At E3 2016, I was lucky enough to try out VR for the first time thanks to Rebellion, and their take on the classic Battlezone.
Battlezone VR is a re-imagining of a string of classic games of the same name. The original Battlezone launched in the 80s, a PC remake released in 1998, and then the game re-appeared once again on PC, PSP and Xbox 360 back in 2008. Rebellion, famed for the Sniper Elite series, purchased the Battlezone franchise from Atari in 2013 during the company's bankruptcy proceedings. The result is Battlezone VR for Sony's PlayStation VR, with an Oculus Rift version to follow.
Battlezone VR is my first experience with virtual reality, and while the game itself was fun, I still have some reservations about PlayStation VR itself. Here are my thoughts, as a VR skeptic.
In the Zone
Battlezone VR is essentially an arena shooter, which puts the player inside a lovingly detailed science-fiction tank, tasked with defeating waves of procedurally generated robotic enemies. The VR headset provides you with the full peripheral vision of the tank's interior, as well as the view outside of the tank's windows. The cockpit is wonderfully rendered, full of realistic screens, switches, and levers. And somewhat embarrassingly, I even reached down and attempted to grab a lever - wondering if the PlayStation Eye camera would track those sorts of gestures. Alas, I probably just looked foolish to the demonstrator.
Speaking of the PlayStation Eye camera, it might not track your gestures like Xbox One's Kinect, but it does track the position of the PlayStation controller, which helped orient my brain inside Battlezone's Tron-like neon world. I spoke at length with lead designer Steve Bristow about some of the design decisions Rebellion made to accommodate Sony's affordable VR tech, noting that I suffer from incredible motion sickness while driving sometimes.
Thankfully, I didn't suffer any physical ailments while playing Battlezone VR, and Bristow told me that the studio had paid careful attention not to induce those sickness sensations, ensuring the player always has a view of the horizon, and by making the tank's cockpit as spacious as possible. Rebellion paid close attention to ensure Battlezone VR is a pleasant experience, and their work clearly paid off.
Rebellion paid close attention to ensure Battlezone VR is a pleasant experience, and their work clearly paid off.
After a brief tutorial of the game's weapons, I ventured out into my first battle. Waves of red-colored, polygonal enemies began swarming the arena, and shattering them into plumes of jagged pixels felt impactful and satisfying. The tank itself handles incredibly well, even though I'd never used a PlayStation 4 controller properly before. The controls were intuitive and also provided visual cues to help keep track of what buttons to press.
The tank's realistically detailed interior reflects real-time information from the battlefield, showing you enemy locations on radar, ammunition counts and objectives. Stylistically, the tank cockpit contrasts with the world outside, which is washed in a hexagonal, but vibrant low-poly retro art style. The full game will feature dozens of environments, procedurally generated, and Rebellion says no two campaign run-throughs will be the same. Although, I'm not sure how much more variety they can derive from the core gameplay of shooting angry red vehicles.
For my demo, I had access to three weapons. One was a Gatling gun, another was a cannon blast, and the final was an electro-magnetic pulse wave that could wipe out the entire area in one click. The game advised me to use different weapons for different types of enemies, but I found that each weapon was reasonably capable in most situations. The weaponry uses physical hit detection rather than a line of sight hit detection, which adds to the sense of impact each weapon has.
Battlezone VR was an enjoyable and well-designed successor to its retro legacy. However, I'm not sure whether it's the kind of experience that'll have me rushing out of the house to buy a PS4 with PSVR.
As much as I enjoyed Battlezone's demo, I couldn't help but notice I was just staring forward most of the time, not really utilizing the VR aspects of the game. Occasionally enemies would spawn directly above me, meaning I had to look physically up to aim at them. For the most part, however, I simply used the standard dual joystick look-to-aim controls, using PSVR more like a wearable (and surprisingly comfortable) TV than the immersive, futuristic paradigm I feel that it's intended to be.
In this case, I'm not sure VR enhanced the gameplay in any way, particularly given the PSVR's shortcomings in the horsepower department. I feel like the simplistic retro graphics, as nice as they were, are more symptomatic of the PSVR's low-end specs, rather than a design choice. The trade off is no doubt necessary, though, as Battlezone VR runs at a rock solid 60 frames per second, which is a pretty crucial minimum for VR experiences in general.
Battlezone VR didn't strike me as overly complex, but perhaps that's by design. Giving the player too many tasks to focus on in a virtual reality setting could be a one-way ticket to motion sickness although I'm not sure about the details.
As a 'core' gamer, I highly doubt I'd be willing to trade high fidelity visuals and gameplay depth for the ability to look at my surroundings in stereoscopy. I still think PlayStation VR is a critical product, given its relatively low cost of entry when compared with its competition. Sony should be praised for going to the lengths they have to bring VR to a broader consumer audience.
As much as I doubt I'd be willing to buy a PlayStation VR based on the few games I've played so far, I doubt even more that I'll find a game compelling enough to make me want to break the bank on a high-end PC and an associated HTC Vive or Oculus Rift. If I'm ever going to hit VR, it's going to be via an affordable home console, and it could be years until either Sony or Microsoft can offer something on the budget-end that even approaches HTC Vive or Oculus Rift for fidelity.
Truth be told, Battlezone VR was an impressive introduction to virtual reality, especially as someone who was pretty concerned about issues with motion sickness. Involuntarily reaching down to pull that lever was a thoroughly vivid sensation, and I want to seek out more of them. I might not be totally sold, yet, but I'll be pestering VRHeads editors to let me play with their expensive toys, and who knows, they might yet convert me. My interest is piqued, and it's thanks to Battlezone VR.
Battlezone VR launches on October 13th, 2016 as a PlayStation VR launch title. An Oculus Rift version will follow in the future!
What VR experiences would you recommend to a newbie? Let me know in the comments, and I'll be sure to try and check them out!