You'd be forgiven for thinking that PlayStation VR, now a healthy six months old, had been all but forgotten by platform stalwart Sony. Sure, it had the healthiest set of launch games of any VR headset, but they suffered from a lack of longevity. The hope was that Sony, with its plethora of first-party studios, would create the first killer app for VR, the game that would sell a million headsets. Instead, bar the surprisingly good Resident Evil 7, early adopters have been left wanting.
Creating a VR game, let alone a VR game with the production value of an Uncharted or a Horizon: Zero Dawn, doesn't happen overnight of course. But there are signs that a second wave of games will soon launch on Sony's headset, which, if we're lucky, will be far deeper than the first. Indeed, at Sony's recent PSVR Showcase event in London—or, as I prefer, the "we totally haven't forgotten about PSVR please look at all the fun things we have" event—Sony had a handful of upcoming titles to demo.
None of them was new, having made appearances at various trade shows over the past few months, including PAX. But they provide an interesting insight into how developers are tackling the many idiosyncrasies of the medium on the most mainstream of VR platforms, including the holy trinity of control inputs, nausea, and storytelling. And while I've no doubt we're still some ways off seeing the elusive killer app, I came away impressed: some seriously good games are about to hit PSVR.
Let's start with the most impressive. Statik, created by Swedish indie Tarsier Studios, is described as "a VR game about solving puzzles in a place you don't know, with a person you don't recognise, and hands that aren’t completely yours," which is about as succinct an elevator pitch as you can get for a game that defies description.
Statik solves the classic problems of restricted movement and suspension of disbelief by using the limitations of VR to its advantage. In each puzzle you awake on a chair, in front of a scientist with a pixellated face that periodically offers words of self-deprecating British encouragement. It emerges that you're undergoing a test, although quite what the results will be used for, or indeed why you're being tested in the first place, remain pleasingly nebulous. The focus is on the task in front of you: namely, fiddling with a madcap contraption that completely encapsulates your hands.
Statik is played with a DualShock controller, rather than PlayStation Move, which cleverly plays on the idea that by donning a VR headset you can't see your hands. This restriction of the real world reflected in the virtual world, as well as a complete (and thoroughly intentional) lack of instruction, makes you feel utterly helpless when you first start playing. All you can do is look at the weird, whirring box and hammer away at buttons until something happens.
And something does indeed happen. Every button press, D-pad direction, and flick of the analogue stick makes the contraption do something. Your job is to make sense of the levers, screws, lights, and other such mechanical paraphernalia that hum around your hands, while trying to memorise exactly what each button does without getting into a finger-twisting mess. In an earlier, supposedly easier puzzle, the hands-trapping box contains a laser projector and a rack of circular slides that change the shape of what's projected.
After much fiddling, it becomes clear that your job is to match up the projected shapes with those on the cards in front of you. Except, without any guidance on how to operate the contraption, the game quickly turns into a battle between your brain, your fingers, and the on-screen animations.
Each hand-trapping contraption is a collection of random gadgets that needs to be fiddled with. Later levels up the difficulty significantly.
A later level ups the ante, with a puzzle that requires dozens of different steps to solve. There's a tape that needs to be slid into a tape deck via a rack of moving cassettes, a pictorial puzzle that's solved by listening to audio cues on the tape, and a series of coloured lights that need to be flicked on and off in the right combination.
The solution to the puzzle is both a result of trial and error and some less than obvious environmental clues scattered around the level. Indeed, one of the clues is so perplexing that it's being tweaked for the final version of the game to make things that little bit easier. Even then, Statik will remain a real head-scratcher. Of the two puzzles I tried, the second took me around 20 minutes to solve, and even then I was only able to do so with the gentle prodding of a PR person.
But that's exactly what I want from a puzzle game—something that truly tries the intellect, yet remains logical enough for a solution to be truly satisfying. And if it can do so while being one of the most compelling examples of how to design a VR game yet, all the better.
PSVR hasn't been short of real-time strategy games, what with the likes of Tethered and Final Approach doing the rounds since launch. Yet Korix is easily the most compelling I've tried. Released just a week or so ago, Korix errs more towards tower defence than it does a full-blown RTS, with two opposing armies facing off to destroy each other's base with an array of defensive tools and weaponry. All three game modes in Korix—Campaign, Skirmish, and Multiplayer—are based on the same core mechanic.
What differs is the basic layout of the level, which consists of an array of bright, Tron-like squares you build on. Sometimes there's a simple grid, other times there's a more complex arrangement of squares that snakes across the screen. Either way, you start by building a base near an energy source, create a few workers to gather that energy, and then bide your time while you gather enough resources to build walls, turrets, and anti-aircraft guns.
Like other VR strategy games, the top-down view is reminiscent of hovering over a board game with lots of fiddly pieces, except the pieces move, shoot guns, and explode every now and then. While the game can technically be played with a DualShock, I'm told it works far better with the PS Move, which allows you to easily point to squares and place the various walls and units you need to defend your base. How best to place them varies wildly depending on the layout of the level and the strategy of the opposition, but laying down a solid defence of walls and turrets is a good start.
One particularly good strategy involves creating a meandering path of walls for the enemy to wander through before they reach your base, which gives you more time to gather resources and launch a counter-strike with soldiers, planes, and tanks. Said strategy depends on having a good number of laser turrets active, though, and instead I focused on gathering resources. My meticulously crafted walls were quickly destroyed. Not upgrading them to maximum strength, which requires resources, too, didn't help either.
The simple visuals make Korix easy to understand. But later levels and multiplayer are more complex.
Still, lesson learned. I tried again, building a maze of walls that the tiny troopers from the opposing team struggled to navigate until eventually they had enough resources to build tanks and planes and blew everything up. Again. On my final try I lasted longer still by building planes and launching them at incoming soldiers before they had a chance to reach my outer defence, but yet again I was quickly overrun and defeated.
Clearly Korix is not an easy game, but the simple visuals give it an air of clarity that's missing from more complex PC games. And that makes it more compelling too, at least for an RTS noob like me.
Release Date: TBC
Links: Official website
It's been a long while since every man and his dog was working an a "second screen" experience involving a video game and a tablet (R.I.P. Fable Legends), but The Persistence picks up this most unloved of mechanics and runs with it. The premise is simple: one player dons PSVR and tries to escape a rapidly crumbling (and procedurally generated) space station that's crawling with zombies. Up to four other players hold tablets that show the player's progress on a map and compete against each other for points gained by either helping or hindering the VR player.
For instance, tablet players can unlock doors, highlight pickups like guns and ammo, and place beacons to guide the VR player towards safe areas. [Holy shit, this sounds just like Knightmare! -Ed.] Most importantly, they can highlight enemies and temporarily defuse traps by tapping on them, which show up as red markers on the VR player's screen. Each item has a point value attached to it, although not all are positive. Defusing some traps takes away points, while setting others off awards points. The poor player in VR is none the wiser to the tablet players' actions, other than those that are highlighted.
The Persistence in VR is a first-person shooter, with aiming via head-tracking and forward, backward, and straight horizontal movement handled by the analogue sticks. That sounds like a recipe for nausea, but I lasted longer in The Persistence than other first-person VR games I've tried.
The key, says Liverpool-based developer Firesprite, is to make horizontal movement extremely quick, with the slower, more accurate head tracking making up the difference for aiming. It's an interesting take on how to solve movement in a first-person shooter, although given that there's still an option to teleport around a level with a pointer, perhaps Firesprite isn't as confident as it claims. Still, there's no denying that Firesprite has done a good job giving The Persistence a creepy sci-fi horror feel.
That's gotta hurt. Tablet players get an overhead view of the action.
Sneaking up on zombies inside the titular space station Persistence, which awakes you from cryosleep in the year 2521, is a nerve-wracking affair. They tower over you, particularly when you're crouched down low for stealth. The strange injector gun—which sucks out the life from a zombie—requires a good shot and a steady hand to hold it in place long enough to do its work, too. Mess up the shot and, well, it's safe to say that melee combat isn't really an option, at least early on in the game.
Without much time to delve into The Persistence and its amusingly unsympathetic ship computer, it's hard to say whether it has the narrative chops to keep players interested beyond the initial jump scares. But the potential is there—and at the very least, it'll make you feel less queasy than RE7.
Mech games are an obvious choice for VR: your brain is generally quite happy to transport you from sitting-on-a-sofa to sitting-inside-a-giant-metal-chariot. Launch title Rigs did a decent enough job of showing how the genre could work in VR but suffered greatly from that insta-vom feeling. Offering a full 360 degrees of movement, Starblood Arena sounds even worse, yet it's a far less nauseous experience. For fans of the classic Descent games, it's a nostalgic one, too.
Starblood Arena places you in a highly manoeuvrable spaceship and then asks you to shoot other spaceships inside large, cavernous arenas. It forgoes the exploration of Descent in favour of scrappy dogfights, which is to say that despite a robust set of bots, this is not a single-player game. Instead, Starblood Arena is all about online multiplayer, where the many missiles, mines, and counter measures of ships can be deployed on real players.
It's great fun, with tight controls helping the ships to turn on a sixpence and thus keep the arenas compact. With all movement assigned to the analogue sticks, just like a first-person shooter, there's no need to mess about with a throttle. Perhaps this is part of the secret sauce that makes Starblood Arena so much less nauseous than Rigs, but I suspect there's a lot more going on underneath the hood to make that happen.
Starblood Arena won't set the world of online multiplayer shooters alight—it's too barebones to compete with the likes of Overwatch, for instance—especially given its high £35 asking price. But it's a fun little shooter nonetheless and a surprising example of how 360-degree movement can work well in VR.