VR’s successes and stumbles, via Farpoint

I finally got myself PSVR a few months ago (and then only because I was able to enjoy a hefty discount). In the time I’ve spent with it since, I’ve by turns been mightily impressed and incredibly disappointed. My most recent VR purchase has been Farpoint, which serves as an instructive microcosm of the highs and lows of virtual reality.

More specifically, I purchased the Farpoint aim controller bundle. Although it looks like an aborted attempt at 3D printed art – or possible a heavy-duty sex toy – this controller is a fantastically designed piece of kit (and just as well, given I paid fifty quid for that bundle). The placement of the sticks and the buttons looks a little odd, but instantly feels natural and easy to use without thinking once the headset is on and the game is underway. That, needless to say, is incredibly important.

Once I was finally actually playing and had adjusted the controls (more on which soon), Farpoint looked and felt for all the world like the VR game I’d always dreamed of, ever since the concept was first floated as a viable consumer product. Full 360 degree movement just like a ‘proper’ FPS, using a fake gun in my hands to aim and shoot the virtual one in the game. You can bring the gun up to aim down the sights and everything. Brilliant!

I mean, you know, it does look a bit like a… yeah.

One undeniable aspect of Farpoint, one shared by many, many VR games, is that the experience would crumble under the competition if sold as a non-VR title. It’s not a bad game by any means; but the limited variety of enemies, extremely unambitious level design, and over-reliance on linearity would prevent it from standing out. The inherent novelty of VR and (if you use it) the aim controller helps paper over the cracks to an extent.

One of the main concerns that repeatedly cripples VR game design is a fear of motion sickness. It’s totally understandable of course, as developers aren’t going to want to exclude people who suffer from it. I’m sure market research has been done to tell the industry that a significant percentage of players have the problem. Speaking as somebody who’s lucky enough to never experience this however, it’s extremely frustrating to again and again be dropped into a game where terror of the motion sickness bogeyman holds things back significantly.

Arkham VR is an extreme example of this, where the player is not allowed any free movement whatsoever. You move by teleporting, just like Batman doesn’t. As for Farpoint, the default setting is – bizarrely – to completely disable turning. You can only move directly forwards, backwards, left, and right; like a crab that has evolved to expand its linear motion and also use military hardware. You can enable full turning, but if you turn any faster than a glacial pace, you get a huge “helpful” dot in the middle of your screen in case – yup – you start to get sick. It’s presumably due to the expectation that the majority of players won’t take advantage of full 360 degree movement that the levels themselves actively discourage exploring. Developers either need to find a way around this, or stop releasing traditional FPS-style games in VR where the restrictions and drawbacks are painfully obvious.

It doesn’t look quite this good, of course. But you get the idea.

Another unwelcome extreme that Arkham VR is an example of is game length. Batman’s VR campaign is insultingly short, done and dusted within about an hour. The average for VR campaigns seems to be 2-3 hours, which baffles me (there are exceptions; Farpoint is roughly 5 hours). Even though I’ve played fairly lengthy VR sessions with no issues, I totally understand encouraging people to keep the headset on only for manageable bite-sized chunks of time. These games have autosaves, though. Why on earth can’t these campaigns have lengths of 8-12 hours as is reasonable to expect from most non-VR adventures available at the same prices?

Then there’s storytelling. I haven’t played every story-focused VR title by a long shot; but I can tell you not a single one of the ones that I have does it better than (or, arguably, as well as) non-VR games. Take Farpoint. I actually quite like the story parts. The acting is very good, and the later emphasis on a ‘stranded with no hope of rescue’ situation is, I think, handled very well. However, the slow and measured cutscenes clash horribly with gameplay, which asks you to consider little more than exactly how you want to make the next enemy explode in a cloud of metal/gore. These scenes benefit not at all from being in VR, with it occasionally being unexplained how or why you’re viewing things from a certain perspective. In fact, it at times feels uncomfortably voyeuristic, something that probably wouldn’t be an issue were you watching as normal on your TV.

For all its faults, The Inpatient takes a few tentative steps in the right direction toward VR storytelling. I’m not really talking about the voice recognition for dialogue choices, although some people found it immersive (I didn’t). Directly having conversations with characters – conversations in which you as a player have some sort of input – is perfectly suited to VR. Even what you do and where you go can sometimes have a (very limited) impact on events, and where the story goes. I’d love to see more developers take up these ideas, and hone them to perfection.

Not so good to see yours, mate.

Alongside motion sickness, the other big issue constantly slapping VR in the face is camera distance and positioning. PSVR is the only VR headset I’ve tried, but in fairness, this hasn’t proven to be a huge issue. However, I have found that when games are most demanding in this respect, things have been “good enough” rather than “perfect”. The bottom line is that developers seem to expect everybody to have a huge amount of space between the TV and the sofa, perhaps because the average American living room is significantly bigger than the average European one.

Farpoint is one game that makes this clear. Part of the calibration process involves touching each segment of a virtual circle with the aim controller. Although I can do it, it’s awkward and unnatural from my position (perhaps 6ft from the TV), with no way of changing the depth the circle sits at. To position myself at the optimum distance, I’d have to get rid of the sofa and probably knock through into next door’s kitchen. During gameplay, it works fine – “good enough” – but I can’t shake the feeling that more space would make for an even smoother experience, especially when aiming down sights.

Yet another big issue for VR games is longevity. Once you’ve finished, how many times will you go back; if at all? As already discussed, the experience is unlikely to offer much scope for experimentation, variety, or exploration. Farpoint does quite well in this respect, offering basic co-op levels and some (admittedly uninspired) singleplayer challenges. Huge, huge kudos to developer Impulse Gear for adding PvP via a free update. Offering Deathmatch and Uplink (capture and control points on the map) modes, it’s pretty good fun. Like co-op, you only need to find one other person to play with, which is good. Although Sony now seems comfortable talking about PSVR sales figures, the servers for its games are regularly barren.

The average PSVR online lobby.

I only spent a little time in PvP before I realised how well the restrictions of the shooting had been masked in the campaign, and how they’re compensated for differently when playing against another human being. Offline, your enemies – while aggressive – will usually give you the time and space you need to get your bearings and aim carefully. Of course, another person won’t grant you the same courtesy. Therefore, PvP allows you to summon creatures from the campaign to attack, distract, and harass your opponent. Each match I’ve played so far has seen both my opponent and I waste a great many bullets trying to hit one another, as the shooting isn’t quite as accurate as the campaign suggests (but damn, it feels good to get a headshot). As much as I enjoy these modes, I was disappointed once I realised that being the first to summon as many creatures as possible is more important for success than anything else.

Even now it seems, developers are finding their feet in terms of making games for VR. We need to see more games that are only possible in VR, or at least take full advantage of its visuals and controls. As for developing in established genres, VR’s limitations need to be embraced, and more time devoted to finding ways around them. Well, either that, or walk the road taken by WhiteMoon Dreams for the excellent StarBlood Arena, and make the game they want to make with little concern for things such as potential motion sickness. On top of that, if even a single VR developer ever reads this, please; make sure your games are playtested at a variety of distances from the camera!

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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