I suspect the 'I'd love to see X in VR' conversations have dried up already. No, we're not getting Dishonored: CorVRo's Birthday Surprise or Total WaVR: VRHammer, because the headsets' screens aren't really up to it, and few of us have PCs which can power it anyway. As that message sets in, thoughts turn from what VR gaming would ideally do and towards what can it actually do right now? Out Of Ammo, a loosely tower defence strategy game for from RocketWerkz - that being DayZ creator Dean Hall's new studio - attempts to provide a more elaborate answer to that question.
In Early Access and limited to Vive for now, the boxy, Minecraft-styled Out Of Ammo pulls most every trick it can think of from VR's box, with the exception of the full-body locational cleverness seen in the likes of Fantastic Contraption and Budget Cuts. It's a simple thing by 'videogame' standards but it thoughtfully plays around with VR possibilities, and seems full of enthusiasm for it - there's an obvious 'wouldn't it be great if...?' school of thought underpinning it.
What if you could take direct control of your little RTS soldiers? What if you could pseudo-physically peer through the magnified sights of their sniper rifles? What if you could eject a cartridge from gun then grab a replacement from your belt? What if you could order an aircraft strafing run by painting a path for it along the ground?
Out Of Ammo (an awful name, alas; I can all too easily picture the 'which populist military terms haven't been used for game titles yet?' brainstorming email thread) is basically a child's toy soldiers roleplay come to blocky life. Cute little dudes take up position in machinegun nests and plip-plip shoot at waves of invading enemies, while green aeroplanes and helicopters neeeeeeeeeeeeeee-owwwwww and whuddawhuddawhudda overhead and snipers beam constant red sightlines from far-off nests. Everything is toy-scale, tiny but chunky and arranged around your waist as you presumably burst out of the ground like some hulking god-general.
The controls are a bit iffy and there are a few bugs - particularly, soldiers becoming frozen close to an emplacement rather than entering it - but spinning around to place that there or send him here feels as natural as the irksome python cable of the headset allows. You're in the place, which is basically the essential VR achievement.
If there are a few too many enemies, or you just fancy a change of pace, you get to pretend to be a soldier rather than their general: take the potshots yourself, lob wildly successful grenades with cack-handed throws. Chukka-chukka-chukka boom. Y'know, this:
Or, at least, that kind of thinking is almost certainly the motivation. Pulling back the bolt on a sniper rifle, reaching to your back to grab a new round, sliding the bolt forwards: Commando Comics thrills. It would be a stretch to call Out Of Ammo difficult, though it becomes frenzied in later waves: instead, it's a toy box, an excuse to act out that boy's own war. Underpinning it all is a very rudimentary tower defence mode, in which you choose where to erect regularly-dropped emplacements and what to assign any free soldiers too. No particular precision is required, and there's certainly none of the puzzle/maze thinking required in conventional tower defence: to some extent the game plays itself, with you choosing when and where to get your own hands dirty.
Like so many first-wave VR titles, it's afraid of real difficulty or real complexity, be that because it knows that the audience is still getting used to this potential new way of playing or because - an increasing elephant in the virtual room - of the limitations of holding a motion-sensitive donut-on-stick in each hand. The Vive's motion controls are remarkable, in terms of seeing your hands' physical location replicated in-game, but a combination of limited access to buttons and their lightweight nature means they don't successfully recreate full hands or the heft and bulk of a gun.
While it's a giggle to crane your head close to the viewfinder, to pick up a rifle and line up a shot in Out Of Ammo is to feel that you're holding a garden cane aloft while a stiff breeze blows. I suspect there's something to be done either in terms of pushing the two controllers together to counteract trembling hands and drifting sights, or - God help me for a suggestion I pray does not entice someone to launch a desperate Kickstarter - some kind of plastic gun accessory.
Concept-wise, Out Of Ammo is delightful, and going further with what it could mean to be a guy with a gun in a virtual world than anything else I've yet tried, but it's ramming against the ceiling of what the controls are realistically capable of. The Vive's wands are a marvel in many ways, but it's a sad truth that a mouse or a gamepad would be a far more satisfying - not to mention efficient - means of controlling Out Of Ammo, once the first flush of gimmick-encounter has passed.
It's Early Access and thus openly unfinished (and I genuinely admire Dean Hall's determination to stick with open development, given how many Internet Bastards yell awful things at him about DayZ every day), so the controls might tighten up, new interface experiments might arise and, most of all, there might be a structure beyond the simple and repetitive Survive X Waves freeplay mode that's all it has for now.
One of my overriding disappointments with VR games, more so than image quality, cumbersome umbilical cords, sweaty eyebrows and wandering Wii controls, is that I've not wanted to go back to almost everything I've played. To try them once is to know all that they can do, and I am someone who is particularly averse to repeating experiences, unless they involve nudity, alcohol or ideally both.
Out Of Ammo is more involved than many other VR games I've played, but I'm afraid that its journey through Early Access will require some pretty big additions and shake-ups if I'm to go back. Though this may depend on whether VR builds up enough of a userbase quickly enough that devs like RocketWerkz feel it is sustainable to keep on spending money and manhours on games which can only reach a very limited audience. Let's hope 'Out Of Ammo' doesn't become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
For now, the game it's certainly worth a look if you have a Vive and eleven quid to spare, and I can practically smell the toy soldiers excitement which surely motivated its development. It lays some foundations for how a fuller-fat real-time strategy game might work on VR, but, like so many other first-wave titles, it's not telling us much about how longer-term virtual reality gaming will pan out.
Out Of Ammo is out on Steam Early Access now.