I’m no body language expert, but when the enormous alien spider monster hopped down from the red rocks of the strange world I was stranded on, it seemed to me that it was pissed off. When it started to throw glowing green globs of death my way, I realized my instincts were right.
No time to pat myself on the back, though. I raised my rifle, looked down the scope and fired a barrage of pulsing plasma pellets, strafing left and right to avoid the deadly barrage. My enemy exploded, and I was safe — for now.
This is Farpoint, developer Impulse Gear's first title. The virtual reality title is headed to PlayStation VR, and a few weeks ago, I donned Sony's headset, picked up the odd-looking but excellent-feeling PS VR Aim Controller and murdered my way through a virtual world. Farpoint looks and plays like a AAA game, which is somewhat unique in the VR ecosystem these days. It stands apart from its contemporaries because you move within it just like any other first-person shooter does. That is both welcome and, if my sweaty body is any indication, maybe a little bit troubling, too.
In the last month or so, I’ve been lucky enough to play a handful of high-profile, pre-release virtual reality games, including Batman Arkham VR, as well as Doom and Fallout 4. Those games adopt a control convention that Farpoint eschews. To move, you effectively teleport around the game world.
Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin uses the teleportation approach to movement, too, but there it makes more sense because of the world's lore.
Farpoint, by contrast, refuses to bolt your feet to the ground. The PVC pipe-looking PS VR Aim Controller puts an analog stick right above your hand, so Farpoint's creators built a game where movement is as simple as pushing and pulling — something that anyone who's every played an FPS on a console already knows how to do.
This is very much intentional, studio co-founder Randy Nolta told me. A small, San Francisco-based team of developers formed Impulse Gear in late 2013 with the promise of virtual reality on their minds and a goal to create games in the burgeoning ecosystem. What was once a three-man group of founders has grown into a 14-person team creating Farpoint in 2016.
"We want to deliver something that really feels like a core game."
Impulse Gear's collaboration with Sony began last year with a shooting-focused demo that the studio brought to E3. It caught Sony's attention, and the developers have spent the last year turning a mechanic into a game.
How do you do that? By building a real shooter, Nolta thinks.
"We want to deliver something that really feels like a core game," Nolta said. "When you get in there, it feels exactly like the shooter that you have played, but iwhtout any of the gimmicks. Like, giving you all of the features that you'd expect — anything that you'd expect — and only enhancing that."
The desire to build that core game informed the way that players would explore and interact with Farpoint's world. To pick up a new weapon, for example, Farpoint requires players to effectively set their controllers down in the virtual world, a movement that mimics what you'd need to do in real life. They tried the button press route, Nolta told me, but settled on the motion because it added to the overall immersion. Several minutes later, I realized that it works: It's not like a first-generation Wii game that wanted me to waggle my arm to jump. It's a slight but appreciable motion that does, in fact, make a lot of sense and isn't burdensome.
"We're trying to build the game that we want to play."
The same holds true for switching between your two weapons. If you've ever played a third-person shooter, you've seen how characters store the weapons they're not using on their backs. In Farpoint, you move the PS VR Aim Controller as if you were going to store in on your back to switch weapons. It works, and it's pretty rad.
All of this is in service of making the kind of game that the developers would want to play anyway. That it's in VR doesn't mean, to Impulse Gear, that you have to fill it with compromises or gimmicks.
"We're trying to build the game that we want to play," Nolta said. "So it's really like, every single day we'll get at each other if something feels off, you know? Because everyone plays shooters, and it's just constantly trying to build that fun shooter experience that everyone on the team enjoys."
My 15 minutes with Farpoint began on a mysterious alien world whose rocky terrain and breathtaking vistas reminded me of our solar system's red planet.
Before the demo begins, Nolta told me, something went terribly wrong in our corner of the galaxy, and the player and a few comrades warp to parts unknown. When I entered Farpoint, bits of story unfolded through holographic projections of my friends, who'd traversed the terrain before me.
It was a cutscene, in-engine, but it's about as interactive as I've ever seen. I could move closer to the blue-tinged holograms as they spoke, as they motioned. I could look where they looked if I cocked my head. Every time I happened, I thought of new things to do, new angles to try as the game went into exposition mode. That's one of the best things about VR: It makes otherwise mundane things more fun than they would otherwise be on a TV half a room away.
The cutscene over, it was time to explore. I walked through the distant planet with the kind of freedom of movement I rarely see in VR, and I loved it from its first moments. I ran through wide open areas. I tiptoed across rocky outcroppings that tricked my brain — even if momentarily — into thinking that any wrong move really would've sent me tumbling down thousands of feet to my death.
All the while I had the PS VR Aim Controller in my hands, though of course in Farpoint, it took on the look of whatever weapon I held in my hands. Odd as the PS VR Aim Controller looks in real life, it felt great in my hands. Its bizarre frame in the real world made a perfect mental translation into whatever weapon I held in the game, and at no point did I feel like it was heavy or burdensome to hold it up. It's well-glanced, not tipping in any direction. The industrial design is smart.
Over the next 15 minutes, I faced down what feels like a couple dozen monstrosities using rifles and rocket launchers and grenades — basically the standard weapon classes you could reasonably expect in a shooter. Even though my enemies were largely stationary in the demo, I used the freedom of movement available to me to close gaps, back off and strafe. If I could move anywhere I wanted to move, I figured, I might as well take advantage of it.
That might not have been a good idea.
About halfway through the demo, I started to notice that I was sweating, and I knew what as happening. I first experienced it while using an early Oculus Rift development kit a few years ago, but none of the headsets I've used since — including the PlayStation VR headset with other games — brought the feeling back.
This is virtual reality sickness. The form I experience isn't nausea, really. But the sweating is clearly a function of a body confused. Something inside of my biological machine of a body couldn't square the movement that it was seeing with the movement it wasn't actually doing. And the reaction, for whatever reason, was the sweat.
It wasn't enough for me to end the demo, and the solution at home would've been to take a break and try again later. I also suspect that the more time I spent in VR, the more my body will acclimate — but that's just a guess.
What I know is that, in its desire to create a first-class, beautiful shooter on the PlayStation 4, Impulse Gear chose to lock Farpoint's framerate at 60 frames per second. That is a perfectly acceptable, Sony-approved implementation within PlayStation VR — though higher frame rates are available. But based on what I've read and a conversation I had with Oculus founder Palmer Luckey a couple of E3s ago, lower framerates may be related to triggering these physical reactions to virtual worlds.
I don't expect that this is the normal state of affairs for everyone who plays Farpoint, and I don't expect it to keep me away from the game after it launches later this year.
Nolta said that "performance and comfort" are Impulse Gear's biggest concerns when building the game, and those present challenges for the developer. They need to test on both experienced VR players and those who are new — and often that's friends and loved ones who get invited to play. They've figured out that keeping the weapon in view, for example, goes a long way toward warding off sickness. But at least in my experience, there may be room for improvement.
Ultimately, Nolta wants playing Farpoint to feel no different than any other shooter you might play, and also super comfortable. I played a small section of an unfinished game, and it was already super impressive, seeming to me that the developers are well on their way. As a fan of first-person shooters, the prospect of taking experiences I already enjoy into Farpoint's virtual world is supremely enticing … if a little worrying.
Nolta didn't have a release window to talk about, but he did say that the developers are expecting the campaign to be somewhere between four and six hours, depending on the player. I look forward to seeing it all, mostly because I'm inclined to believe that Impulse Gear is well on its way to make exactly what Nolta said it wants to make — and doing so with cases like mine in mind.
"We at Impulse Gear really want to deliver the core experience that doesn't strip out the things that you would expect from this type of game. That means we had to tackle the problem with locomotion. We have to tackle those issues."