If I had a time machine, I’d travel back to 2014 and convince Oculus and Valve not to release consumer VR hardware until both the technology and the market was truly ready for it. But first I’d have to travel forwards in time to get print-outs of all the VRpocalypse editorials we’re going to see in early 2017. I’d also remind myself to bid on that eBay listing for a Warhammer 40,000 Imperial Knight which went for a song last Friday. Sadly, the only time machine I have access to is Time Machine VR, an underwater pod from which I can examine various aquatic dinosaurs, and occasionally even swim inside their mouths.
Time Machine VR, bewilderingly, comes from the folks behind thoughtful/harrowing platformer Papa & Yo, and though its story makes a few nods to environmental issues, it’s by no means a message game. It’s a Looking At Dinosaurs In Virtual Reality game. I’ll admit to some degree of burn-out on VR games’ gimmickry and frustrating movement controls, the image quality and cable annoyances notwithstanding, but Time Machine VR just about manages to break from of what are already becoming predictable handicaps.
A big part of that is that it’s slow-motion, underwater Descent rather than trying to pretend what you’re controlling is your own shambling meatbag of a body. Movement in, particularly, Vive games has struggled to feel natural or responsive in the way that looking around or reaching out to ‘touch’ something has – we’ve had awful step-by-step clicking on the circular touchpad, we’ve had ‘teleporting’ across the floor by selecting tiles, and we’ve had bumping our noses into the wall (be it the real one or the virtual one designed to protect us from said real one) when we try to physically walk around the room.
Gamepads have reliably remained a superior means of navigating around a virtual space, even if they can’t hold a candle to the Vive controllers’ hand position tracking when it comes to interacting with that space.
So Time Machine VR has you controlling a ball-shaped pod you’re supposed to be sat inside, with one Vive wand acting as its joystick and the other controlling a sort of gun which fires probes and scanner beams.
The limitations, the mechanical imprecision of gusting left and right and up and down, fit the fantasy far better than playing as person could – you’re controlling a big chunk of metal under the sea. Of course it’s going to feel clunky. And that clunkiness becomes effectively terrifying when you’re trying to quickly hide under a rock before a bloody great Pleiosaur eats you, or escape from inside a dino’s mouth before your temporary time-freeze effect wears off.
Time Machine VR is a game about going ‘ooh!’ at prehistoric underwater lizards, yes, but it’s also one about swearing violently as you battle to make your iron orb move where you want it too. In a normal game, it’d be out-and-out frustrating, but here’s it’s part of the drama. Even the lack of peripheral vision makes thematic sense, given you’re squatting inside a metal orb.
This is not to say that Time Machine VR entirely escapes from being a limited and repetitive affair, which has been the sad fate of a great many VR titles so far. Wobbly jetting around a prehistoric ocean is pleasant enough in itself, and there’s tension to dino-escapes, but the meat of the game involves repeatedly scanning various bits of the thunder lizards’ bodies for nebulous scientific data, which does become a bit of a grind.
As does returning to the ‘present’ after every mission to sit through a nugget of unconvincingly-performed, baleful plot about some virus that’s dooming humanity, which apparently can only be cured by you going back in time and looking at something’s lungs or whatever. And despite the grand scope the title suggests, what it really means is repeatedly seeing a few bits of reasonably-rendered Norway over and over again – the excitment of new places and new species dissipates all too quickly.
All told, there’s a great deal of time-wasting (ho ho) in Time Machine’s various attempts to inject a simuacrum of cod-science and narrative, when all it really is at heart is one of those VR ‘experiences’ like The blu: i.e. being a tourist in a prehistoric ocean.
It is, then, a little bit boring, which is not an adjective one would hope to apply to a game about travelling through time to meet dinosaurs. It suffers too for striving for as photoreal as VR games can manage, rather than for multitude-of-sins-concealing stylisation, which means it looks a bit original Xbox in both fidelity and jaggies, so don’t expect a dropped jaw for long. A resolution scaling option can make at least make things cleaner if you have the top-end graphical grunt to support it – bring on the GTX 1080 and AMD’s riposte to it.
Yet Time Machine VR gives me glimmers of hope that, perhaps, an effective middleground could yet be found between unsusscesfully trying to ape trad. game controls in a new arena and Wii-style gimmickry. It’s found a decent thematic solution to movement, and further confirms my suspicion that seated rather than walking VR is by far the better fit for this wired generation of the hardware.
There are moments in this where I’m just cheerfully jetting around, my hands moving me and my head gawping at dinos, and it feels like a natural and pleasant way to pass the time. As opposed to battling controls or being acutely conscious that my boxed head is wired up to a PC.
The right software may yet save VR gaming, and while Time Machine VR is not a revelation, is does offer some promising signposts.