Crytek and Ubisoft take first full-price swings at PlayStation VR
Piloting space ships through asteroid belts, careening race cars around corners at 160 miles per hour, and smashing buildings as a rampaging seamonster: the VR games available this year transport you into reveries seemingly plucked straight from a kid's daydream. This week, we can add two more textbook fantasies to the PSVR library: taking flight to soar above rivers and rooftops in Eagle Flight, and facing down dinosaurs in Robinson: The Journey.
'Robinson: The Journey'
Robinson, the more ambitious of these two games, comes to us from Crytek, a German company that made its mark a decade ago with the PC shooter Crysis, a lavish graphical showcase built with the company's own state-of-the-art game tech – CryEngine. It set a daunting benchmark for video game visuals. They've since followed that with the equally stunning VR rock-climbing simulation, The Climb for Oculus. Needless to say, the company's pedigree has raised expectations for its first PSVR game: a first-person exploration adventure set on a planet teeming with primeval predators. It's an expectation the game's executive producer, Elijah Freeman, felt acutely during its blazing-fast one-year production. "I basically borrowed people from every team inside of Crytek," Freeman jokes. "My reputation is probably not as hot internally as it is externally."
He gives major credit to the combined efforts of his development team as well as the CryEngine team for the game's undeniable technical achievements. In its best moments, Robinson stands head and shoulders (sometimes literally) above its competitors on the console with its astonishing vistas and immense sense of scale. Whether you're ziplining over jungle canopies or cowering in a bubbling tar pit beneath a stampede of long-necked sauropods, Robinson delivers a gigantic world we previously could only visit in our dreams.
That awe-inducing sense of scale came about organically. "When we first even started thinking about building a VR experience, we spent some time experimenting in the medium, just testing things, seeing what felt cool," says Freeman. "The thing that stood out to us was verticality and scale." Luckily, Crytek already had dinosaur DNA coursing through its veins to serve as inspiration. Seventeen years ago, the fledgling company put out the demo X-Isle: Dinosaur Island to show off an early version of its graphics engine. The prehistoric setting was a natural fit for their early VR prototypes.
"We thought, wow, this is really impressive in VR," says Freeman. "So much so we kept doing it." As a result, Robinson delivers unforgettable set pieces throughout its relatively short length. When you're dangling thousands of feet above a planetarium packed with vicious velociraptors eager to nip at your heels, it's impossible not to marvel at the dizzying heights this technology has reached.
Unfortunately, Robinson suffers when it comes to the interstitial glue that holds its technical wonders together. You assume the role of young astronaut who's crash-landed on a lush planet, as you guide your character to the next jaw-dropping sideshow – think the moment in Jurassic Park when the kids meet the brachiosaurus – you'll have to fiddle with tertiary tasks like reassembling a storage container or rewiring electric grids. These moments clearly lack the lavish craftsmanship of the rest of the game; the puzzles would be disappointing encountered in the back of an in-flight airline magazine. It's as if Robinson felt pressure to remind us it's actually a game instead of a mere theme park ride. It makes for a frustratingly uneven journey, a common occurrence in virtual reality games where budgets are limited and the map for best design practices remains uncharted. But it's hard to stay annoyed for long when screeching pterodactyls, enormous waterfalls, and an adorable T-Rex companion await you around the nearest corner.
Freeman acknowledges the lofty goals he set for his team at Crytek. "I would like to think that I lean towards the practical," he says, "but we're incredibly ambitious here. I think that we try to do things that we believe we can do and then set that challenge for ourselves." He has even loftier goals for VR now that Robinson is completed. "I want a shooter in VR," he says. "I think it's going to be awesome." He hints that he's spent time prototyping solutions to navigation issues endemic to first-person shooters in VR, saying he's stumbled upon something "magic." He expresses confidence in the potential for a shooter that "will feel very comfortable in the near future in terms of movement." Whether his ambitions will outpace his ability to deliver remains to be seen, but if Robinson is any indication, we'll certainly be enriched by the attempt.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Ubisoft's new game Eagle Flight excels precisely because of its limitations. At first glance, the game does little to impress, effectively strapping a giant beak to your face and letting you soar over a rudimentary, nearly textureless, polygonal Paris. Set 50 years after the disappearance of humans, the city feels eerily empty apart from a few roaming zebras, elephants, and bears. Its depopulated metropolis evokes the offbeat Tokyo Jungle by Japanese studio Crispy – or maybe even the speculative nonfiction book The World Without Us. While the sparse visual style is clearly as much an artistic choice as a technical one, the overall effect is somewhat spartan. Friends who watched the game's output on a traditional television screen wondered how it could possibly be any fun.
That Eagle Flight is easily the most comfortable and downright relaxing game in VR doesn't sound particularly enticing, unless you've encountered the sheer sensory assault that accompanies unpolished virtual reality. But the visual restraint that leaves an initial bland impression allows for an unparalleled smoothness and consistency, as you subtly tilt your head to glide between narrow streets, skim along the surface of a pond, or steadily ascend to the top of the Eiffel Tower. It's hard to imagine the game achieving this fluidity with a busier visual approach, given the PlayStation 4's limits and the demanding frame rates VR demands.
Virtual reality remains an emerging technology with significant hurdles to overcome in both user comfort and enjoyment, but Eagle Flight absolutely nails it on both counts. It's so immaculately and humbly constructed that you're never taken out of the experience by muddy textures, glitchy tracking, motion sickness or all the other dizzying inconsistencies we associate with strapping a headset to our faces. If you've ever awoken from a dream of flight and felt wistful regret, here is your answer. And the essential component to selling that fantasy is the game's unvarying commitment to speed and performance.
A few years ago researchers at Purdue University's Department of Computer Graphics Technology discovered that adding a representation of a human nose into their virtual reality scenes helped limit simulation sickness. Giving the viewer a subtle, yet constant reference point in their field of vision helped orient and stabilize sensory neurons that guide the human perceptual system. The developers at Ubisoft's newly formed Fun House studio (a sort of internal skunkworks) were wise to take their cues from this research. The gigantic eagle's beak that remains front and center of your view throughout Eagle Flight banishes any hint of motion sickness, making it much more tolerable to play for extended sessions than more immediately alluring games like the space combat simulator EVE: Valkyrie.
While the main delight of Eagle Flight is the time you'll spend swooping down to chase wildlife and following wherever your momentary whims lead you, the game does feature a variety of ways to play. A story mode has you clearing out bats above Notre Dame with a piercing projectile shriek, racing through skeleton-strewn catacombs, and gliding through rings scattered along the horizon much like in Nintendo's classic Pilotwings. There's even an online multiplayer component with a spin on capture the flag that involves duking it out with other eagles over a rabbit carcass.
As two of the largest game companies to throw their hat in the ring for PSVR, Ubisoft and Crytek have illustrated the unique challenges facing the format. Virtual reality holds out the tantalizing promise of living out every childhood flight of fancy. The hope is that if companies would simply throw enough money at a game, they'll finally deliver the quintessential VR experience that's both stunningly grand and reliably fun to play. But for now, we may have to pick one or the other.