Insomniac Games — best known for the Spyro series, Ratchet & Clank and Resistance — seems to be a strong believer in the magic of VR.
We recently visited Facebook's campus to spend some time with the E3 demos of Insomniac’s upcoming Oculus Rift games The Unspoken and Feral Rites. Both titles will release later this year, and mix together elements of in-game magic with the still new and evolving frontier of VR technology.
"This is one of those big paradigm shifts that you don't get very often," says Marcus Smith, creative director for Feral Rites. "Usually it's a really dramatic shift in hardware … now we're having to think about a world where the player can look anywhere, can move about, can put their head through objects if they want."
Who hasn't always wanted to be Gandalf? Or maybe Harry Potter? Or even Merlin from the animated The Sword in the Stone? Insomniac’s The Unspoken is essentially this; a wizarding-duel game set in a PVP arena, where players can live out their fantasies of using their hands to attack each other with magic.
The Unspoken required standing for the demo — no slouching back in a chair — and shows you what it would be like if you could conjure and throw fireballs and other forms of magic at will.
"We liked the idea of capturing the feel of a magician's duel," says Chad Dezern, creative director for The Unspoken. "Where you're kind of one-upping your opponent. Where you're casting spells and countering spells and maneuvering yourself in the battlefield to try to get the upper hand."
The Unspoken is set in Chicago, as a kind of "magical, back water" city, with battles taking place amidst concealed arenas that are out of sight of the general public. The 1893 World's Fair also holds a special significance in the game's world, and is a "watershed moment" in the overall timeline. It was the first time that many people saw electric lights and moving pictures for the first time, and this ties into the game's lore.
"A lot of people came away thinking that they had just witnessed real magic," Dezern says. "And in fact, in the world of The Unspoken, it turns out that they had."
Fittingly, all of the arenas in The Unspoken have some tie to the World's Fair.
The start of each match is limited to the basics: You can only use your shield and fireball (your casting hand is burnt to a crisp, while your shield hand cold-as-ice blue) — you can’t start blasting away with the more powerful object-based spells right off the bat.
The spatial reality the team has created is really quite something: The Oculus Touch controllers make it so your hands appear in real time with digital in-game versions, right down to subtle movements of your fingers. I found myself constantly just playing with my hands and touching my fingers together, watching how they looked.
Those aren't the only subtle moments in a game that revolves around launching fireballs at other wizards, though. The game captures the player’s head movements, and Dezern says he can tell who he is playing against by the movements of their in-game avatar. He says in one match, he got a dirty look from a player and felt it through the game.
"It was a new experience," Dezern says. "It kind of said that it's not only about the first-person camera for The Unspoken, but it's also about making sure we play up some of those human-to-human interactions that can happen in a PVP game."
For the demo, there were four different types of object magic: a hammer, a paper airplane, crows and a magic-marker shield. The hammer stood out the most: spots light up on the anvil you’ll need to swing down to hit. It lets you pretend to be Thor in all his glory and hammer away, creating a spear to throw at your opponent.
Each spell also has a unique casting mechanic, similar to how the hammer forges the spear. The crows you have to touch, one-by-one, as they float around in the air, before they attack your opponent. The paper airplane you tap to fold, and then grab and throw — just like one would sitting in the back of a classroom with a real paper airplane. Using the magic marker, you draw a shield in the air several times, causing the formation of your safety barrier.
For movement between the various columns in the arena, you can press a button, point, then release it to teleport; this allows for various cover options, as well as collecting items that charge up your more powerful object spells. Cover can also be shattered.
Each level also has a powerful win-like event, which can be received by whichever player manages to smash an orb that appears on the field before the other. In one level, it's a giant trash golem. After destroying the orb, you get a wireframe doll that you have to then assemble like a little voodoo contraption — all while your opponent still has the ability to rain fire down on you — in order to summon the golem. It is possible to withstand or stop these attacks, so they aren't entirely game ending, but they seem to be pretty strong.
The demo didn’t include any single-player material, so it still remains to be seen how that will function, as well as the different classes and overall depth and scale for the final game. But, from what we played, The Unspoken’s core mechanic creates an experience that makes you want to play more, and it’s an impressive use of technology. Just make sure you have space in your VR setup for all the wild spell casting you are going to do.
When Insomniac decided it wanted to do a brawler in VR, Sega's Altered Beast was one of the first sources of inspiration.
"The Altered Beast moment where you can switch into the beast and just wreck people was always such a good feeling that we wanted to try to build a whole game out of that mechanic," Smith says.
The Feral Rites E3 demo takes place early in the game: you arrive on a mysterious island to avenge the death of your father, and your mother, who sacrificed herself to save you. You start by collecting a talisman to prove your worth, which unlocks the ability to turn into a beast.
You encounter other animals as well: In our demo, a giant monkey appeared quite unhappy and out to get the in-game avatar.
The demo seemed to start right at the beginning of the game, and while it feels a bit limited in terms of exploration (with more traditional game levels) despite claims of an "open world," Smith says the demo is more linear than the rest of the game will be. Similar to how Xenoblade Chronicles X has a guide ball, Feral Rites has an eagle that you can use to help guide you through the world.
Unlike Altered Beast, Feral Rites only has one main beast form (with multiple beast skins available as unlocks). In place of that variety, players are able to modify their play style by buying various gear elements and upgrading them accordingly. Other talisman also exist — like the one that grants you the ability to transform — that give "big, dramatic" abilities, according to Smith. Players can get gear mostly through progression, with a few different in-game economies playing into that, as well.
"What you choose to buy and what you choose to upgrade is really how you are going to be dictating your play style and your preference throughout the game," Smith says. Of course, with a giant animal form at your disposal (and the time you spend in that form limited) why would somebody still want to fight as the human character? That’s something the team is balancing.
Instead of something like in Altered Beast, where you were building up to an overpowered beast form, for Feral Rites, the team wants you to be able to switch between beast and human mode, with each having their own strengths and weaknesses.
Beasts, for example, are better are tackling large groups, but the human form is better for more agile enemies. The game will also have more puzzle-based elements that will require you to switch between the two forms, as well.
"The beast is able to pick guys up and swing them around and bash them as a weapon," Smith says. "The player character can't do that. So if you're in a situation where you need crowd control, you may be able to switch into beast, grab one enemy and start using him as like a bat against the other guys."
In our time with the demo, we weren't thrilled with the combat. Player movement felt slow — even in the "running" panther mode you unlock — and the game's execution moves seemed out of place due to their over-the-top violence. Smith also says that the E3 demo only shows a "minor sampling" of the gear and enemy types that are in the full game, so hopefully those will add more substance as the game progresses.
'We're definitely priding ourselves on making a game that is very, very robust, that has a long play time and has a lot of depth to it," Smith says.