Coming from the perspective of someone who hadn’t had a fully immersive experience in virtual reality, I remained unconvinced about the upcoming PlayStation VR. Neither the more technically impressive Oculus Rift, nor the HTC Vive – which is so seemingly so far out of reach with its high price point and oceans of space required to play – could sell me on VR. So how could Sony’s lower-priced, technically inferior effort persuade me on the latest trend in video gaming?
That was my thought process until the point that I tried Battlezone at the Manchester Play Expo this year. Battlezone is a reboot of the old ’80s tank combat arcade game. While the original looks decidedly lo-fi with its wireframe models, the latest Battlezone evokes a simpler, retro-stylised aesthetic that evokes older arcade experiences while also feeling bang up to date.
One of the limitations of VR is that hardware needs to display a consistently high frame rate to avoid nausea in the player. This means that games striving for realistic graphics will need to tone down their fidelity to avoid framerate dips, which pretty much defies the point of attempting photo-realistic visuals in a VR game. Battlezone gets around this problem nicely with bulky, distinct shapes that still look fantastic in the moment due to their smooth surfaces and decidedly colourful realisation. The demo level looked rather Tron-like, with dark, blocky landscapes and bright red enemy tanks.
As the game introduces you to its world with a few practice targets, you’ll find yourself exploring the cockpit that stretches out around you. Several screens surround you that provide information on enemy targets, meaning there isn’t a HUD as such. If you want to check the map, you’ll have to look down to the left, which itself becomes a strategic decision as you start to handle waves of enemies. When an opponent appears on the radar, even if your tank is facing in the opposite direction, you can crane your neck around and see them approaching behind you. This action is essential to being able to manage multiple targets at once, and to avoid being surrounded as enemies will try to do – even on the demo level, which is essentially training.
Otherwise, Battlezone plays out as a 3D shooter with twin-stick controls. One stick swivels the tank turret, acting like the camera control. The other moves your tank in 360 degrees, allowing you to strafe and circle your enemies, while keeping an eye over your shoulder for any flanking foes. In this way, VR actually benefits the gameplay somewhat by providing you a sense of place within a 3D environment. You can judge distances easily, which is essential in Battlezone as your bullets have an arc to them, so you have to land your shots directly on your opponents. There is also a mini-gun option for a more straight-forward point-and-click experience, but this didn’t pack as much of a punch as the main turret and was more used for crowd control on floods of weaker enemies.
Taking into account the technology, developer Rebellion has had to make several compromises with how they communicate information to the player. First-person shooters have developed certain shorthand that tells you when you’re taking hits, by making the screen shake and turn red. In third-person perspectives, you’ll often see your character physically fall over or be blown backwards while the controller rumbles. These basics of game design cannot apply to VR, as moving the player against their will and obscuring their view will lead to nausea. As such, when taking hits in Battlezone, there’s a subtle vibration on the cockpit and the controller simultaneously. It’s easy to miss and acts as more of a subconscious reminder. It’s a clever method of giving the player this kind of information that you would normally take for granted.
Similar considerations have to be made when moving up ramps and over geometry. As you are physically sat in a chair that doesn’t move, the game could easily trick your brain into thinking that you should feel some sort of momentum when coming over the crest of a ramp. In reality, gravity would probably pull you forward in this situation, so there’s an easy disconnect between your eyes and your brain when using VR. These kind of challenges are still being tackled as the technology is still in its infancy, but Rebellion have done a fantastic job with Battlezone in this regard. The setting lends itself nicely as, sitting in the cockpit of a tank, you’re not expecting to feel much other than the same sensations you’d feel while normally sitting down. The tank compensates for changes in elevation by keeping the player in roughly the same position.
For the purposes of the demo, one of the developers was on hand to help me get everything set up. The PS VR headset is very comfortable and has several options for adjustment. I was assured that it was also comfortable for people wearing glasses. Even if you happen to have a rather bulbous cranium (to store all of that extra processing power inside), the headset should still fit snugly around your brain box. With Battlezone, the developer handed me a physical controller, which appeared as an object in the game as it was being tracked by the PlayStation Eye camera. It was a neat touch that allowed me to pick up the Dualshock 4 without flailing around blindly and accidentally groping innocent bystanders. Once I had hold of the pad, it disappeared for the remainder of the demo, so didn’t spoil the immersion by floating ominously in my eyeline.
Battlezone feels like all of the considerations around VR have come together in one package. It is an experience that feels tailor-made for the technology, which proves that VR can be fun and also proves that VR has a legitimate place in the video games industry.
On the other hand, it does also highlight the limitations of VR, in that the most immersive games are going to be ones that have many of the same elements as Battlezone. Many people will play at home while sitting down, so there won’t be many compelling experiences that require players to physically move around a virtual space. It remains to be seen if developers can conjure up other uses for VR in the future, but for now, the best experiences are likely to be ones that are very similar to Battlezone.