Arizona Sunshine is a great game. And Arizona Sunshine is also a shoddy game.
Both of the above statements are true, but, depending on which virtual reality platform you’ve invested in, only one of them will apply to your experience. After making a barnstorming room scale debut on the HTC Vive, followed by a Touch-controller friendly Oculus Rift edition, the ambitious zombie apocalypse shoot-a-thon has made its way to the PlayStation VR headset. But, like the re-animated corpse of a loved one, the shambling shell of what made it special is all that remains.
Arizona Sunshine sends you out into the rocky orange desert of the so-called ‘Copper State’, on the hunt for fellow survivors of an undead epidemic. A colorful and surprisingly humorous take on the ‘Walking Dead’ nightmare, it’s a relatively straightforward first-person shooter, elevated by its virtual reality format
Rather than just taking on the undead hordes with an analogue stick and shoulder trigger, you’re placed right in the heart of the action, flinching with fear as the brain-eating swarm edges towards your fleshy bits, twitching with every hint that the 3D audio offers that suggests a rotting walker may be awaiting around a corner.
On the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift, it’s a wonderfully tense experience. The former’s room-scale tracking allows you to examine the relatively detailed environments with a degree of naturalistic movement. You can peer into cupboards and draws to bolster your consistently-scarce ammo supplies, and whilst it still employs the teleportation movement that’s seen in other titles it still manages to make you feel like you’re walking inside a real world.
Meanwhile the Oculus Rift version really benefits from its superior touch controllers, which improves the sense of interaction with the digital objects littered around the rendered dusty settings.
Leveraging the power of a souped-up PC and higher-quality screen of the desktop-based VR platforms, the Vive and Rift versions of Arizona Sunshine look pretty good too – neither is going to bother Naughty Dog’s remastered The Last of Us in the graphics stakes, but give a good account of themselves with some stylised and bold zombie baddies, especially given the fact VR lays bare all aspects of a digital asset to the inquisitive player dead set on picking up every item and peeking at the underside of every desk.
The PlayStation VR version of Arizona Sunshine, by comparison, is a disappointment.
Having to squeeze the experience onto the less powerful PS4 hardware, and budget friendly PS VR headset, was always going to be a bit of a challenge. But the PS VR has continuously punched above its weight, with titles like Batman Arkham VR and Farpoint offering some of the most engaging virtual reality action delivered so far without compromising on graphical fidelity.
Arizona Sunshine, on paper, sounded like another win for Sony’s system. It’d include all the action of the base game, but importantly add support for the PlayStation Aim controller. The Aim controller, as we’ve discussed before, is fantastic – part Move wand, part DualShock, and a fantastic peripheral for VR shooters. But so many compromises have been made with Arizona Sunshine on PlayStation that, if anything, the Aim ends up being a hindrance.
Tracking is so jittery as to make aiming a mess, the lack of room-scale movement makes walking through a gate an exercise in frustration, and the downgrade in visuals is so pronounced that the game ends up looking like, at best, a PS2 title. So wonky was the end result compared to my experience with excellent previous versions of the game that I abandoned the PS VR version shortly after firing it up.
Risk, reward and re-animating greatness
The port underlines some of the potential difficulties that the burgeoning virtual reality scene will have to face in the coming months. Let me stress that the original Arizona Sunshine is excellent – one of our most recommended VR titles on PC – and that the PS VR hardware itself is a fantastic addition to the PlayStation family, an affordable entry into the virtual reality race, with the Aim (when properly used) an immersive control system.
But creating a VR port may not be as intuitive as it first seems. Developers Vertigo Games have made a brave effort in their attempt (and since release have promised a patch polishing up some of the issues I experienced while playing), but for a smaller independent team this is quite the challenge. Farpoint VR, a PS VR system-selling showcase, has the might of being both an exclusive and a first-party development effort, and all the resources that come with that. It’s built to purpose for the system. But the Arizona Sunshine port has to retrofit its work to support three different control systems (DualShock, Move and Aim), ditch the roomscale movement that as a result makes even opening a closed door a chore, and try to find which graphical flourishes can be jettisoned to make the game run at a steady frame-rate on the economical hardware.
It’s an interesting conundrum that independent developers with VR ambitions face then. To be economically viable, you’re going to want your game to be multiplatform, given the small (but growing) VR playerbase. But that also means widening the goalposts as to the upper and lower expectations of visual fidelity, and exponentially more control methods and tracking scenarios (from seated to room-scale). It’s a financial risk that the bottom-line busting AAA developers seem to be cautiously avoiding thus far, leaving the door open for smaller devs to make a name for themselves in pursuit of creating those first VR ‘killer apps’. And the VR scene needs these ambitious devs to take these chances, if it’s going to eventually get that breakthrough, mainstream appeal it’s aiming for, and if it’ll eventually ever court the big studios in such a way as to commit wholeheartedly to the potentially giant market virtual reality can become. But the smaller deves must tread carefully lest they set themselves up to become sacrificial lambs to the VR dream.