Not everyone is keen on third-person VR games that you play with Xbox controllers. Until I played Landfall at Oculus Connect 3, you could have counted me in that number.
Throughout OC3, which has been the coming out party for the Oculus Touch controllers (and quite a bit more), we’ve seen a number of impressive demos. We’ve fought robots and zombies in first person shooters, experienced art and an evolution of VR storytelling in Quill and Dear Angelica, ran roughshod over a cute little town as a giant cop, cast spells, and more.
These titles are (or are going to be) wonderful, and many are big and flashy, and all are completely engrossing. Indeed, we had to drag each other out of every demo because even after 15, 20, or 30 minutes, we didn’t want to stop.
But one game--Landfall--stuck out among the group because, on paper, it sounds like it should be rather boring, at least for a VR game. Landfall is a top-down RTS shooter. The environment is 3D, but you play in a series of static tabletop maps, and you control the little 3D soldiers with an Xbox controller. The developer, Amsterdam-based Force Field, told us that Landfall technically supports Touch controllers, but you would have to use the pair as if they were just an Xbox gamepad, so there’s really no point.
And don’t let the cool cover art or even the game trailer fool you; you aren’t going to be swooping around in choppers, or stomping enemy soldiers to death from the cockpit of a huge bipedal war machine, or even blasting or bombing soldiers as an infantryman. Instead, you sit on a couch with a Rift on your face and an Xbox controller in your lap. And you look down at what amounts to a tabletop with a bunch of tiny, animated 3D soldiers running around on it. It's a diorama, essentially (although there are occasions when you can slip into a first-person POV for certain actions.)
To be honest, I wasn't particularly keen to try it at first. But after 30-45 minutes of play, when our demo time was up, all I wanted to do was goad the Force Field guys into playing another round with me and our Editor In Chief, Fritz Nelson.
Landfall is charming and engrossing, looks great, and gives you the chance to compete against your friends. Whatever the platform, whatever the medium, that’s the secret sauce of game success, isn't it?
In A (3D) World...
Imagine a tabletop board game with intricate, 3D characters. Now imagine that the characters come to life and run around, but remain just a couple of inches tall, and a 3D world springs to life around them. Also, there are little helicopters zooming overhead, and biped war machines that sometimes drop from the sky onto the tabletop. Look up; you’re inside that 3D world. (Force Field noted that one of the challenges of bringing such a game to VR was the need to create a full skybox.) Look down; you’re in charge of controlling one of those tiny soldiers. Look across the “table;” there are your enemies, represented by floating avatar heads.
You begin a round.
Your goal is to capture enemy strongholds and wipe out all their reinforcements. You control a single soldier. We were not shown a way to control the AI soldiers on our team, but you and your human partner can strategize a bit. When you spawn (or respawn) or retreat to the spawn point, you can change your class of weapons. For example, you can switch from your machine gun to an electric zapper to a flamethrower to a slow-but-powerful bazooka, and so on.
Often, you can call a mecha unit from the sky; it will drop down to the ground, and you can climb aboard and use the beefier weapons to mow down (or my favorite--stomp upon) the enemy. There are multiple versions of the mechanical beasts; we played with at least three.
You can play Landfall solo, but it’s really designed for 1v1 or 2v2 gameplay. In our demo, Fritz and I each paired up with one of the devs. Force Field had two demo rooms, and two of us sat in each. Thus, I sat on a couch next to my partner, and the other two-man team was in the adjacent room; my partner and I could talk to each other and strategize in real time.
Being competitive fellows in general, Fritz and I were hooked immediately. The only thing I wish we could have added was the ability to trash talk each other over the headsets.
The Wisdom Of Landfall
What Landfall reminded me of was something that every kid has always wanted to do: stick your head inside your game or TV show or movie. It’s a completely enchanting, engrossing experience. Don’t get me wrong--I’ll play a killer VR FPS like Robo Recall for quite a while--but I could play Landfall with a few friends for hours.
What Force Field figured out is that not everything in VR needs to be mind-blowing. There is a sense among many--possibly even most--VR enthusiasts that every experience has to max out the current capabilities of the hardware and software. But that’s wrong-headed; it’s a false focus on the medium itself and not on what you can do with it.
Ultimately, what most people really want to do with VR at present, whether they realize it or not, is have an engaging, immersive experience. That’s really it. Those can be exciting, but they can also be transformative or even relaxing.
The Landfall team also understands something of the social phenomenon that VR can offer. Playing by myself, or with three AI players, would have been a significantly less enjoyable experience than the one I had duking it out with my boss for bragging rights over dinner.
Further, some might initially be put off by the fact that the play area is static--that is the, the camera never moves. You can see the whole map at once. But that was a clever design choice that eliminated a serious problem in VR and also made the game arguably better: Many people find that when they play a VR game with an Xbox controller, they get nauseous when the camera moves. The disconnect between what’s happening in your physical world versus the virtual one is just too much for your brain.
The easiest way to solve the camera movement problem is...to not have any. And by doing so, the Force Field team had to make the map viewable all at once, but that makes it so you can better track what’s happening on the battlefield. You can see what the other human players are doing (their soldiers are tagged with a blue or red highlight), where your help might be needed, and so on. Throughout it all, you never get sick, which is important if you plan to battle your friends for hours on end.
It’s also a needed reminder that a great VR game is not about the medium; it’s about making a great game and leveraging the capabilities of the hardware and software to do make it engaging.