E3 2019: Oculus Showcase

It’s hard for me to say whether or not virtual reality has hit its stride, commercially speaking. The equipment is still super expensive for non-enthusiasts to afford and while the PlayStation VR is a nice semi-affordable option, the new medium has a lot farther to go before we can embrace the VR cyberpunk future. It’s a shame that the cost can be so prohibitive because everyone I’ve introduce virtual reality to are dazzled and blown away by the technology. I’ve had the good fortune that my day job allows me to play around with VR and watching people experience it for the first time never gets old.

Oculus was on hand at E3 to show off a small library of upcoming titles for the platform and I loved each one. It’s a real shame I don’t have the Oculus Rift S (or the new, computer-free Oculus Quest) because I walked away wanting to play these games so badly.

Stormland

Developed by Insomniac, Stormland is a game about uncovering a mystery surrounding the disappearance of a human terraforming colony. You play it from the perspective of a robot programmed for gardening duties on far off planets. Something has caused the colonists to disappear and allow the colony itself fall into ruin. Your fragmented computer memories hint to the presence of an alien opposing force called the Tempest that could very well be responsible for the attack.

Stormland is an exploration game with built in action set pieces. You’ll wander about the colony interacting with the environment and finding upgrades to help traverse difficult areas like sheer rock faces and vast, open cloud banks. Upgrading your robot player character is super fun because they appear as small pieces of tech that are installed in your arms. When you find a crafting station, you’ll use the Oculus Touch controllers to mimic pulling off your robot arm out of its socket and place it on the workbench to install the mod. Another mod grants repulsor-like technology that lets you glide across the clouds. To speed up, you literally do the Superman flying pose which had me feeling like the Iron Giant.

I got a brief taste of combat after picking up a small machine pistol you hold with both hands. My encounter was limited to a single drone but the gun combat felt pretty good--well, as well as using your own hands to aim and fire. I goofed around a little bit and ran out of bullets during the small firefight and while I ran around trying to find ammo, I was reminded that I can shoot at things with my Iron Man-like hand repulsors, and that was far more satisfying to use. Stormland looked fantastic and I was already beginning to pine for one of these headsets, a feeling that would only get stronger as the appointment went on.  

Lone Echo II

Once again for those in the back: I LOVE virtual reality games set inside expansive space stations. I missed out on the original Lone Echo and that’s probably a good thing, otherwise I would have run out and gotten an Oculus just to play it--finances be damned. Lone Echo II, then was a bit of a mystery as far as it’s story and main characters but that really didn’t matter the most to me. I was already sold on the premise of playing as an android stranded on board a station in orbit around Saturn with a human astronaut, so i didn’t need anyone to make the hard sell. Working with a computer controlled human partner as we navigated around deadly biomasses while trying to turn the station back on is all i ever need in a VR game.

The hook in Lone Echo II is the traversal mechanics. The station has lost gravity which means you’re going to have to push, pull, and glide your way through corridors and service tunnels to get around. The game does a great job of simulating zero gravity without too much intensity to make me sick. I once tried Mission: ISS on the HTC Vive and had to pull the headset off almost immediately because it was too much to handle. I’m not sure how Ready At Dawn managed to do it, but moving around in zero-G is both comfortable and intuitive.

Asgard’s Wrath

Asgard’s Wrath is what Skyrim VR should have been--or at least aspire to be. If nothing else, this is a game that shows how far VR action games have come since VR action games became a thing. Instead of trudging along a linear path, leapfrogging across teleporting hotspots, Asgard’s Wrath gives the player a lot of 1:1 movement and interactivity as they explore Norse-inspired lands to empower mortals and study under the tutelage of Asgard’s most trustworthy god, Loki. The game involves helping Loki seek out a series of special stones in exchange for his help in becoming a god powerful enough to join the Norse pantheon. You accomplish this by possessing notable mortals to aid them in the personal epics

In the demo, I played as a young woman bent on revenge. Washing up on a rocky island, I took possession of her consciousness in response to her near-death wish for a little divine intervention. At this point, I could then play the game like a first person sword and sorcery adventure. Taking over people’s bodies were not the limits of my god-like powers. Returning to my corporeal form, I could zoom out and view the map from a “god view” and interact with objects that might be too big or heavy for the mortal to deal with. I didn’t get much of a chance to utilize that feature for the demo but instead, I was shown another fun power.

By physically grabbing a shark trapped in a small lagoon, I imbued it with Asgardian power, turning it into a friendly and quite frankly, adorable minion to fight alongside with (I made it a point to ask if a shark monster plushie was earmarked in the merchandising plan and didn’t get a straight answer. They have to hold some of their cards to the chest!). The armored shark man was a great help in combat because for the better part of the demo, I was stuck without a sword to defend against zombie monsters. I could also use my shark bro to solve puzzles, though my demo was limited to using him as a counterweight. Combat, though brief, was really fun. Armed with a sword that would make Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s Kassandra proud, swinging the weapon and dodging attacks was satisfying, though maybe not as much as performing a nice, wide horizontal sweep to strike three creatures standing directly in front of me.

Asgard’s Wrath (and Lone Echo II and Stormland) looked and ran beautifully on the Oculus Rift. I own a PlayStation VR and while I love the hardware, it’s hard knowing that the games on the platform aren’t as sharp and clear as those on the Oculus. That’s what made leaving the appointment so bittersweet. I saw some really cool stuff and knowing I wouldn’t be able to play them unless I beefed up my computer and spent money on the hardware was hard. Even more difficult was resisting the urge to pull out my phone and just buy everything right then and there.

Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.