I say this as a person who went through virtual boot camp and learned to play Arma 3 alongside one of the most well respected military simulation groups on the internet. I say this as someone who went to Fort Campbell to fight with the 101st Airborne inside their military-grade infantry combat simulator. All of that was a cake walk compared to Onward.
In Onward, you don’t just point and shoot like other FPS games. You have to actually operate a rifle and a handgun. Of course, unlike the Dismounted Soldier Training System that the 101st uses, you don’t have a replica M4 carbine to hold on to. You have to use a pair of handheld motion controllers, which weigh practically nothing. Making matters worse, the game forces you to aim down the gun’s optical sights, which is a lot harder than it looks when both of your hands are just sort of floating in space. Using any sort of magnified optic is nearly impossible for me. That’s why hardcore Onward players buy purpose-built rigs to mount their controllers on, essentially mock rifles with adjustable butt stocks.
But you also have to load the game’s 30 different weapons and chamber a round before you can fire. In VR, that’s surprisingly complicated. For American-made assault rifles, you tap a switch and the magazine comes flying out. Then you reach down to your belt to retrieve a fresh one. After inserting the magazine into the receiver, you have to reach around the gun to pull the charging handle and chamber a round. For AK-style and other more exotic weapons there are additional steps. I spent a half hour last night looking at YouTube videos to figure out how to reload Steyr’s AUG, a unique full-length rifle that’s nonetheless much shorter than an AR-style platform. Bolt-action sniper rifles and belt-fed light machine guns require a whole other skill set.
Essentially, you have to practice operating each specific weapon, building up a muscle memory that you can rely on in tense situations. Because if you can’t get a fresh magazine in the gun while you’re under fire, you’re a dead man.
Understand, however, that I’ve never fired a rifle in real life before. Now, after just a few hours inside Onward, I have a working knowledge of how a military weapon system works. To get better at the game, I need to practice in its virtual kill house, moving faster and faster with each trip through, getting progressively better at the physical movements required to aim, fire, and reload that weapon.
It’s a very strange skill set to develop inside a video game. I’m curious just how effective it is when applied to the real world. That’s part of the reason that militaries invest in virtual reality, isn’t it?
Of course, so is teamwork. Onward support five-on-five multiplayer matches, as well as cooperative play against the AI. I’m a long way from joining in that fun, however. Right now I’m just practicing using all the tools that the game gives me to play with. I still need to work on pistols, grenades, and night vision. Sniper rifles present another issue entirely. I don’t really think there’s enough room in my office to actually lay my 6’6” body down prone, but we’ll see.
So far, I’ve spent hours just repeating simple arm and hand movements. The biggest issue for me has been learning to keep my feet planted on the ground. The impulse to literally run around to escape danger is incredibly strong while playing Onward, but it’s also a good way to get yourself hurt. Instead, I’m training myself to use a pair of joysticks to move myself slowly and steadily through the virtual world, even when under fire.
Along the way I have gained a completely new understanding and appreciation of the word “operator.” In a sophisticated chain of simulated mechanisms, I — me, myself — am regularly and consistently the single point of failure that prevents my rifle from operating correctly. Most of my time in the game at this point is simply trying not to panic, like I did when I caved in the side of my CPU. That’s the only way to keep rounds of ammunition going down range with any regularity.
Lately I’ve begun to study the AI in the game, which is also surprisingly intelligent. They react to fire in interesting ways, much more interesting than the AI in Arma 3 by my estimation. Sometimes they seem to pause, looking for cover to put between themselves and incoming fire. Other times they rush towards me, letting loose with a fully automatic volley. I’m also working on training my eyes to look down and through the gun sights. I’m now able to keep both eyes open while using a holographic optic, but longer, Trijicon-style telescopic optics are proving more difficult to use in VR. That limitation is also limiting my effectiveness on some maps, meaning I can’t access some single-player content until I figure out how my real eyes work in-game.
According to the development blog, there are tons of updates on the way. More than 20 different reactions to fire are coming to the game’s AI with the next major update. There are also a huge variety of optics being added, including multi-optic setups. That will allow you to mount a close-range optic and a long range optic in line, one behind the other, or radially on different sides of the weapon. Enemies will also begin to travel in teams, rather than singly. That will all but require that I start playing the game online, and hopefully by that time I’ll be comfortable enough inside the game to not feel like I’m ruining other player’s experiences.
In the mean time, however, I’ll just be standing here in an empty room on the second floor of my house, pantomiming firing and loading an assault rifle. After decades spent doing the same thing with a controller, it feels suddenly very real and very strange. But it’s also a hell of a lot of fun.