We tried a handful of new titles at Oculus Connect 4 this past week, and as usual, each dealt with locomotion in a different way. (It was especially fascinating to experience these games with Tom Heath’s session on VR locomotion fresh in our minds.)
In terms of mechanics, Ubisoft’s Space Junkie was the most enjoyable--and intriguing. It’s set in space, and you’re wearing a spacesuit, floating out there in the cold beyond. You match up against opponents and hunt each other down in small maps (that are still set in the zero-g of outer space), offing one another with a variety of weapons such as automatic guns, a shotgun, pistols, a bomb-flinging slingshot, a light saber (yes, a light saber!), and more. You move by engaging little thrusters on your spacesuit.
They were demoing with four players, although we did it with three. It’s a fun game--the kind that you want to keep playing for long stretches because one never tires of the most dangerous prey (humans), and although you can jump in and be competitive right away, you get the sense that you can spend weeks or months perfecting your aim and movements and shield use (with your friends!)
You can also spend long periods of time engaged because the locomotion was done well. It’s a seated experience, which jibes with the quasi-static nature of being strapped into a bulky spacesuit. In the game you feel like you’re wearing a helmet, which, again, jibes with the fact that you’re wearing a Rift, which is a sort of helmet. You get a HUD that shows, among other things, where your enemies are located.
Here’s where it gets more interesting: You move by pressing buttons and pushing the joysticks on the Touch controllers, as if you were really engaging and directing thrusters mounted on your suit, which likely aids in reducing motion sickness. We also believe that, although you move rapidly and navigate around a lot of debris and structures, because there’s no floor beneath you--again, this is outer space--you aren’t as prone to that vestibular disconnect.
When you move in the game, your virtual body doesn’t really move--your virtual spacesuit does. It’s sort of a vehicle with a cockpit in that way. Altogether, the design of game makes for an effective but compelling locomotion experience that enhances, rather than takes away from, the gameplay and immersion.
Marvel Powers United VR
You don’t have to be a comic book nerd to get excited about a Marvel VR title--you just need to have air in your chest and red blood in your veins--so we were excited to give Marvel Powers United VR a try.
The title is a great example of an otherwise fun, well-made, completely engrossing game that suffers from poor movement mechanics. You use the motion controller buttons and joysticks to glide. This is one of the worst possible ways to move yourself within VR, whether you’re standing or sitting, and indeed, we had to steady ourselves several times because we were feeling dizzy.
That’s too bad, because the rest of the demo we saw was sensational. You can choose from a handful of characters such as Thor, Hulk, and Rocket Raccoon, and you get a spate of weapons that are germane to the character you pick.
I went with Rocket Racoon: He carries two pistols, a plasma shotgun strapped to his back, and two different types of grenades on his chest. You can dual-wield any combination of those weapons. Like Space Junkies, this is a multiplayer jamboree, with multiple heroes joining forces to fight off a horde of alien invaders. Your task is to protect a power generator in the middle of an arena. In addition to blasting aliens, you have to pick up components and stick them into the generator, which means you (or a brave someone from your team) has to keep plunging into the heart of the firefight.
The gameplay is just frenetic and chaotic enough to be wildly fun and keep you on your toes. It would be a candidate for "Perfect VR FPS Game" were it not for the locomotion. We can’t help but wonder how much better the movement mechanics would be if there was a little bump when you move to simulate the natural bounce of your steps, or even an arm-pumping requirement that would affect 1) how fast you get around and 2) would require you to think more carefully about how to use your weapons.
Windlands, an Indie effort from Pystec Games, was one of the original 30 titles for Oculus Rift. It’s a first-person adventure game that has you grappling through worlds as a form of navigation. Thus, its mechanics are platformer-like. Your Touch controllers let you grab, swing, let go, and grab again.
The new version, Windlands 2, adds several features that make this game more than just a fun excuse at mindless playtime. It adds boss battles, a bow with which to wage them, and multi-player functionality to add some depth to the game.
Naturally, grappling is this game’s form of locomotion, and once you get the hang of letting go at just the right time, you feel a bit like Spiderman winding (webbing?) your way in the world. Just like so many games we’ve tried, one of the main forms of locomotion is using the joystick to change your perspective. In this case, pushing it to the right rotates you about 90 degrees.
These snap mechanics work pretty well in Windlands 2 because, for the most part, you’re really just moving forward while grappling. Occasionally you need to run to reach the next level, but when you’re playing with multiple players, being able to quickly turn and see them is an obvious advantage.
For anyone who experiences discomfort during VR, the changes in latitude will likely grind away at you after a while. During our gameplay, we didn’t get to some of the big battles, but just looking around to find our partner using the snap mechanics, combined with the grappling, left us feeling slightly disoriented after about 10 minutes.
Red Matter is the work of Vertical Robot, a small seven-person Spanish studio. You play as a robot that finds itself alone on some planet, and you have to solve the puzzle of what happened there, even as your handlers try and restore all of your functionality from afar. There’s a slight sense of foreboding, but the developers confirmed that there’s no combat, so it’s not like you have to brace for jump scares and fighting-or-flighting. Instead, it’s a quiet but unnerving puzzle game that has you fixing or finding X to open Y door so you can access Z room to continue.
You have to use snap mechanics to orient yourself in front of the things you work on, but you can travel longer distances using a sort of teleportation. Although like other teleport mechanics, you set your cursor on a distant spot, you don’t have that common fade out/fade in animation. Instead, you (remember, you’re a robot) gently lift off with your built-in rocket booster and slowly hover over to the chosen spot. It’s a clever alternative, and it also serves to keep you from getting disoriented (which is a constant issue in teleportation).
It’s risky, though; we found that if we physically stood still while our virtual selves jetted around a room, we had no issues. But the moment we tried to look around while in motion, or worse, shuffled our feet, we felt dizzy.
In other words, as we've come to expect any time we check out a spate of new VR games, some of the locomotion works well and some of it doesn't. You can read more of our thoughts on VR locomotion here, here, and here.