I enjoy sci-fi stories about huge assault cruisers blasting it out with other assault cruisers, their flashy laser-based projectiles ripping through shields and penetrating thick hulls while smaller starfighters buzz around like gnats as they engage each other at impossible speeds. Lately though, I have developed an interest in hard science fiction, a genre that puts a strong emphasis on scientific accuracy over of fancy laser swords. It’s why I like books like Leviathan Wakes and video games like Elite: Dangerous. Farpoint, a tent pole PlayStation VR title developed by Impulse Gear, had the potential to follow suit. It’s a good game--and a cool VR experience--though it takes a bit of a tumble and falls short of victory.
Farpoint’s tale of two scientists transported across the galaxy is comfortably similar to Interstellar, one of my favorite Christopher Nolan films. As a nameless shuttle pilot, your job is to collect scientists Grant Moon and Eva Tyson, both scheduled to return to Earth after spending months inside the orbital research vessel Pilgrim studying a strange anomaly orbiting Jupiter. The pickup goes awry when the anomaly springs to life and pulls in the Pilgrim, the Pilot, Eva and Moon inside, sending them clear across the galaxy. As the Pilot, it is your job to explore the alien world in search of the scientists and find a way back home. Through recovered camera footage, you’ll get a glimpse into the survival efforts conducted by Moon as he works to build a sustainable habitat, a la The Martian, in the event of a permanent stay.
As I watched Moon experiment with growing food and Eva’s increasing sense of desperation, the more engrossed I was in their drama -- so much so that playing the game became a distraction. This is because playing as the Pilot is fairly mundane. He is forced to engage the local fauna, presented here as Starship Troopers castoffs, as he travels to the wreckage of the Pilgrim. Furthermore, Farpoint plays like a product from a bygone age of FPS games. There are no puzzles to parse out, keycards to find, secrets and collectibles to gather, quick time events to curse, or environmental obstacles to overcome. You’re constantly moving forward on a singular path that, when it does diverge, leads back to the main trail with nothing but a moderate change in scenery for your effort. It made me think that all forks in the road were thrown in to decrease the monotony.
Gunning down monster-sized insects, sentient scrap heaps, and an insectoid alien race isn’t particularly fun because they are bullet sponges. Combat is especially challenging during large scale arena battles because mobs are difficult to manage mobs due to awkward terrain and splash damage attacks. As a result, it’s difficult to feel empowered in battle. Perhaps this was intentional, to show that the tools that we place so much faith in here on Earth may not help us five million light years away. Video games are meant to be fun, however, and unloading numerous clips to kill monsters just isn’t fun. There is a small mercy in having infinite ammo and explosive secondary fire modes but none of the weapons feel like they have enough oompf. Most games usually hold back overpowered weapons for the finale as a reward for the player’s tenacity. The late stage weapons in Farpoint look cool, but they still shoot spitballs. With no special powerups, weapon upgrades, a modern cover system, damage modifiers, and health pickups, I met death frequently and, pardon my language, it got frustrating as fuck.
As a side note, I chose to play without the new PlayStation Aim, a gun shaped PlayStation Move peripheral designed exclusively for Farpoint. The good news is, the game is completely playable without it. I can see the Aim adding immersion and a tactile “cool factor” but there was nothing I couldn't do with the Dualshock. I was hesitant to purchase the Aim because of my concern that this would be the only game that required it. While I could see how it could work well, I feel pretty good about saving the money.
With Farpoint being a staunchly average first person shooter, what reason is there to play it? For one, its VR component is impressive even if Resident Evil VII beat it to the punch. This game borrows from Capcom’s VR-enabled survival horror and provides options for the in-game camera with the intention of providing a comfortable experience free of motion sickness. You can set varying levels of steps, in which moving the camera left or right will include fade ins and outs which removes camera rotation. I primarily used the “smooth” option, giving me complete control over the camera, because it felt the most adequate when dealing with enemies that attack from all sides. And I only got queasy once! The first person VR is immersive and really lends itself to showing depth and scale in ways that always triggered a reaction from me. Flinching in horror as spider creatures leaped at my face never got old (neither did marveling at the grand scale of imposing mountains, ruins, and spacecraft). Unfortunately, that effect ends once you reach a threshold where the bugs are replaced by machines and aliens, both that are best engaged at extreme distances.
As I mentioned earlier, what really stood out to me in Farpoint was the back and forth between Eva and Moon, who are presented with disparate personalities. Moon is a pragmatic fellow that recognizes the strong possibility that they cannot be rescued. Eva, on the other hand, is deadset in finding a way home and believes she’ll find a fueled up rescue vessel lies just beyond the horizon. Their dynamic comes to an emotional climax that might have come off as cheesy and lame were it not for the wonderful and rich performances by Laura Bailey and Ike Amadi. I was completely riveted watching these two deal with harsh truths, their fears and worries expressed with furrowed brows and tear-streaked faces. Not only are the voice performances top notch, but the motion capture adds realistic performances to believable voice work. I loved the second act of the story so much because of this that it physically hurt to see it all fall apart in the final third of the game, where it does an about face and turns into a maddeningly cliched sci-fi action flick.
Farpoint has peaks and valleys. It’s a well-built, functional, and thoroughly competent first person shooter but it’s antiquated. The story is incredibly compelling until it stumbles like a drunk elephant until it collapses into a stupor via an unfair and undeserved cliffhanger. Speaking more positively, the VR is integrated really well and I appreciated that Impulse Gear refrained from making the player the center of the universe. With the exception of the habitat recordings, the camera never interrupts the game to grab you by the face and force you to look at something. It also doesn’t force mission critical assets to stay within your field of view. This creatures a more natural existence for the player, making them feel like they are part of the production. I came away from the game with a mixture of emotions but the one thing I feel confident about is Impulse Gear’s grasp on building a high quality game in a VR space. Farpoint is a pretty good start.
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.