SANTA MONICA, California—I could not stop giggling.
I had just watched a pitch for a new single-player stealth video game from Oculus Studios, titled , and was intrigued. The video looked like an interesting game’s opening sequence, in which players slip into a defended terrorist compound by paddling beneath its steel belly in a very quiet kayak.
That’s a cool, REI-style way to begin a VR version of , I thought. I was sure we’d soon see a hero hop onto land and get down to VR-espionage business.
Then the 30-second video ended, and a producer for the game gestured to a series of Oculus Quest demo stations while talking at length about this “military kayak” system and how it enabled “free and comfortable exploration” within the confines of VR.
Whoa. Hold on. I nearly blurted: “Are y’all seriously making Stealth Kayak: The Game?”
Turns out, yes, VR game developer nDreams was doing just that. To be clear, my aforementioned giggling didn’t begin until I strapped into a demo station, alternated between paddling a kayak and sniping befuddled terrorists, and realized how this ridiculous idea was in action.
This is how Oculus Studios kicked off its major pre-E3 presentation last week just outside Los Angeles, and the event revolved around a hole in the company’s existing portfolio: lengthy, quality single-player campaigns. Even though today is the launch date for the new Oculus Quest standalone VR system, the company is not sitting on its virtual laurels. Oculus will arrive at next month’s E3 with four major solo VR adventures in tow, and we got a world-premiere hands-on look at two of them last week: the surprisingly solid and the impressive sci-fi sequel .
Metal Gear Liquid? Rainy Bow Six… feet of water?
To my first question, nDreams was emphatic: yes, all of ‘s missions take place within the kayak. Players are expected to sit down while playing this Oculus Studios exclusive (which is slated to launch on both Quest and Rift headsets) and maneuver through its rivers solely by using a two-handed virtual paddle. Stroke in reverse to go backward; dig deeply into the water to slow down; push off of nearby walls to move through tight corridors. (Yes, watching VR users pantomime the act of paddling is as hilarious as you might imagine.)
But a stealth-action game would be no fun without a variety of items, and thankfully, the designers had packed a few treats into my kayak: a scoped sniper rifle lying at my side; a silenced pistol strapped to my chest; and a very loud machine gun strapped to my back. This firepower was rounded out by some spare ammunition, some binoculars, and a few remote-detonation bombs, all within arm’s reach.
The act of virtual kayaking felt so good in action that I was shocked I hadn’t seen it in a VR adventure game before. I’m a stickler about VR comfort, yet something about the abstraction of a kayak, married by consistent arm motions and slow-speed movement in a silent-but-deadly stealth game, put my brain’s vestibular system at ease. It was simple enough to paddle from one shadow-covered point of cover to the next or to hold my ground (er, water) while pausing in a patch of reeds to survey the path ahead of me and pick both a route and ideal tactics. Should I take out a massive spotlight, which would grant me some secrecy but also arouse suspicion? Shoot an isolated guard in the back? Make a noise to the left and then madly paddle to the right? See what happens when I shoot that bright, red barrel next to three security guards?
All of these options were at my disposal in an “early” level from the game’s campaign. This 15-minute demo sequence was light on branching paths but included enough of them to give the semi-linear level a palpable sense of tension, the kind that made me involuntarily hold my breath and feel like I had high-stakes choices at my disposal. I absolutely felt like I was back in 1997, playing the N64’s campaign for my first time. Gunplay felt excellent, especially thanks to an interesting take on VR sniping, while careful paddling between points of cover led me to a couple of interesting “set up the bomb” opportunities.
Of course, benefited from a wide variety of level geometry, and there’s no telling whether nDreams can pull off anything as rich in content and surprises while keeping players’ seats planted in kayaks the whole time. I had a lovely 15 minutes in , but while nDreams’ representatives insisted that ‘s length “won’t just be a couple of hours,” they had no concrete answers about other level types or twists. For now, at least, I’m reserving a kayak’s worth of careful optimism for this “sometime in 2019” game.
: In space, someone can (finally) hear you
Following that demo, I strapped into an Oculus Rift S headset for a 40-minute chapter of , the fourth game in Ready At Dawn’s VR-exclusive “Echo” series. (In addition to the first single-player game, the developer has also released the frisbee-sports game and the multiplayer gun battles of .) All of these games have a unique movement system in common, which asks players to grab onto nearby walls and structures with an Oculus Touch button, then push off to fling through zero-gravity environments.
Opinions vary on this Echo-exclusive movement system, but I personally like how it activates players’ bodies and minds to move around large VR spaces without feeling sick. Movement was never my beef with . Rather, I have always disliked the 2017 game’s pacing and sense of solitude, where tedious tasks and slowly unfurling plot meant players were stuck bored and waiting for too much of its runtime.
Ready At Dawn’s producers copped to this criticism to some extent in a pre-demo presentation, saying they built this sequel while minding a few key questions and motivations: “How do you tell a story when your player has full agency? Why does this need to be in VR? How do you [develop a player’s sense] of friendship with an artificial intelligence?”
The real glory of ‘s world-premiere demo is how it silently addresses all of these concerns. Ready At Dawn has smoothed out all of the original game’s annoyances and pace-slamming possibilities in ways that players might not notice if they weren’t looking for them. The first clever touch came when I glided toward Olivia, the first game’s human ally. I reached for her face with my hands—because, derp, I’m a giggling VR game tester—but to my surprise, she batted my hand out of the way, made eye contact with me, and told me to cut it out.
From there, either Olivia or another talking robotic guide was always at my side with an organic stream of backstory and chatter. (Not constant, mind you; just often enough that I got a sense of place without having to stand still and suffer through a soliloquy.) And unlike the original game, moving through this abandoned space outpost didn’t revolve around obnoxious hunts for switches. Instead, the sheer act of traversal through intriguing scenery, cleverly lit to guide the way, did the trick. Its tension was regularly heightened by a lurking scourge.
This demo’s mission revolved around exploring and understanding a new mechanic: fending off and quarantining viral organisms that are attracted to live electricity. Since you’re once again playing as an android, you need to activate sources of electricity to keep giant blobby virus-boogers from feasting on your sweet electric soul. This means flinging your body and maneuvering carefully through an abandoned spaceship to tease these lifeforms away from Olivia and closer to whatever booby traps you might set up—and, on occasion, using your hands to grab and throw these things at your traps. The result was a sense of creeping dread about whether one of these viral beings might strike, helped in part by a sense of constant movement and momentum from one place to the next.
I never had to sit still or hover while waiting for an overlong speech to conclude. I could tap menu options on my robo-wrist to offer dialogue responses if I wanted, but I was still able to do this in simple, fluid motions while otherwise getting on with the mission at hand. With the sheer physical demands of standing and looking around in VR, this consideration goes to great lengths to make the experience feel that much more like a Ridley Scott production—where everyone involved is on their toes and slowly progressing toward the big, evil bad that awaits.
I’ll be frank: absolutely has my attention in terms of a VR-exclusive vehicle for plot, puzzles, and mystery. Ready At Dawn’s producers kept their lips mum on else about the upcoming game, including whether to expect any or mechanics to make the cut. For now, I’ll keep my eyes on this game’s progress as it floats (surely in zero-gravity) toward a “Q1 2020” launch window.
: Still not convinced, but that’s okay
Once again, Oculus had a sword-combat VR game to show off for Oculus Rift, titled and slated for launch later this year… and once again, I wondered whether this ambitious action-RPG is truly up to single-player VR snuff. While the game is clearly full of content and polish, and its combat has been improved since I last played it, I’ve yet to encounter a demo of this game that didn’t have VR-specific issues. Important text bubbles pop up in hard-to-read locations. Crucial mission objectives are obscured by unclear level design. Major sequences are framed by uncomfortable camera angles. Companion characters constantly appear mere inches from your VR perspective in a way that feels uncomfortable, if not terrifying. And all too often, players are forced to stand still and stare while waiting for lengthy speeches to complete.
It’s because of these issues that I didn’t write much about when I first encountered it at GDC. While I’m holding out hope that the title fares better as a finished living-room adventure than it does in incomplete 30-minute expo demos, I’m currently concerned that its strengths—including lush art direction, solid hand-controlled sword battling, and a fantastically visceral monster dismemberment system—will be buried by VR-specific issues. I’ve now left two of this game’s demos asking, “Why can’t I just play this standard-structure quest game on a TV with a controller?”
At the very least, , , and the Insomniac-developed action-adventure game (which Oculus will show more of at E3, ahead of its vague “2019” launch window) all do compelling things both with VR’s perspective and hand-tracked controls to answer that “why in VR” question. That’s good news for gamers like me who crave compelling single-player content, whether in VR or not.