The Entire VR Industry in One Little Email
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Whether you’re off dodging lasers and defusing bombs, shooting back hordes of zombies with your friends, or just sitting down for a quiet night alone with a photogrammetric jigsaw puzzle, there’s plenty of options out there on how you to teleport yourself to another universe through the magic of virtual reality.
And as we look back at this year in VR gaming, we’re hoping to highlight those truly great games that captured our senses and fooled those squishy bits between our ears into believing we’d done something delightfully improbable.
Approaching our fifth annual Game of the Year Awards wasn’t an easy task either. It seems every year is more difficult than the last when it comes to stacking up the competition. Even in the face of worldwide disaster, the medium has continued to flourish.
This year has been all about getting back to business though, so in that spirit we present our 2021 Game of the Year Awards without further delay:
After the Fall
Originally slated to launch in 2020, After the Fall fell victim to the global shutdown that disrupted nearly every industry. Things looked uncertain for the four-player co-op shooter, as delays pushed launch more than two years after its E3 2019 reveal. Vertigo Games is one of the most veteran VR studios out there though, and has thankfully managed to make After the Fall totally worth the wait.
Taking plenty of cues from Valve’s Left 4 Dead (2008), After the Fall offers up intense zombie-shooting action across a good handful of bespoke levels, each of them providing ample opportunities for exploration and surprise attacks. As a four-player co-op, social play is a big part of After the Fall too. Unless you’re playing with bots—which is actually a pretty great experience on its own—you need to keep communication clear so you can heal fellow players, report where baddies are, and learn the ins and outs of each map. All of this maximizes your ability to collect points and make permanent upgrades to weapons, a big reason for coming back for more.
The studio has done well to focus on Quest 2 and PSVR, offering seamless cross-play across all supported platforms, which in turn means plenty of online user activity. Many developers targeting Quest however don’t always take the same level of care when it comes to launching on PC VR headsets, often opting to pair down the PC version as a result of shifting focus to the admittedly more profitable Quest platform. But the PC version of After the Fall feels like it’s had an uncommon level of love and devotion poured into it, making it the best gameplay experience by a long shot. That’s taking everything into account: from enemy design/animation/physics to the spatters of blood and gore that litter the impressively detailed world. It’s a visual treat.
Although we were hoping to see more enemy and map variations, nearly everything you’d want for a multi-day binge is there and then some. Still, Vertigo Games has an excellent track record of releasing DLC, with its early hit Arizona Sunshine (2016) receiving updates well into 2021, so we’re looking forward to plenty more reasons to play more in 2022 and beyond.
Song in the Smoke
Translating the sort of survival games we know and love to VR is difficult. The immensity of those iconic worlds is a big bonus, but then the crafting aspect usually falls flat on its face due to the overreliance on abstracted menus. Standard 2D menus are simply unintuitive when you have two hands and you expect to use them… well… like hands. Song in the Smoke is a ground-up effort from 17-BIT that makes both the crafting experience—and the danger that lurks in the shadows—feel real.
You’ll scrape around for twine to physically wrap around a branch and stone to make an ax, or shape an arrowhead out of a small rock and affix it to an arrow shaft, replete with fletching you made earlier. You’ll keep the demons away at night by building a big fire—all of them a constant challenge you need to balance as you simultaneously tackle hunger, sleep, and health. This inward pressure of maintaining your daily tasks combined with outward conflict of fighting off prehistoric beasts makes it difficult to rest on your laurels as you push yet deeper into the game’s large-scale levels.
All of the game’s well-studied crafting depth is underpinned by an expressive art style that offers excellent visual contrast between the massive number of items and enemies you’ll encounter, something that’s extremely important when played on PSVR’s aging 960 × 1,080 per-eye display. Headset resolution woes fade into the background though, as Song in the Smoke deftly serves up a stylized visual panache and immersive two-handed crafting system via PS Move that feels reliable and impressively real.
In few words, Song in the Smoke is breathtaking, and definitely worth the tens of hours it will coax out of you.
I Expect You to Die 2
I Expect You to Die (2016) didn’t win our Game of the Year when it released in late 2016 for one reason: we started the whole GOTY thing in 2017. If we had though, the first in the series would have been the game to beat thanks to its inventive escape room puzzles that have given it rare staying power that few VR games of the era can boast.
The good news: I Expect You to Die 2: The Spy and the Liar has more of everything, and its patented brand of spy-themed gameplay is still going strong. The sequel offers up a great depth in puzzles, impressive visual flair, and a resounding continuation of the game’s Bond-style spy intrigue.
Oftentimes it feels like there’s more ways to solve each deadly dalliance, which requires you to really fire up your critical thinking skills in short order to avoid lasers, defuse bombs, and generally foil the evil plans of Zoraxis—arguably more so than the first. And just like the first, what I Expect You to Die 2 lacks in immersive object interaction it makes up for with its varied levels packed with truly intriguing puzzles and plenty of windy plot twists that will have you questioning just who you’re working for.
With I Expect You to Die 2, Schell Games has again delivered a surprising amount of detail and depth onto more humble chipsets like Quest and PSVR, and doing it to such a level that it puts even some PC VR-only titles to shame.
Lone Echo II
Like its predecessor, Lone Echo II delivered an impressively immersive experience, and one that had an even bigger scope than the original. But how did developer Ready at Dawn manage to capture that lighting not once, but twice?
Immersion is baked into the core of Lone Echo II in two foundational ways. First is the novel zero-G locomotion where players can grab-onto and push off-of any surface in the game to propel themselves through space. After just a few minutes this becomes surprisingly natural and it’s also highly dynamic; you can give yourself just a little push to gently float from one place to another, or a hard lunge if you’re in a hurry. You can even grab onto fast moving objects in the game—like the little powered drones—to hitch a ride long distances. And if you fling yourself far out into space with nothing to grab onto, you really feel helpless out there… save for the little hand boosters which you can use to slowly get back to safety.
The other foundation is the game’s consistently high-quality hands-on interactions. Much of the game’s underlying gameplay is about grabbing things, pressing buttons, pulling levers, and plugging things into other things. All of this happens by directly manipulating things with your hands which keeps much of the game’s moment-to-moment gameplay in your ‘near-field’. This consistently engages your sense of proprioception, which in a way almost forces you to feel present in the virtual world.
Backing up these highly immersive mechanics, Lone Echo II also drops players inside and outside of a seemingly massive space station that’s there to seamlessly explore all the way from one end to another with no loading screens.
Taken all together, Lone Echo II delivers one of the most highly immersive VR experiences to date.
Eye of the Temple
It’s been almost five years since the first consumer VR headsets hit the scene, but innovation into something as ostensibly simple as ‘moving around’ is still going strong. Really basic stuff like stick movement, room-scale movement, and teleporting has been more or less codified as standard methods, but developers still have the latitude to create something different if they think outside the box.
Eye of the Temple puts forth a massive temple complex filled with room-scale puzzles, which sounds a bit like par for the course when it comes to VR games. The entire locomotion scheme is based on moving platforms though that require you to physically hop aboard to move through the world—or rather let the world move around you.
The game’s platforming is baked into everything, taking you around multi-level rooms which include normal linear platforms, but also ingenuous log-rolling devices that are used tactically throughout the game to surreptitiously move you back to the center of your physical playspace. Due to the tight integration with its locomotion style, the amount of intention that went into designing the entire game is actually pretty mindboggling—especially because Rune Skovbo Johansen isn’t just a cool name for a VR studio; it’s the name of the dude who made it.
And it would all be for naught if Eye of the Temple weren’t absolutely chocked full of interesting puzzles and traps, the results of which make you feel like Indiana Jones, including bull whip, fedora, and trusty torch.
Resident Evil 4
You can’t just throw VR support into a game and expect it to be a hit. Thankfully, studios seem to be waking up to this, and are starting to revive some of our favorite games from years past with a more studied eye for the whole shebang: visual appeal, attention to object interaction, and smart choices when it comes to packaging the game into a comfortable experience for VR players.
And thanks to bringing all of the above to fruition, Armature Studios has made Resident Evil 4 arguably even cooler when played from inside a VR headset than on flatscreen. You get to go hands-on with the game’s iconic weapons in a natural way as you engage in battle with probably the biggest bosses we’ve ever seen in VR. Granted, cutscenes are all presented in 2D windows, but there’s not much you can expect since the game was so heavily reliant on cinematics to drive the story.
In addition to being reworked from the ground-up to make sure textures don’t look blocky and terrible, it also includes the new first-person POV that the original game lacked when unmodded in addition to multiple locomotion styles and holstering options. All of this makes for what we’d consider an essential way to relive the glory days of Resident Evil 4.
A Rogue Escape
A Rogue Escape expertly fuses the concept of an escape room with a videogame by putting you into a giant mech with convoluted controls and no manual.
The only way to figure out how everything works is by experimenting with the dizzying array of buttons, knobs, levers, and gauges around you to try to figure out what’s going on. And here’s the kicker… this mech doesn’t even have a window so you can see where you’re headed or what challenges stand in your way. You’re effectively blind inside this hulking machine and have only one objective: figure out how to use it to escape.
In time you come to learn some of the mech’s basic functionality—like how to take your first few steps forward, how to turn, how to refuel and, critically, how to understand what’s happening in the world outside of this hulking metal shell.
This is A Rogue Escape’s most genius conceit… the entire mech—all of its buttons, levers, and confusing displays—is the interface to the world outside, both how to interact with it and how you perceive it. Once you understand how everything in the cockpit works, your imagination renders the world outside of the mech… so the developer doesn’t have to!
It was a risky idea to make a room full of buttons, levers, and gauges essentially a giant, immersive interface to the broader game, but in pulling it off, A Rogue Escape delivered one of the most unique games we’ve played in VR yet.
Developer Realities.io has been working for years to bring its expert photogrammetry to VR audiences. In 2016, the studio released a series of beautiful photogrammetry scenes that wowed plenty of early VR users. But despite their beauty, simple photogrammetry tours didn’t exactly catch on.
The studio bided its time and patiently continued to explore the intersection of photogrammetry and VR. Eventually it struck upon an interesting idea. What if, instead of simply walking around photogrammetry scenes virtually, the scenes were shrunk down and sliced up like 3D puzzles?
And thus Puzzling Places was born, and has since become the single best rated app on the Oculus Quest store.
Puzzling Places just fits brilliantly in VR and works as the perfect showcase for the great photogrammetry talent of Realities.io. Not only does the app give users puzzles that are uniquely fun to piece together in VR—each puzzle is a detailed photogrammetry scene that has been shrunk down into an adorable diorama.
And it isn’t just the unique 3D puzzling that makes Puzzling Places especially well suited to VR. The studio went above and beyond by crafting lovely ambient audio that accompanies each puzzle. As you’re building a puzzle of, say, a snowy church, occasionally you’ll hear the faint sounds of church bells ringing or snow gently falling on the ground. The serene backdrop and delicate sound design work together to transport you into a world designed for that perfect puzzling mood of zen and focus.
Note: Games eligible for Road to VR‘s Game of the Year Award must be available to the public on or before December 13th, 2021 to allow for ample deliberation. Games must also natively support the target platform as to ensure full operability.
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