I can’t believe we live in a time where Planet of the Apes, that venerable Charlton Heston vehicle, not only saw a Mark Wahlberg reboot but is currently the subject of a new franchise reboot about a flu outbreak that creates a new race of hyper-intelligent apes. And yet, here we are! Now, I have no real affinity for the series outside of the jovial references made to it (and at its expense) across pop culture properties like The Simpsons and Mystery Science Theater 3000, so I approached Crisis on the Planet of the Apes VR with mirth. Would I get to play as the knowledgeable Doctor Zaius? Could I be like Troy McClure and declare my hatred for every ape, from chimpan-A to chimpan-Z? The truth took me by surprise and as I quickly discovered, there’s no humor to be found here. As a matter of fact, the opening moments of this virtual reality media tie-in just about slapped the smile right off my face.
What makes virtual reality such a compelling medium is its ability to put you in someone else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes. The beginning sequence in Crisis on the Planet of the Apes does a really good job of pulling the player out of their comfortable living room and into a nightmare world where they, cast as an ape that has gained intelligence, are viewed with intense hatred and disgust. Set five years after the outbreak of the Simian Flu, the Center for Disease Control has set up a facility to study and experiment on apes that have been affected by the virus that created Caesar, the leader of Ape Army from Rise of the Planet of the Apes. With humans slowly dying from the flu, fear has been channeled into hate and anger, emotions that drive the soldiers who bark and scream orders as they lead you inside the complex. They point guns in your faces, brand your hand, and lock you inside bloody cages while scientists poke, prod, and go “hmm” and “ahh” as they study you from behind a clipboard. This opening scene is more than a little visceral and upsetting, so much so that I caught myself bringing my big, hairy hands up in a submissive gesture anytime a soldier looked directly into my eyes. When it comes to establishing a place, Crisis on the Planet of the Apes does it very well - to the point where your eventual armed rebellion against the soldiers who harassed you feels legitimately cathartic. Too bad, then, that the rest of the game is an absolute suck.
It might surprise you to know that this game is a cover based, on-rails shooter. Once freed from human captors, you participate in an ape exodus from the CDC facility with the assistance of a fully automatic rifle. Movement is limited to pointing a Move wand at a glowing silhouette of your character and alternating left and right arm movements (which comically looks like a jaunty strut) to draw you along a strictly linear path. Jumping across rooftops and broken catwalks is done by lowering both arms down and lifting them up together as you hold down the Move buttons on each controller. Nothing about getting around the environment this way is fun or comfortable, given the lack of camera control. As you move across the facility, the camera moves independently of your will, forcing you to physically turn your body in the direction the game wants you to face. This is problematic because you’ll often find yourself facing away from the PlayStation Camera, which already isn’t great about tracking the headset or Move wands should they fall out of its view. You can’t event recenter the camera by holding down the Start button, a key feature that every PSVR game uses. The end result is near constant fighting with system message, camera warnings, and jittery arm movements that are out of your control.
One concession I make for the control scheme is climbing. Scaling crumbling brick walls, water pipes and air vents is pretty fun because you’ll use the Move wands to simulate the act of climbing up a ladder or pulling yourself over a ledge. Just like walking, you’ll alternate your arm and hand movements as you reach for gaps in brick facades, climb up ladder rungs, and lifting crossing exposed pipes like a schoolyard jungle gym set. This 1:1 ratio of movement also applies for putting yourself in cover. By grabbing onto the crates and masonry, you can position yourself to peek out of cover to spot targets and blow them away. I liked this part of the game until the problems with the camera I spoke of made it a problem. Again, having the headset and Move wands facing away from the camera often made the physical activity difficult to perform without the tech wigging out on me every so often.
The first twenty or so minutes of the game are really fascinating as you explore how the game’s mechanics work. All the climbing and shooting made me marvel at what a cool showcase for virtual reality Crisis on the Planet of the Apes VR could really be. That is, until the game devolved into an exceptional headache. I should have known things were going to get bad because of how much trouble the simple act of mimicking the ape-like chest pound can cause. Even though the on-screen text told me to move the wands against my chest, nothing happened. No joke, it took ten minutes of slapping the controllers all over my chest before the game acknowledged the action. And then it went all downhill from there.
The PlayStation Move is entirely to blame for my of frustrated rage over trying to move, find cover, and equip weapons. There is a traversal sequence that had me jump across a gap to reach a dilapidated building across the way and catch myself by grabbing onto holes in the brick wall. It took me seven tries to get it right because for some reason, I kept failing to catch the wall even though I had my hands out and pressed the controller buttons as soon as I was in range of the hand holds. There was another section where I was forced to restart the game because I got myself caught inside a wall during my ascent through an elevator shaft. I paused the game, hoping to restart from there, but was still clipped inside the environment unable to select the option buttons floating a foot in front of my face. The restart put me ten minutes behind the area where I got stuck. Yeah, that totally sucked.
Combat is just as rough. To arm the gun, you need to physically reach behind your back and press and hold a button. It seemed to me that there is a “sweet spot” you need to get the Move controller near and my problem was that this felt pretty inconsistent. I had just as much trouble reaching for the weapon as I did trying to grab onto that wall I mentioned earlier. This got really frustrating for those times the game repositions you away from the camera which made it impossible to shoot straight because of all the jittering and “Controller Not Detected” warning screens. Oh! And another thing about combat that pissed me off was the abrupt change in weapons. At one point, you’re encouraged to ditch your assault rifle for a combat shotgun, a weapon with lower range reliability and fire rate. You take it anyway because shooting with the assault rifle gets boring after awhile. Soon after this point, I had to walk out of a doorway and into a cover spot across the hallway where three soldiers were shooting at me from the building across from me and another at the end of the hall I was in. My attempts to reach back for my gun was stymied by the game thinking I wanted to walk back to the doorway, an action that can’t be cancelled once you’ve started. So here I was, an intelligent super ape stuck walking back and forth as soldiers repeatedly shot me in the face. And you know what the real kicker was? After getting through this section, I reach another combat area that had no ammo for my shotgun, only the assault rifle (which I didn’t even know I could pick up again)! Like, what the hell?!
I’d talk about the game’s graphics and expand on the discussion of using VR to expand on the Planet of the Apes mythos but right now? I just don’t care anymore. I'm so frustrated thinking about all the problems that made this game so miserable to play that I’m done. Don’t play this game or, if you have to, wait for a sale. Damn you, Crisis on the Planet of the Apes VR. Damn you all to hell.
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.