2020 has seen renewed interest in VR, and it’s not just because of the pandemic. There have been tentpole releases like Half-Life: Alyx, and the Oculus Quest continues to grow in popularity with a rumored new version on the horizon. July in particular had a lot of new games and releases.
We can’t cover every new VR game as they comes out, but I thought it might be helpful to take a step back every now and then to give an update on what’s been going on. And please, do let me know if there’s anything in particular you’d like us to cover or focus on!
FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’S: HELP WANTED
The VR version of Five Nights at Freddy’s, the hugely popular indie horror series, came to the Oculus Quest in July and immediately became the fastest-selling game on the platform. “Five Nights at Freddy’s VR: Help Wanted has done amazingly well,” Steel Wool Studios CEO Andrew Dayton told UploadVR. “We can’t speak specific numbers but we are free to share that we broke Oculus Quest’s one-day sales record as well as its one-week sales record.”
I can’t claim to be a big fan of the series, but I checked out the Quest version of Help Wanted and it’s really well done. The core mechanics of switching between security cameras to track murderous animatronics while managing your use of other protective items is a great fit for VR and the Quest — it feels more natural and yet more nerve-wracking to be interacting with these environments at 1:1 scale. The game isn’t visually stunning, but it looks suitably dark and spooky on the Quest’s OLED screen.
I will just warn you that this is definitely not for anyone who isn’t down with jump scares.
Onward, a realistic military first-person shooter, was released on the Oculus Quest last week. The game is a PC VR staple, having first come out in Early Access in 2016, soon after the original Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets kicked off the first round of VR hype.
As VR experiences go, it’s pretty intense. The emphasis is on realism, and you move around with an analog stick rather than the teleportation systems that many first-person VR games use to maximize comfort. Onward also emphasizes tactics and communication for its multiplayer battles; the developer Downpour Interactive describes it as “the most realistic combat experience available in gaming today.”
In other words, it’s not the sort of thing I’d normally associate with the low-powered Quest, which tends to be at its best with abstract, casual experiences. But the Quest version of Onward actually works great. The graphics are seriously cut down — it basically looks like a very high-res PS2 game, with objects often popping into view at close range — but the controls work well and the Quest’s wireless nature is a good fit for Onward’s realistic movement. This is a game where you’ll often find yourself ducking into cover or inching around a corner, and not having to worry about wires increases the immersion despite the graphical shortcomings.
Onward’s Quest version has not come without controversy, however. Seemingly in order to accommodate cross-play between platforms, Downpour has issued an update to the PC version that comes with a significant technical hit. The graphical quality has been reduced pretty heavily, and Steam reviewers are not happy. The developer apologized on Reddit and pledged to improve the PC version in future updates.
It’s understandable that Downpour would want to maximize its player base when launching on a popular new platform, but making the existing version worse for all players without warning was probably not the best way to go about it. The move does, however, serve as a strong indication that VR developers are likely to continue to prioritize the Quest over advanced tethered PC experiences.
IRON MAN VR
One of the most anticipated PlayStation VR games finally came out in July after multiple delays. IP licenses don’t come much bigger than Iron Man VR, but due to awkward controls and interminable load times, the final product didn’t leave The Verge’s Chaim Gartenberg feeling much like a superhero.
Here’s his review:
…While the pieces are all good, the issues with Iron Man VR arrive when they come together in the game, which just isn’t deep enough to support a full-blown title.
In practice, Iron Man VR is very repetitive. There’s only a handful of enemy types, whose tactics never really change. One drone will batter players with laser blasts, another will attempt to ram you, while a third has to be dodged before its shield is down. Each enemy is effectively designed to be countered by a specific weapon in your arsenal (you shoot the shooting drone, you punch the ramming drone, you ground-pound the tank), and the only variety really comes in how many the game throws at you at once.
The result is that each of the 12 levels (which are broken up into 15- to 30-minute chunks, well-suited for VR) more or less breaks down in a cycle of “defeat these identical waves of enemies using identical weapons in identical locations” until the next expository speech happens.
IN DEATH: UNCHAINED
In Death: Unchained is the Oculus Quest version of In Death, which came out for PC and PSVR in 2018. It’s a first-person action game that centers around bows and arrows, with a roguelike-style structure and procedurally generated stages. Its best clever twist is that you use your bow for movement as well as combat by firing “teleportation arrows” to get around.
Unchained is a really good adaptation. It’s one of the better looking games on the Quest, despite somewhat cut-back visuals, and its controls adapt to inside-out tracking about as well as could have been expected. Bows can be tricky for this kind of hardware, since you often have to move the controller in your string hand out of the headset cameras’ field of view, but I didn’t find the controls to be a problem unless I went out of my way to break them.
In Death is a challenging game, not least because it gives your bow arm’s deltoid muscle a serious workout. But Unchained works very well on the Quest, letting you dip in and make a little progress with minimal fuss.
Pistol Whip was one of the best VR games of last year, and it’s finally available on PSVR, bringing the neon-soaked Superhot-meets-Beat Saber-meets-John Wick action to a wider audience. I haven’t been able to check out this version just yet, but it should be a decent fit for the limited PSVR hardware — movement is handled automatically, and you’re mostly just shooting and dodging bullets.
Finally, the VR update for Media Molecule’s ambitious game-creation tool Dreams was recently released. It’s early days, but I’m excited to see what comes out of it — as an easier way to get experimental VR ideas out into the world, it has tons of potential.