The gun-shaped Aim controller is the star of the show
There was a point about halfway through Farpoint, Impulse Gear's sci-fi shooter for PlayStation VR, where I just felt like I couldn't catch a break. I couldn't get close enough to the monsters to hit them with any real accuracy and it was bombarding me with all kinds of alien crap that was just destroying me. If you look closely, the assault rifle you get at the very beginning of the game has a holographic sight on it and honestly, I'd pretty much dismissed it as just something cute and cosmetic. I'd held the rifle-shaped Aim controller up to try and aim down the sight, but all that had really done was make me go cross-eyed while banging the plastic gun into the bottom of the headset – but then I tried closing one eye. I know it sounds obvious now, but it had never occurred to me that the best possible action might actually be exactly what you'd do with a real gun. Close one eye, the targeting doohickey snaps into focus, you line up with the bad guy and pop. Dead. It was a rare revelatory moment that transformed the whole thing for me.
You are actually able to play Farpoint without the Aim controller that it was developed alongside, but do so is sort of missing out on the point. In truth, it's a fairly mediocre video game, but as a visceral and credibly physical experience it's a ballsy attempt to push VR games forward. If VR is all about a sense of presence, then there's nothing quite like a convincing prop in your hands to make you believe.
Like many virtual reality games, Farpoint is more of a ride than it is a raw gameplay experience. While it tries very hard to convince you that it's a shiny new kind of first person shooter, it's really more a mashup of a walking simulator and an old-school light gun game. Think: Time Crisis with goo-belching space bugs and creepy alien spiders, only with a storyline that's trying its damned-hardest to channel bits of Andy Weir's The Martian.
The sci-fi shipwreck story that unfolds over the course of the six hours (or so) that it'll take you to play through it, Farpoint sees you traipsing – mostly in a straight line – across an alien landscape, while following two stranded scientists as they try to find their way home. Thanks to the intimacy that you only really feel in a VR game, there's actually an odd sense of connection that you feel with these people. In between the walky and shooty parts of the game you find holographic recordings that forcibly pause your progress and play out in front of you as if these people are really there. They're an earnest attempt to inject some sense of emotion and purpose into the proceedings, but ultimately their real job is to break up the action so you don't throw up.
Unlike the majority of VR shooters, Farpoint gives you freedom of movement within its limited environments. It's ambitious, but it's also – very occasionally – ridiculously uncomfortable. Moving around is a bit clumsy, but basically you lead with your gun. Point it where you want to go and push the thumbstick and you start to plod forward. To be really comfortable you have to kind of stand slightly side-on so you're holding the gun in a more natural position, and this can lead to some balance problems if you get too excited and want to storm ahead like you would in a normal shooter. If you're looking one way, pointing the gun another and then pushing forward on the stick you can completely lose track of which direction your virtual body is supposed to move, and it can feel like it's lurching the wrong way. I stumbled twice while playing, and had to come out of the experience completely in order to get my bearings and get my nausea under control.
Fortunately you don't need to move and shoot at the same time very often. There's a particular plodding, methodical cadence to Farpoint that works really well in VR, but would otherwise be mercilessly ridiculed if this were a regular shooter. You walk for a while, you watch some story play out, you walk a bit more, then you shoot some aliens. Repeat. There's no real exploration, there's nothing you really need to pick up or collect except the occasional weapon, and there's no need to ever backtrack. It rarely demands that you try and do more than one thing at once, but that actually helps ensure that things stay relatively comfortable.
Where the game really gets to strut its stuff is with the shooting though, and that's why you need the full $80 package with the Aim controller to experience Farpoint at its best. Early on you're faced with creepy little space spiders that scuttle out from their monster closets before being easily dispatched with your assault rifle, but that's not representative of the whole game. As you progress it demands quite a bit more of you, and that's where the controller comes into its own. Though all of your weapons very conveniently have infinite ammo, everything has some kind of cooldown or reload mechanic that means you can't just spray and pray your way through the whole thing. Accuracy becomes an increasingly important consideration – and that was when it won me over with the whole aiming down the sights thing.
If Farpoint were a regular non-VR game it would be unremarkable at best. As a VR experience though, and as a demonstration of the effectiveness of a gun-shaped prop in virtual reality, it represents a ballsy, if embryonic, attempt to try and push things forward. It's experimental and – as something that tries to be a fully-fledged multi-hour "blockbuster" action game – is unusually daring for this period in VR. While we certainly won't ever look back on it as one of the great shooters of all time, we may come to look back at it as significant landmark in VR games.