VR presents numerous challenges for game developers, not the least of which involves how to frame scenes and help you navigate them. In Archangel, an upcoming VR title, developer Skydance Interactive used mechs to near perfection.
Mech Pilot In A Desert City
In the demo we saw at GDC, you enter the world of Archangel as a mech pilot. You start out in the cockpit of your mechanical beast, what Skydance Interactive calls a “six-story-high war machine.” You can see a facsimile of your hands courtesy of the controllers you’re holding (in our case, the Vive controllers), and when you move your hands, your mech’s giant robot hands move as well.
You’re on a planet that may or may not be earth; it’s a futuristic-looking city, with tall buildings rising out of a desert floor.
A voice in your ear--the AI that shepherds your team through battle--has you run a “systems check” as a means to get you accustomed to the game controls. Simply put, your right arm alternately has a machine gun or a rail gun, your left hand shoots a missile or “paints” multiple bogies with a missile targeting system before blasting them all out of the sky, and you can toggle on a shield for either arm.
That’s pretty much it. Your mech stalks along a predetermined route, but you can look all around from the cockpit, just like you would if you were actually piloting one. (We should be so lucky.)
You have a team with you, and they fly around in hover vehicles as you all encounter waves of flying space jets as well as tanks slogging over the sandy terrain. Eventually, you face soldiers on the ground as well as beefier airships that are more difficult to take down.
As you make your way through the violent city streets, your comms are interrupted a couple of times by the enemy--some kind of rogue colonel, it seems. He offers you a devil’s bargain; your teammates urge you not to pay him any mind.
By the end of the demo, you're in the firefight of your life, and just as you face off against a powerful airship, a giant metal...something...clamps down on your mech from above.
Everything goes dark. Fin.
Achieving quality locomotion in VR games is difficult to say the least, but Skydance Interactive found the perfect foil in the mech idea.
You have a delightful perch--six stories high according to the developer, remember--and you're positioned close to the front of it, so you have a nice wide field of view. You never really lose that heart-pounding sense of height.
The mech walks, but you don't. Normally, that's an issue that can make you nauseous, but the developers used a few clever tricks to make it work. First of all, you're moving rather slowly, with big, deliberate stomps, as a giant robot killing machine is wont to do. That means the scenery doesn't move too fast for you.
Second, you can see just enough of the cockpit to remember that you’re essentially inside a vehicle. Humans are accustomed to moving quickly inside of vehicles without getting nauseous--except for sometimes when you get car sick or air sick--and by adding those reference points, Skydance Interactive gives you that same sense. (In that way it reminds us of CCP Games' Gunjack.) It helps that this is a game you can play while seated.
It’s hard to describe how satisfying it is to move your physical arms and see giant robot arms move in concert with them. You feel powerful. Dangerous. Which is what you are when you're piloting your mech.
You plod along a preset path, periodically stopping to fight waves of enemies. All the while, your NPC teammates are chattering over the comms, calling out the attacks as they come and delivering key info about what’s happening so you can react accordingly.
As we mentioned earlier, you have two weapon options on each arm, plus a shield for each arm that you can engage with a button press. You don’t have unlimited ammo, but you do have fairly deep magazines, so you don’t have to reload every few seconds. The different enemies go down faster with different weapons, so there’s a bit of a dance to rotating through your weaponry.
Your shields are the same: They last for quite a while, but not forever. At times there’s a lot of bullets flying at you, so a strategy we quickly adopted involved pulling up a shield with one hand while blasting away with the other. When the shield expires, you switch hands. That’s perhaps a little obvious, but because each weapon is ideal for taking out a certain type of enemy, you have to be disciplined in what you’re targeting when you’re using the weapons on a given hand.
Put another way: We suspect this will turn into one of those minute-to-learn, lifetime-to-master kinds of games.
Throughout the demo, the gameplay was crystal clear and butter smooth. All of the actions, even in the middle of an intense firefight, evinced no lag or issues of any kind.
Because of the fun, engaging, and pretty gameplay and visuals; clever no-nausea locomotion; and seated experience, Archangel is the type of VR title you can lose yourself in for long stretches of time.
The game will arrive in July 2017 for the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and PSVR, and on Steam.
The game could be cool, but I didn't actually read much in the article that sounds like "A Stroke Of Locomotion Genius". Just that they took locomotion out of your hands.
A similar idea that could be interesting would be if you had an NPC copilot sharing the same cockpit with you, who would navigate the vehicle, but who could also respond to voice input. That way you could audibly suggest where to go, or even complain to them about their performance, and they could react accordingly, perhaps even arguing back and ignoring your orders at times, depending on their mood, how nervous they are about the current situation and so on. If they were given believable enough behavior and an interesting personality, it might not matter as much if they didn't always do exactly what you wanted.
Well yeah, voice input would be amazing. I don't know that game devs are quite there yet! It would be cool to drive the mech yourself, too. The point is, movement in VR is really hard to get right. Done poorly, you get motion sickness. So all the VR game devs have to come up with creative ways to let you move around in the games. This title has ideal pacing and just enough points of reference to keep that from happening.
I look forward to seeing a real mech sim in VR. It might actually drive me to buy a VR headset. Maybe they'll add VR capability to MechWarrior 5 Mercenaries before launch.
I agree, a MechWarrior-type game would likely work great in VR. The bipedal vehicles in the MechWarrior series are relatively slow moving as far as mechs go, which might help reduce nausea from piloting them around. It would help give the game a good sense of scale too, which can be difficult to feel in these games on a regular screen. The developers of MechWarrior 5 did mention that they were designing the game with VR in mind, although it's probably worth pointing out that the game is being developed by the same company that did MechWarrior Online, which had kind of a mixed reception.
Also, I don't see how the locomotion tricks they describe have anything to do with whether it's a rail shooter.
Anyway it's a slow rail shooter and that is in large part why it works. You slowly plod along and then periodically stop and shoot at things. Throw that out... now you're in some variety of light mech capable of speeds of around ~80-130 km/h (depending on model). Your torso pivots independently of the legs, and you're dashing around corners. Speed, check. Freedom of movement, check. There goes 2/3 of their "tricks" for a "genius" and "ideal" solution. The only thing they did that genuinely helps is sticking you in the cockpit so your have a frame of reference that is near-motionless (perhaps some jostling) relative to you. Similar to being in a car... but that isn't exactly novel or genius. In fact they already do that in MechWarrior.
As I pointed out, not all mechs are dirt-slow. Many of the lighter ones move at a decent clip. I do agree that I have some concerns about the developer, but the dev teams are separate and the trailer shows a lot of promise. Also I think it's a little easier to cook up missions designed for single player.
Are you talking about the current iteration of MechWarrior, or the promised VR support in MechWarrior 5?