There’s only so much breathing room between the season’s biggest video game releases, and that has meant an incredibly brief respite at Ars HQ. What do we gnaw on between massive games like Spider-Man, Forza Horizon 4, and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey? (Let alone Red Dead Redemption 2 around the corner.)
In my case, it’s been PlayStation VR—a stint that I admittedly kicked off after testing the Oculus Quest. PSVR currently sits in a cushy point between PC’s awesome-but-expensive systems and ho-hum phone-VR solutions. Sony’s set thus feels to me like the closest Quest corollary (which relies on a mobile Snapdragon 835 SoC) ahead of that wireless headset’s “Spring 2019” launch.
This season’s biggest PSVR games, Astro Bot: Rescue Mission and Firewall: Zero Hour, are both good and bad news for anybody getting excited about the Quest’s possibilities. The good news is that these games deliver great gameplay while leaning on simple, lower-powered graphics (and in Astro Bot‘s case, still looking gorgeous). But Oculus fans will probably never see these first-party Sony games on next year’s wireless kit, and it’s a reminder that sometimes, smart development (and triple-A money to fund it) can beat any futuristic tech possibility.
Astro Bot: VR platforming gets its tiny king
PlayStation VR launched in 2016 with The Playroom VR, a mini-game collection that offered cute teases of the platform’s future. The standout, a 3D platformer starring an army of tiny, hopping robots, has now been given the retail-disc treatment in this $40 single-player adventure. And man, it’s good.
Astro Bot: Rescue Mission opens with a basic, cartoony premise. A spaceship gets ransacked and destroyed by an alien interloper—and this creature steals the ship’s navigation visor, which looks suspiciously like a PSVR headset, before flying away. Before long, 99 little walking, cooing robots get punted across the galaxy in the resulting ship explosion, while the 100th floats toward your field of view and you catch him with your DualShock 4 controller (it has been tracked on-screen the whole time).
It’s your job to rescue those crewmates by controlling the hero bot, Astro, with a joystick and two buttons. You’ll take on a somewhat standard array of 3D platforming levels and boss encounters—but the twist is that you’ll also participate as an oversized overseer bot, as revealed by occasional mirror images showing you with controller in hand and PSVR headset on face. This works by the game having your perspective automatically move forward or pause depending on exactly how far Astro gets from your position.
You may read that and assume all of Astro Bot‘s levels are locked to rails, moving straight ahead, which is true to some extent, but Astro Bot is more clever than that. Within the game world, you’ll often have to send Astro careening left to right on little platforms that dangle through your line of sight, and even so far up, down, or backward that you’ll have to look behind and around your scenery to find and guide its position. Not to mention you’ll have to run through buildings whose views are ever so slightly obscured or move your own body until you see a long, deep tunnel—so that you can then aim your character through it to discover a hidden item.
We’ve seen other VR adventure games try to break the fourth wall by acknowledging a real-life player within a virtual world, but so far, Astro Bot takes the most intelligent approach yet in a sit-down VR game—and it pulls off some delightful surprises to boot. Sometimes, this means using and moving your literal head as a blunt object. Other times, it means teaming up with Astro by launching weapons and useful items out of your DualShock 4 (which, again, appears in the game world). The coolest of these is a grappling hook. Shoot it at a golden hook in a given world, then make Astro jump on it, and you’ll get the opportunity to move that launched cord around to help the bot reach a specific point (or physically jerk your controller up to launch Astro to a point it couldn’t otherwise jump to).
We’d rather not spoil the more clever one-and-done moments in Astro Boy other than to point out that these tasty bits are often accompanied with your hero (and its friends) acknowledging you as a guiding player in freakin’ adorable ways. But we were really surprised to see Sony Interactive Entertainment Japan adhere to a Nintendo-like “introduce a clever mechanic, then move on” design philosophy in its platforming levels—and then one-up it.
Every level in Astro Bot comes with a “challenge” variant that is wholly redesigned—meaning all new paths and geometry—to emphasize whatever clever twist it originally contained. This is awesome for more reasons than might seem evident. Astro Bot’s levels revolve largely around looking for and finding Astro’s hidden friends, which often hide in really weird spots that require bobbing and weaving your head around. Finding a hidden bot can range from obvious, “it’s right there” appearances to grueling, look-and-run-everywhere challenges—but in either case, that’s a one-and-done blip of fun within an otherwise solid-if-familiar platforming adventure (jump, double-jump-and-float, punch, and run).
Remixed challenge levels, on the other hand, feel endlessly replayable, as they emphasize the game’s giddy mix of running, jumping, mastering perspective, and launching items out of your controller. In these levels, you’ll be asked to either run quickly, rack up tons of points, or keep all of your health during a brutally difficult stretch. (What’s more, you have to unlock each of these challenge levels by finding a cleverly hidden chameleon in the standard levels, who only emerges when your VR gaze spots each level’s lizard.)
Astro Boy would be easy to recommend on the strength of its grin-inducing surprises alone, and these make up for a few literally painful moments of having to turn and stretch around to discover hidden elements in certain levels. (The game also has a herky-jerky start in terms of how your floating platform moves forward, which raised my VR-discomfort red flags. The entire rest of the game is comfortable, though. I have no idea why Sony starts the game off with its bumpiest level.) The design team’s attention to adding replay value tips this game over to “absolutely recommended” status. (Otherwise, I might be on the fence, with a campaign, sans challenge levels, that runs five to six hours at $40.)
I wasn’t smitten enough by Astro Boy to flatly declare that this is the “best platformer in years”—last year’s Super Mario Odyssey still enjoys that honor. But the fact that such a question came to my mind says quite a bit. In terms of family-friendly VR platforming, Astro Boy has the goods, and it towers over the likes of Lucky’s Tale and Moss. Any PSVR owner who wants to play a truly refined take on the behind-the-back Crash Bandicoot formula should throw away last year’s Crash N-Sane Trilogy and grab this instead.
Firewall: Legitimate sit-down military combat
As it turns out, there’s quite a bit of team-based VR battling out there. And Firewall doesn’t immediately top the genre’s limited list.
Echo Arena is arguably more compelling, albeit with an arcadey twist. Onward, meanwhile, is in the same genre and is, if not outright better, certainly deeper (and it has a more comfortable “room-scale” mode as an option.)
But Firewall: Zero Hour is one of those down-to-the-basics tactical shooters that proves an incredible exception to the assumption that VR run-and-gun games can’t work. They can! So long as you recast the style as “trot-and-run.”
In short: limited health and tight corridors combine to make Firewall a hard game to run madly through. Frankly, you’ll likely get shot if you run through this game’s office, warehouse, and hotel interiors, all designed to make distant movement pretty visible through a ton of clutter-loaded sight lines. The game offers a “sprint” button in a pinch, which effectively cuffs your field of vision as you speed up for VR comfort’s sake, but even this isn’t all that fast.
So it’s up to level design, game mechanics, and virtual 3D surround sound to sell you on two things: that you need to move slowly, and that it feels better to slow down. Firewall‘s biggest surprise is how it does just this—and makes an otherwise familiar online-combat system feel really darned fresh as a result.
Firewall supports Sony’s PlayStation VR Aim gun, which I last talked about over a year ago when discussing another PSVR shooter, Farpoint (the controller hasn’t received much else in the way of support). In Farpoint‘s case, I argued that the VR Aim controller wasn’t essential and that a motion-tracked DualShock 4 controller was surprisingly effective. But this new tactical shooter makes all the more sense with the add-on, owing to its reliance on rotational aiming (as opposed to Farpoint mostly serving straight-ahead arcade action). Plus, Firewall restricts your ability to move your arms through nearby walls and barriers, and the game does a better job tricking your brain about these invisible objects when your on-screen gun matches the rifle shape in your hands.
You can still play the game with a DualShock 4 controller, and it feels fine. But this is a rare case where the added plastic, even if only for one game, might be worth the cash. (Bonus points if you decide to buy a VR Aim gun as part of a discounted new-headset bundle with Firewall included.)
Finely tuned motion, solid gun mechanics, and comfortable rotation and walking speeds are the primary drivers of this tactical-team shooter, which otherwise plays like a standard, asymmetric Counter Strike clone. Thanks to the slow motion and limited four-on-four teams, First Contact Entertainment implements a few speed-up ideas to make combat quicker in organic ways, including three-minute timers per round, easy ways to flag objectives’ positions on the map (for quicker objective discovery if you’re on the “attacker” side), and—this is huge—a single, unified online-versus pool.
Forget picking maps, modes, or options before a match; everyone who wants to play the game online taps the same “Contracts” button and queues up. Anyone who’s bothered by this hasn’t tried playing online PSVR games before. Firewall has seen lesser VR multiplayer games falter by splitting their tiny player pools into multiple modes, but that’s not the case here—and average wait times between matches have been around 90 seconds tops in our (admittedly brief) testing period. (Private, option-filled matches between friends are still an option, as is a PvE challenge mode where you can team up with randos against bots.)
The game’s primary weakness is in the visuals, which look like something out of the PlayStation 2’s worst brown-and-green “serious” era. Making out enemies and allies alike is easy enough, which is the graphics’ saving grace, and there’s definitely color and scenery variety between the nine online maps. The trouble is that the textures are painted to look “realistic” but suffer from a mix of tiny texture sizes and aggressive resolution blur. This covers much of Firewall in a cloud of ugliness.
But you’ll still be able to sit comfortably while using a controller to duck, slink around warehouses, and select weapons and then use real-life bob-and-weave motion to gesture to squadmates, shift around in a firefight, and possibly come out on top. For many VR believers, that kind of multiplayer immersion beats anything in the way of fancier graphics or other features. Firewall was clearly too busy reinventing the wheel of getting this genre to work in sit-down VR, and that means the genre sees no other reinventions or wild new mechanics. If you’re fine with that trade, don’t hesitate to squad up in Firewall.