Will we ever get a bonafide Call of Duty, Battlefield, or Halo game in virtual reality? Sony's latest PlayStation VR game Farpoint is at its most compelling when it responds with a resounding "yes."
I mean, by golly, we have it now: a VR gun game where you use a joystick to run, aim a gun with your hands, blast bad guys, and feel like a not-sick-at-all badass. Nausea, comfort, and immersion all work in Farpoint's favor when the game fires on all cylinders. PSVR owners may feel moved to buy it just to see this long-awaited promise come to fruition. (Farpoint can be purchased with a brand-new PlayStation VR Aim Controller; I also explore just how unnecessary the controller turns out to be—and how good that is for the future of PSVR games.)
But that purchase won't be met with a full game that merits "legendary" or even "damned good" status. Impulse Gear Studios clearly devoted a lot of resources to nailing the feel of sit-down VR combat, and that focus has left some basic gameplay and plot issues unresolved.
Just trying to kill some bugs
It's the not-too-distant future, and you, a nameless spaceship pilot, watch a routine expedition go awry. Two researchers get sucked into a wormhole during a spacewalk, and when you chase them, you crash-land upon a seemingly barren planet with traces of humanity. Your researchers have been here. Maybe other people, too.
The planet also happens to be patrolled by monstrous, murderous insects. Conveniently, these bugs hang around stockpiles of old Earth weapons. Thus begins your journey in Farpoint: shoot bugs (and, eventually, other things) while uncovering the mysteries of the researchers' disappearance.
In some ways, combat follows Halo's lead. Players carry up to two guns at a time, and some of these have alternate-fire modes for grenades or rockets. Hide behind cover for long enough to heal. Ammo is infinite, but every weapon requires either reloads or recharges to keep players shooting carefully.
Farpoint's differences stem from the peculiarities of VR. Unlike other VR sit-down games, this one accounts for a trackable controller at all times. Aiming is done by waving a controller around, and holding it close to your face to view a helpful laser scope. Squint to aim if you want, or rely on a stream of bullets to help you approximate a shot. (You can play either standing or sitting, so long as the camera is positioned to track the headset and controller.)
The left joystick handles forward, backward, and side-to-side running, and it's all tuned for comfort. Backward motion is slower than forward, and you can tap a "sprint" button without kicking up any nausea. But the left stick is only part of the equation.
It’s the Crash Bandicoot of first-person shooters.
The right joystick, by default, is disabled. The options screen includes a joystick toggle with a variety of rotation options, and all but one of these is terrible. The "click" option makes players rotate a tiny bit, but only in one direction. A "smooth" option makes the joystick function like in a traditional FPS, but this is the kind of motion that creates a mental disconnect in VR and induces nausea.
A "wide" turn option makes players turn a whopping 60 degrees at a time, at which point the screen blacks out momentarily. The game is not designed for such massive turns. In fact, Farpointreally can work with zero use of the right-stick. Every Farpoint level is built with forward momentum as a priority. You are often guided to walk forward-left or forward-right, which your joystick can manage with little discomfort. But there's no winding through elaborate corridors. Forward, march. Farpoint is the Crash Bandicoot of first-person shooters.
As a result, Farpoint often feels like an arcade shooter. You can easily sidestep and back up to take cover or find a better vantage point, but Farpoint doesn't allow for more elaborate maneuvers for the sake of flanking, let alone granular exploration.
Still, when combat is at its best, Farpoint wipes the f%&$ing floor with arcade classics like Time Crisisand Gunblade NY.
Farpoint's one and only boss encounter begins with a giant beast emerging from a cave. The boss sits in there and fires a pattern of acid-bubble bombs, which you dodge and hide from while figuring out the boss' patterns and weaknesses. Hit the boss a few times, and the battle really cranks up. He crawls to the top of a rocky formation while summoning grunt enemies to attack from the ground and the sky. You have to run, retreat, sidestep, attack, and dodge while using your vision and hands to keep track of who's coming from which direction—and when the boss emerges with his vulnerability wide open.
In this and other Farpoint battles, there's a sense of energy and ability to the action that's sorely missing from other VR shooters. Between a symphonic score, otherworldly rumblings, and impeccable 360-degree sound design, Farpoint is impressively immersive. I was on the edge of both victory and defeat. I was the bug-slaying badass. I was destined to save the galaxy.
During these good parts, every break in action was met with plot developments, told by brief, compelling breadcrumbs of dialogue and character development. I watched the two stranded survivors come to terms with their dire situation, and this played out in a clever fashion: I saw their holographic forms, but none others, as they traversed the same places as me. Something awful happened to these holo-people in the past, and I could see the wreckage that followed, but not exactly what they saw. This is a great way to sell Farpoint's mix of active battling and isolated tension, and it's a fine product of the Half-Life 2 school of narrative design.
Too short > too crappy
Two-thirds of the way through Farpoint, I stumbled upon a holographic record of the researchers' climactic moment. It's so intense and emotional that I thought the game was ending. The writing, acting, and theatrical staging of these researchers' big moments brought me to tears. This only came after three hours, and I was ready to remember Farpoint forever as a short-and-sweet gem of the early VR era.
But someone in the production chain must have complained that the game was too short. This apparent climax is followed by a grueling mix of obnoxious battles, shoehorned plot, and terrible weapons. Farpoint trades in its short runtime for one of the worst tastes ever left in my mouth by a promising game.
At this point, the default shotgun and machine gun, which each pack a perfectly fine punch, are replaced by the following: a lousy sniper rifle with a scope doesn't even include a zoom; a "plasma rifle" that's less accurate than the machine gun, and a confusing shield system that often fails for no reason; and a "spike gun" that fires impossible-to-aim grenades that aren't even effective against non-large creatures. If you pick any of these weapons up, you can't switch back to your better, standard guns until you stumble upon them in battle again. (The lack of true zoom/sniper scopes is tragic, because picking off enemies through a VR scope is a blast, but distant foes are impossible to pick off through PSVR's pixelated display.)
Whoever slapped on Farpoint’s extra battles and tiring epilogue plot should be sent to game-designer purgatory.
This is also when all sorts of new creatures appear, each with an attack that power varies at a moment's notice. This includes a few baffling insta-kill attacks and some energy-rocket shots with splash damage that sometimes kills you through walls (it almost seems like a glitch). These enemies just aren't as fun to fight as the giant, Starship Troopers-esque insects. Plus, the later enemies look stupid. They look like someone copied a stiff, weirdly animated character from 1996's Abe's Oddysee and was told, "Please make this look less modern."
Here, Farpoint's biggest design weakness emerges: you can just run through battles. Farpoint is not designed for backwards motion. In the early goings, tiny bugs lunge at your face, and, if you dodge them, they do scurry back into your field of view and try again (as opposed to attacking your blind spot, since PSVR doesn't make looking backwards easy). I laughed these weird movements off and blasted through them.
But when Farpoint's difficulty jumped thanks to obnoxious enemies, crappy weapon pick-ups, and badly placed spawn points, I just tapped the "sprint" button and ran until the enemies behind me just... disappeared.
It didn't have to be this way, and Farpoint's good battles are proof. Smart enemy design, solid weapons, and clear damage feedback are already in this game. I didn't scream out in frustration or dash past those (and I enjoyed unforgettable story development along the way). But by the end of the Farpoint campaign, I began throwing my controller and shouting in frustration.
This, coincidentally, is when the plot devolves into a single person accompanying you and barking "Wait here!" and "Kill 'em all!" The game's real ending has no boss battle attached and a baffling lack of resolution. It sucks. Whoever slapped on Farpoint's extra battles and tiring epilogue plot should be sent to game-designer purgatory, where they have to play Superman 64 for five years as punishment.
Aim is a bit off
Should you decide that the good half of Farpoint is worth your PSVR time and energy, you have one other question to answer: should you buy the new PlayStation VR Aim Controller to play this game? Sony provided one to Ars Technica for this review's sake, and I used it for much of the game.
It's a weird-looking "gun."
Console manufacturers have long been careful about designing "light guns" so that they don't look like actual guns—a tradition that began with Nintendo's tragic "orange-ing" of the NES Zapper. But I would argue that Sony's latest gun takes abstraction too far. The colorless Aim Controller looks like someone 3D-printed a generic mold for a gun that could be held with two hands, then accidentally e-mailed the CAD files to a production house.
I suppose the Aim Controller could look like anything—a turkey, a banana, Nathan Drake's face—because it just looks, and feels, like a two-handed gun once you're wearing a VR headset. The best part is that it includes every single standard PlayStation controller button and joystick next to where your fingers naturally rest.
They're all slightly different in this incarnation, however. Both joysticks are looser than those on a Dual Shock 4, while the trigger requires a slightly deeper depression than pressing its "R2" gamepad equivalent. This trigger isn't as tiresome to press as the HTC Vive's triggers, at least. The d-pad at the gun's tip is much harder to depress. Having a face-button array surrounding the trigger-handle's joystick, on the other hand, is interesting, and I would argue that some gamers might prefer it for active, two-joystick games.
The plastic bulb at the Aim's tip is identical to the light sensor found on a PlayStation Move wand, and it lights up when you're mid-game. If you're wondering, there's no Move wand installed here. In fact, the Aim Controller doesn't seem to contain anything in the way of Move-like motion sensors. Tracking within Farpoint boils down to whether or not PSVR's single webcam sensor notices the Aim Controller's glowing tip.
In practical terms, that means you have less motion to work with when holding the Aim Controller than the DS4. And let's be clear: the DS4 pad also works as an aimable "gun" in Farpoint because its glowing light bar is also tracked by the PS Camera. The Aim Controller offers a tangible feeling of real arcade gunplay, and its buttons and joysticks are fine. And in short spurts, I really got a kick out of its full-body haptics. But I ultimately grew tired of those sharp rumbles, along with the Aim gun's weight and its reduced trackable space within the PS Camera's small field of view. I was bummed at the lack of pump-action on the Aim, or other gun- or motion-specific hardware tweaks.
Faking like a DS4 is a gun might seem weird, but Farpoint demonstrates something interesting: once you're in VR and your hand appears to be perfectly tracked by a VR camera, the awkwardness melts away. The controller already has triggers (which the VR camera maps your trigger fingers to), and since you're fake-running via a joystick anyway, it's all "less realistic" than, say, some elaborate VR arcade. I liked playing this game with a DS4.
Returning to the right-joystick portion from earlier: you can set this to a "short turn" setting, which is identical to how Resident Evil 7 handles turns in VR (as in, snappy, 15-degree shifts in either direction). This, combined with a trackable gun in your field of view, is grounded enough to feel comfortable and let you rotate slightly when needed, which really helps in battles. In fact, this RE7joystick control, plus a tracked gamepad as an aimable gun, is a comfortable and serviceable way to move and aim in an FPS.
Farpoint's "mostly forward" design will likely be emulated in future VR shooters, but I still think there's room for more experimentation. Perhaps future games can learn shamelessly from Farpoint's failures to make a better VR gun adventure. It would feature fewer compromises, more complicated level designs, more diverse enemy AI, more satisfying weapons, and a more cohesive plot.
Until then, you have to settle for the best and most memorable parts of Farpoint. How good this this shooter is depends on exactly when you stop playing it.
- The best "traditional FPS" in VR yet—and proof that it can be done comfortably
- Immaculate sound design, which makes the most of PSVR's 360-degree tech
- Industry-leading VR battles and plot—for some of the game, at least
- Superfluous content turns the game into a disappointing slog
- Having a bad time? Just run—because levels are only tuned for forward momentum
- "Challenge" and "co-op" modes highlight just how thin the game's weapon and enemy variety really is—and $50 is a lot for what's on offer
- Aim Controller adds little over a standard, functionally identical DualShock 4
- Only one boss battle? Talk about a blown opportunity
Verdict: PSVR owners should try this partially great FPS adventure, but Farpoint alone shouldn't prompt a PSVR purchase. Skip the Aim Controller.