Smashing The Battle
Pip: I rather liked the rhythm of this but it was another one where I’m not entirely convinced by the VR aspect. I feel like that maybe makes me a killjoy, like, why wouldn’t you want to toy around with this stuff and experiment and learn things and use it to make your games, but I guess I’m looking to find projects that could only really work in VR – things that exploit the medium in new ways or which simply couldn’t exist using more traditional frameworks. This isn’t that, although I did enjoy watching you rack up kills and the flow of movement felt pleasant.
Adam: This is the only game I was good at so I feel very generous toward it. It turns out I am very good at being a busty anime lady who hits robots with a spanner. The game reminded me of Smash TV if Smash TV had taken a few lessons from Bayonetta. Combat is nowhere near as smooth or fluid as in the latter but the combos and style points did give it a very compulsive sense of rhythm.
If we hadn’t played it in a room full of Oculus banners, I’d probably have forgotten it was a VR game though. It’s an isometric biff ‘em up and I barely moved the camera (my head) at all.
Colopl had two games on show. Fly To KUMA is a puzzle game with BEARS. VR Tennis Online does not contain any bears.
Pip: The bear game was a spatial puzzle which reminded me a bit of Lemmings, with you trying to guide your teddy bear charges across a landscape to a space ship avoiding various obstacles and causes of death. It had moments of charm but was otherwise unremarkable and the VR interface actually got in the way at points. The tennis game was better in terms of how it played although I didn’t see why I would play this and not, say, Wii Tennis. I was also not a fan of the female character model I picked as it had a disproportionate focus on her body compared with the male character I’d played.
Adam: The bear game really was a lemmings-y thing, wasn’t it? I found it quite difficult to play because it requires use of your head-tracking to highlight objects you want to use but then you have to use the controller bumpers to manipulate those objects. And to view the level from different angles you use the D-pad. I felt like I was rubbing my tummy and patting my head at the same time. Maybe it’ll become more intuitive, that combination of controls (mouse and keyboard isn’t exactly the most intuitive control method to an FPS newcomer), but I didn’t think the VR brought enough good things to the table to make up for the distractions.
The tennis game was like Virtua Tennis but I couldn’t see the entire court at one time because I was hanging in the air somewhere above and behind my character’s head. I hope you weren’t hanging in the air behind your character’s bum.
Pip: This was an F Zero X style racing game which I really enjoyed, although it came closest to invoking the nausea of older Oculus Rift headsets and games. I insisted on starting with the hardest racecourse because I find that helps me not feel daunted in the way that creeping upwards through stages does. But in this case there was a lot of information whizzing at me in a short space of time. Essentially the racecourse is a pipe so you spend a lot of time trying to trace the shortest route along the outer surface of the pipe (the inside curve) while also passing over speed boosts. At points on the track you’ll also encounter red and green forcefields – red damage and slow you whereas green are safe – and blue areas which flip you onto a different surface. I wanted to spend more time learning the levels and finding out how to use the racers’ physics to better move around the track]
Adam: I didn’t enjoy this as much as you did but I am not a huge fan of the genre. I kept falling off the track, Pip, and when I fell off the track electricity hit me in the face until I was dead. My biggest complaint also applies to Wipeout, which probably makes me an idiot – I do not like having so many elements of the track that caused me to slow to a near-standstill when I touched them. Crashing into a wall and slamming to a halt feels sensible and often involves a spectacular aftermath. Here, I was driving into a light that was the wrong colour and then disintegrating undramatically.
As a VR experience, though, it was one of the better available on the day. Being able to look down at your body, strapped into position, gives a strong sense of immersion, and when you look to the left or right, cockpit elements come into view really quickly. I didn’t feel at all nauseous – and we were playing at the end of two and a half hours of rifting – and even though I don’t like feeling dizzy and sick, I was kind of disappointed that I wasn’t at least a little bit woozy when I stood up and removed the Rift. I worried that the Rift was becoming an everyday experience, stripped of the ability to make me go ‘wow’ and ‘oh!’ and ‘ugh!’
I needn’t have worried because….
WOW! OH! UGH!
Pip didn’t get a chance to play this one so you’ll have to put up with me.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t entirely sold on the idea of playing a game about building things using sticks and wheels. Fantastic Contraption, in its new 3d VR form, is a remake of a game originally released in 2008. It used to look like this:
And now it looks more like this:
The mixed reality video is the best way to get an idea of how the game works, I think. Obviously, that’s not what you’d be saying if you were playing the game, but it’s important to have a sense of the space that would be around you because – and this deserves capitalisation – I FEEL LIKE I SPENT TWENTY MINUTES STANDING IN THAT ABSTRACT WORLD STROKING A CAT AND BUILDING CRONENBERGIAN VEHICLES THAT TWITCHED AND SCURRIED AND WRITHED.
If it’s fair to say that some of the games in the launch lineup don’t seem to integrate or benefit from VR in a particularly impressive or valid way, it’s important to counter that with the fact that Fantastic Contraption took about five minutes to make me a believer. Using the Touch controls, I was kneeling, stretching, reaching and even jumping at one point as I assembled devices to try and solve each level’s particular puzzle.
The sense of presence and tactility were astonishing. Not in a way that made me feel dislocated but in a way that makes my memory of the play session seem to take place on a small platform hovering in a void rather than in a small cubicle in a vast hall in central San Francisco. The platform and the blue sky is what I remember. That’s just how it was.
And the most amazing thing of all is that I would never sit down to play Fantastic Contraption if it wasn’t a VR game. The hardware made a game accessible and enjoyable when it would otherwise have been so far out of my wheelhouse that I’d have rather spent my time shooting more hoops.
I have a very poor sense of spatial awareness when it comes to manipulating objects on a screen in the way that this sort of game requires, but that wasn’t an issue here. Sure, my contraptions were hardly fantastic, but being able to walk around them, find a better angle to understand how everything was holding together, and simply to reach out and touch each element – that made the task far more intuitive and, more importantly, made failure into a delightful experiment.
Although we’re working with a limited sample – to play every launch game we’d have to move into virtual reality on a permanent basis for the duration of GDC – there are certain trends evident in the games we played. On the good side, it was impressive to see VR being used for a fairly wide range of genres and ideas, but on the negative side, some of the games seemed to be there to fill a specific slot on the (virtual) shelf. In much the same way that a new console often has a racing game, a platform game, a shooter and so on, so does the Rift. In some cases, even where the game itself seemed absolutely fine, it wasn’t clear how it benefited from the VR implementation particularly. The Rift, as a piece of hardware in need of titles and variety, benefited more by the game’s presence than the game benefited from what the Rift could offer.
And that’s probably at least partly due to the fact that thirty is a good round number that suggests a solid foundation to build on. Thirty launch titles is a more attractive offer than ten, eight or five launch titles even if only a small number will be remembered fondly. But how many consoles have been able to boast more than one or two memorable launch titles? The Oculus Rift is hardware and even though it might not have thirty solid pieces of software right now, it isn’t a device in need of a game to validate its existence (though Fantastic Contraption won’t be ready for launch and validating the price point to yourself is, of course, another matter).
The Touch controllers are at the heart of some of the most memorable experiences and elevate VR from a new way of looking at a game world to a new way of interacting with a game world. That’s enormously important, particularly as many of the apparently 1000s of developers talking to Oculus about bringing their games to VR will most likely incorporate Rift controls to tilt cameras and point cursors without significantly harnessing the stranger and more impressive qualities of the medium.
VR isn’t 3d cinema. There are things that a good designer can do with a VR space that have the capacity to leave a lasting imprint on your feelings and thoughts about virtual worlds. And something as seemingly simple as pulling off a trickshot in a game where you can feel a ball in your hands is a completely different experience to mashing buttons to pull off combos. Touching, feeling and seeing rather than repeating arbitrary controller inputs.
This isn’t 3d cinema because it’s not a gimmick, but that’s not to say it can’t be used as a gimmick. VR’s similarities to the new wave of 3d cinema will be at their most obvious when games start to release with unnecessary VR modes. Like the retro-fitted 3d that is an ocular annoyance in so many films that weren’t produced with 3d in mind, the first generation of VR is most likely going to leave a lot of detritus in its wake. And all of that trash will make an easy target for the people who don’t, can’t or won’t accept that the actual tech, and it’s potential impact on creative design, is extremely impressive.