My first reaction to Augmented Empire was one of confusion; why would anyone make a turn based RPG exclusively for VR? It’s a combination of genre and medium where it seems like neither would enhance the other, instead feeling part of the gimmicky phase of any new technology, when people are doing it just because they can.
Of course, if you’ve read my preview of Oh My Godheads then you’ll know that my first thoughts about a game aren’t necessarily to be trusted. Yes, I’m pleased to report that Augmented Empire works rather well, using VR to draw you into a dystopian sci-fi future where you play as a mysterious criminal mastermind.
As the mastermind, you don’t need to actually sully yourself by committing any crimes directly. Instead you control your empire via a tabletop AR interface. That’s right, Augmented Empire is a game that’s using virtual reality to present you with a holographic augmented reality system that lives on your virtual desk.
It’s amazing what technology can achieve really, allowing you to control your criminal empire from the comfort of your own front room. However, while you may be physically detached from the action in the world, it still impacts your world. Coatsink, the team behind the game, say that as you progress through the game’s narrative, you’ll see changes to your home accumulate, presumably reflecting your achievements.
Having your holographic projector be table sized is a smart touch for VR, allowing the world to be broken down into bite sized chunks. Although Coatsink could have given you the ability to move around a larger area, locking off your viewpoint feels a lot more comfortable for virtual reality.
As this is a Gear VR title, you don’t have the same high fidelity positional tracking that a Rift or Vive can give you, so Coatsink have essentially locked your viewpoint in place, only allowing you to rotate your head. However, even with one of the higher end VR systems, I’m not sure I’d want to be trying to pan around a huge battlefield to direct troops. What really makes your VR viewpoint work is the way that it adds a real feeling of depth to the world. While this is a common element in VR titles, it feels particularly effective here, adding to the fidelity of the overlays within the world.
As for the actual interface, you have a simple pointer that’s controlled by moving your head, while a long press on the Gear VR’s touch interface is used to as a click. It’s an intuitive system that works well, although your arm may well get tired after holding it up to the side of your head for too long.
Out of combat the game pretty much controls as a point-and-click game. You’re free to move around the smallish segment of the world your tabletop hologram gives you access to, with the cursor changing form to indicate when you can interact with something.
The combat will be very familiar to anyone who’s played XCOM or even a Dungeons and Dragons-style RPG. You’re given two action points and can then spend them however you want. Movement will cost you a point, with your maximum range clearly marked on screen, as will combat.
Each character also has access to a range of special of abilities, accessed by selecting your character, each of which comes with its own access point cost. However, the only one that seemed to be accessible in the demo was Overwatching, allowing you to take a shot at any enemy who enters your line of sight on their turn.
Combat also relies heavily on quick time events. Every time you take a shot you’re shown a bar with a line moving rapidly across it, along with two coloured bars inside it. Nail the first bar and you’ll get off a shot, while hitting the second, smaller bar will give you a critical hit. The same is pretty much true for dodging enemy attacks, although in that case hitting the wrong bar will end up with you being dealt a critical hit instead of dealing one out.
The strongest element of Augmented Empire, however, is its narrative. The futuristic setting nods towards a larger dystopian world, and combined with the mysterious woman named Ashley who you issue orders to, you’re left with unanswered questions at the end of the demo. As a result, I’m deeply frustrated that I don’t have a Gear VR to find out the answers to these questions when the full game releases later this year.