Oculus has officially announced their slate of games for 2017. At GDC 17 in San Francisco, we were able to try each one.
Alongside the many announcements and demos at last week’s GDC, Oculus had a few major ones to share. $100 price cuts to the Rift and Touch (bringing the total “all-in” price to $600), the launch of Robo Recall for free to Touch users, and an official showing of games scheduled to be released in 2017. Several of the titles had already made waves with appearances at conferences like October’s Oculus Connect 3—while others were making their public debut—but the notable commonality here was the consistent level of quality, detail, and execution across all games.
This felt less like a day of demos and more like chance to taste the breadth of an entire AAA platform; the kind of roster that can rightfully vie for attention against console platforms and mobile apps in equal measure. And with a new game dropping each month, players will be able to hone their VR chops in different genres throughout the year.
Arktika.1 – 4A Games
Release Date: Q3 2017
When I first tried Arktika.1 last October, here’s what I had to say about it:
“If you thought 28 Days Later could’ve used a helping of robot mayhem, Arktika.1 is your next favorite first-person shooter. 4A Games established itself as a master of icy post-apocalyptic sci-fi with its beloved Metro series, and Arktika.1 proves the Ukranian developer has plenty more where that came from.”
Plenty more indeed. This go-around, an updated intro grounds players in the grimy sci-fi tundra where frosty exhalations are real enough to induce a psychosomatic chill. The tutorial element in “virtual reality” makes for a playful metatextual flourish that also acclimates players to their weapons and locomotion. From there, (at least in the demo) you’re tossed into an airfield that has fallen prey to renegades—it’s your mission to dispatch them.
The subject of the FPS in VR is no-doubt a fraught one, but 4A has quite obviously invested in fleshing out story and design, such that Arktika.1 stands on the weight of its art as much as its roster of weapons, bandits, and monsters. Notably, for offering such a beautiful arsenal, Arktika.1 is much more a game of defense than offense—if you want a prayer of staying alive to complete your mission, you must to pay attention to your environment and understand sources of cover (and how to get to them) rather than try to blast your way through with blunt force. It’s a gentleman’s strategy shooter dressed up as a frothy-lipped sci-fi horror.
Blade & Soul – NCSoft
Release Date: TBA
The first on the list of two real-time strategy games to debut at Oculus, Blade & Soul transplants a beloved franchise into VR, and to great effect. If you dig board games like Stratego, but wish things were a bit more animated, Blade & Soul will keep you hooked for hours.
Upon entering the game, you assemble your army. There’s a variety of warriors with different attributes—your job is to grab the perfect mix for attacks and defense. And because this game runs on Oculus Touch, you select them by picking them up with your hands.
Blade & Soul strikes the perfect balance between fast-paced action and patient strategy. With enemy combatants coming at you full force, you have to continually adjust plans on the fly. This game is definitely fun for a quick round, but ultra-competitors will crave longterm play to hone their skills. Intimate knowledge of your army is necessary to intuit the best positioning of your warriors without wasting time, and rewards offer the ability to unlock achievements that let you level up your army.
Brass Tactics – Hidden Path Entertainment
Release Date: Fall 2017
Rounding out the RTS contingent, Brass Tactics opts for a giant virtual table where battles come to life in the most playful one-on-one combat arena I’ve encountered in VR. But don’t let the clocks and gears fool you; this is a high-intensity game that taps every bit of your strategy reserves.
Your job is to overtake your opponent’s base while defending your own by placing structures and deploying troops across the board. And while I played PvP in my demo, the game will also sport co-op mode so that friends can band together rather than go head-to-head.
Brass Tactics stands apart most in its locomotion and interactivity. Players can reposition the height of the board at any moment for optimal viewing, as well as drag themselves all around the board with the Touch controllers to spy on what their opponent has cooking in the backfield. Though this might not seem like a big deal to newcomers to the RTS genre, fans will recognize how revolutionary this development is, singlehandedly proving that longtime “Fog of War” trope might not have a place in the VR update to the RTS.
All that, alongside the superb art design, creates a magical sense of presence. Brass Tactics captures a wonderful, childlike feeling of watching your childhood toys come alive in your bedroom (and then, you know, conquer each other). The strategy stakes are high, but so is the cute factor: serving as lord of a miniature world drives you to guide your tiny champions to victory—and with a five-mission solo campaign to complement PvP and co-op modes, there’s no end to the ways you can lead them.
Dragon Front – High Voltage Software (also on Gear VR)
Release Date: November 15, 2016 with regular expansions
In the world of Dragon Front, terrible war las laid wreckage to the world. Your job is to take up the mantle as a deity selected to go back in time to win that war. And you do that in a fully immersive collectible-card game where dieselpunk and high fantasy come together in a clash of steel, spells, and strategy. This is the resounding immersive answer to every CCG lover’s favorite existing franchise, be it Hearthstone, Yu-Gi-Oh, or otherwise.
Players choose from a customizable deck of 30 cards (different depending on which faction you represent), playable on different squares on a 4×4 grid. Some of these cards may be minions, others spells, and with the Touch connectivity it’s easy to peruse and place your cards—but the turn-based gameplay is kept at a clip with a timer. It’s vital to know what your cards can do and deploy your sorcery before time runs out…and with hundreds of characters and spells to choose from, the best way to learn is practice.
When I first tried out Dragon Front last year, I was able to choose from four factions using a traditional game controller. Fast-forward a few months and it boasts three new factions, two of which are pictured above (Essence and Delirium), and Touch connectivity. The live “in-person” feeling Dragon Front creates maintains a high degree of presence, even down to players’ ability to watch their opponent’s movements using the tracking system. Of course, this also means you have to be wary of your own tells.
Each faction has a unique “champion.” While these legendary bosses may have different attributes, all of them are more powerful than other deck cards—certainly powerful enough to swing the fate of the game. Savvy players will remember to add points toward unlocking their champions throughout their turns so that when the time comes, they’ll be ready to take things to the next level.
From Other Suns – Gunfire Games
Release Date: Fall 2017
From Other Suns takes us to the depths of space, as captain of a talented crew, where our explorations have been all peachy…that is, until The Collapse, when you and half of the human race were trapped on the wrong end of a wormhole where space bandits, corrupt corporations, and alien threats run rampant.
In looking to build on the success of last year’s third-person fantasy action juggernaut, Chronos, Gunfire Games brought their sense of game fundamentals and built an interactive sci-fi rooted firmly in the linage of FTL, with definite flourishes of Star Trek and Firefly. In it, you can play with up to two other players to explore a sector overrun by chaos, with a variety of procedurally generated missions you can choose to take on or bypass entirely. The format is the perfect vehicle to explore the relationship between strategy and morality, as well as a general concern for the consequences of how you run your campaign. Is it wise to respond to that SOS or is it likely a trap? It’s totally within your capabilities to annihilate the ones who called for your help, but will you miss out on gleaning valuable intel? You need to upgrade your ship and stockpile weapons, so you can’t exactly avoid scavenging and combat.
FOS also sports one of the most innovative “comfort mode” locomotion techniques I’ve ever seen—allowing players to oscillate from first to third person. Essentially, when you stand still, you look at the world through the eyes of the character, but when you run somewhere “your” body runs out in front of you, which you navigate through your mission. This lets players who are prone to motion sickness or nausea participate without sacrificing the real-time flow of the game, particularly when in multiplayer mode.
Whether or not you fight to save humanity or just run amok GTA-in-space style, From Other Suns is sure to take you on a warped and wild ride.
Killing Floor: Incursion – Tripwire Interactive
Release Date: TBA
Tripwire debuted their Killing Floor: Incursion demo at Oculus Connect 3, and here’s what I had to say about it:
“If you’re looking for a way to turbocharge your nightmares, look no further than Killing Floor: Incursion. This s*** is harrowing. Unless you have a soft spot for freakish scuttling spider zombies? To each their own.”
I wasn’t wrong then, but the newest preview of the game is a different beast altogether. The puzzles are trickier and the zombies scarier, but what struck me most was the rich story I was able to glean in a short span—a remarkable feat given the other tasks I had on my plate: working cooperatively with another player to unlock passageways while fending off a roster of undead freaks (including sword-armed “Zeds,” whose arms I slashed off and then picked up and used to slash up other ones).
Without dipping too much into spoilers, Tripwire Interactive carries on the mind-melting sci-fi horror mayhem of its beloved franchise by, ahem, fleshing out its origin story. And the result is much more engrossing than a pure wave shooter.
This gets at something key about the current VR game landscape: the significance of continuing to focus on story even as we riff on classic genres. While we practice and experiment with new techniques, investing in top-tier writing and narrative design will mean rich game worlds that demand replay value and stand the test of time when the gleam of novelty wears off. That’s why, amid a cultural landscape that’s rotten with zombies, Killing Floor: Incursion is fresh, alive, and kicking.
Mage’s Tale – inXile Entertainment Inc.
Release Date: TBA
Speaking of story, Mage’s Tale is an epic first-person journey with the highest stakes: free your kidnapped master, Mage Alguin, from his captor, the corrupted wizard Gaufroi. You may not have been prepared to take on such a monumental quest—your sardonic guide makes it exceedingly clear he doesn’t think so—but you’re the only hope left, and both of you know it. Now it’s up to you to learn as quickly as you can how to mix spells so that you can accomplish your journey and save the day.
Expanding from within the world of The Bard’s Tale, Mage’s Tale swirls no small dose of comedy and glee into its cauldron. In speaking with the minds behind the game, it was made clear that this game was designed from the ground up to spark that feeling of joy you had as a child when you imagined you could wield magic with your bare hands. Achievement unlocked: mixing your own spells and using them to dispatch the ghouls separating you from your master is, well, a total blast. As you progress through the world, you find new upgrades to mix increasingly exotic spells.
It’s not all magical braun; Mage’s Tale also tasks you with solving puzzles and evading traps, yielding plenty hours of playtime—especially if you get crazy with the spells. Read: you should get crazy with the spells.
Robo Recall – Epic Games
Release Date: March 1, 2017
With so much news flying around at GDC, it’s hard to claim you dropped one of the biggest announcements of the week, but at their keynote address, that’s exactly what Epic Games did by explaining that Robo Recall, one of the buzziest names in VR gaming since its debut at Oculus Connect 3, was available for free on Oculus Touch with full mod support.
In the game, your job is to “recall” rogue AI robots…but your bosses at RoboReady don’t want them back. Or for them to stay alive in any way. And when they descend on you like a horde of wild animals, neither will you. The eerie cyberpunk narrative dovetails with all the glitzy bombast of the arcade, situating players somewhere between Street Fighter and Terminator. This game is metamodern art, demanding creativity as much as straightforward brute skill. Scores are based in part on creativity of execution—if you want to really score high, you’ll need to learn how to dispatch your enemies in the coolest, most inventive ways possible.
Anyway, that’s not so hard when Robo Recall is still one of the most beautiful games anywhere. Every detail sings—every glint of metal, every snap of wire. Not that you have time to smell the roses. That is, until the world slows to glossy bullet-time…though it’s likely you’ll find yourself plucking bullets from the air and flicking them back toward your assailants. And when robots are within reach, players can opt to rip them apart with their hands rather than shooting them.
Robo Recall has set a new bar—not just for VR shooters, but shooters on any platform.
Rock Band VR – Harmonix Music Systems Inc
Release Date: March 23, 2017
It’s easy to see why Oculus chose Rock Band VR to be part of 2017’s interactive slate. In a sense, this franchise has long been an obvious fit for VR; how else are you really able to feel the thrill of nailing your song for your adoring fans? But that belies how difficult it is to transition a beloved game into a whole new era of games—especially one that demands unprecedented kinds of interactivity.
Fortunately for us, the folks at Harmonix know what they’re doing. Rock Band VR packs all the rocking and rolling of earlier iterations, but also shows a marked evolution in approach, one borne of internalizing the unique needs and capabilities of interactive VR. Rather than placing frets or notes directly in front of your vision, in Rock Band VR, they occupy a small space as a top “row.” The idea here is to let you enjoy yourself in the space visually, playing for fans and hopping to different parts of the stage. The updated gameplay also emphasizes patterns over individual notes, which means the diehards can still vie for the top of the leaderboards, but your friends at the party can still hop in and enjoy themselves.
In other words, no matter what kind of player you are, one thing is for sure: you’re going to spend way too much time in Rock Band VR, and you’re not going to be mad about it.
Gear VR Titles
Augmented Empire – Coatsink Software
Release Date: TBA
Who said VR games had to be life-sized? In Coatsink’s tactical RPG, Augmented Empire, players strategize from “above,” operating bioelectronically-enhanced misfits through a diorama-sized version of New Savannah, a remote island where a caste system based on social grading has led to a serious case of the “haves” and “have nots.”
As you traverse the land, you witness the squalor of the outlying areas compared to the obscene wealth of those living at the higher points on the island. Interacting with the city’s inhabitants can lead to key clues or skirmishes alike—but each development adds a new layer of understanding to this city as you attempt to spearhead a revolution.
There’s something simultaneously nostalgic and unprecedented about Augmented Empire; it’s exactly the kind of immersive take I would have hoped to see usher the TRPG into VR. By employing simple interactivity but demanding complex strategy as players progress from location to location, it’s able to keep narrative at the fore without losing the pulse of interactivity, offering us a glimpse of the future of gaming in mobile VR.
SingSpace – Harmonix Music Systems Inc
Release Date: TBA
It only takes one look at SingSpace to understand why everybody’s expecting Social VR to be such a phenomenon. The game, produced by the same company behind Rock Band VR, goes straight for the heart of Friday night fun, building out the kind of karaoke wonderland where you’ll feel compelled to do your best Gloria Gaynor. Whether you want to practice on your own, link up with your squad, or put your skills on display for strangers, SingSpace has an option for you. Using the Gear VR’s built-in headset mic, your voice will come through loud and clear…for better or worse.
Given the game’s roots in traditional karaoke, Harmonix went to great lengths to ensure that SingSpace is first and foremost a place for shared fun. The interactivity doesn’t end when you leave the stage; as an audience member, send your courageous friends emojis or cheer them on to help them feel a little less virtually nervous for their big performance.
Term1nal – Force Field VR
Release Date: Q2 2017
In Term1nal, you play Flynn Lightman, an adept Avatar Pilot who operates androids using cutting-edge VR technology. In the game, you are tapped by a client to infiltrate a company that specializes in robotics and data management. Sounds like it should be a walk in the park, right?
As you push deeper into the facility, the more you begin to understand that something seriously weird is afoot. All the while, it keeps getting harder to avoid detection by the various security androids, which can take the form of stanchions, walkers, aerial drones, and more. This isn’t a game where you have HP—one strike and you’re out—so strategy is crucial.
As your journey leads you into the depths of the heavily defended, high-tech facility, you begin to discover a dark subplot, and ascertain more insight as to why you’re conducting this mission. Like Augmented Empire, scale plays a big role here; you have full visibility of the rooms you pilot your android through. But where AE takes more of a level-based structure, Term1nal goes for more of a “tiny world” feeling. As a player, you’re framed inside the walls (wherever they happen to be). You navigate through these spaces in 3rd-person “stealth gameplay,” but when it comes time to solving puzzles, the POV shifts to 1st-person. The oscillation engenders a deeper sense of presence, activating a kind of dream logic where you are both the character and the external POV. Term1nal stands alone as an exceptional VR game (mobile or console)—an inventive blend of puzzles and action-stealth that will have players hooked for hours.