SAN FRANCISCO — Three years into this generation of virtual-reality platforms, we’ve had a few good VR games, but not every genre has made the transition smoothly. It’s relatively easy to do first-person exploration games, or simulations, or even first-person shooters in VR, but 3D gaming’s bread-and-butter — the action/adventure game — has proven notoriously difficult to adapt.
Stormland could change all of that, as long as you’ve got a strong stomach.
I had a chance to try Stormland for myself at GDC 2019 here this week, and I was impressed by just how few concessions the game makes to the standard VR formula. Whereas many VR games streamline or shorten traditional game elements, Stormland has everything you’d expect from an action/adventure title, from platforming sections, to upgradable weaponry, to a detailed story in a creative sci-fi setting.
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None of that should sound surprising, since Stormland comes courtesy of Insomniac Games. These are the folks who developed Ratchet & Clank, Sunset Overdrive and Marvel’s Spider-Man. As such, high-concept stories and varied gameplay mechanics are par for the course.
Stormland’s central premise goes like this: You play as a humanoid robot on a far-flung planet where androids and humans live in harmony — or used to, at least. These days, the planet is under attack by hostile robots and neither humans nor androids are anywhere to be found. By exploring the world, fighting off mechanical foes and upgrading your parts piecemeal, you’ll be able to discover what happened to put you in your current predicament.
While that may sound like a pretty standard setup for a video game, bear in mind that you’ll be doing everything first-person with the Oculus Touch controllers. When you install a new upgrade in your arm, you’ll have to grasp your arm, tear it off, place it on a repair platform, then grab and reattach it. To say it’s an unsettling experience in VR is an understatement.
In fact, just about everything you do in the game has a kind of naturalistic movement associated with it. To check your objectives, you can access a holographic overlay on your left wrist. You can look at your left hand to see a digital compass that points toward your next objective. Aiming your right arm toward an obstacle and tapping a button will fire a wrist laser.
Perhaps nothing demonstrates Stormland’s commitment to naturalistic action better than its combat system. Throughout the game, you’re able to access and tweak a variety of guns, from semiautomatic pistols to diminutive shotguns.
You can simply point (by physically turning your head toward your target) and shoot, but it’s not necessarily the most effective (or interesting) way to do battle. You can pull guns apart for extra ammo and upgrade components; you can holster one gun at each hip and pull them out to dual-wield; you can even hold a single gun with both hands to give yourself more stability and make every shot count.
In fact, as you progress through Stormland, you’ll need to collect health, power, ammo and other necessities without much hand-holding. It’s not that the game is exceedingly difficult; it’s just that it behaves as any other game would, save for the fact that it’s an immersive VR experience.
At times, however, it’s perhaps a little too immersive. Early on, you’ll learn how to scale walls, float between platforms and even glide on top of clouds. Each platforming technique is fast and requires a lot of precision, making it particularly difficult for anyone who struggles with movement tracking in VR. The platforming is accurate and ambitious, but it also left me sweating and sick to my stomach within about 15 minutes.
Still, even if I don’t think I could ever complete Stormland, I was impressed by just how traditional it felt. There’s platforming, there’s combat, there’s character advancement and there’s a thoughtful sci-fi story. It’s one of the first VR games I’ve played that doesn’t seem to draw attention to the fact that it’s a VR game. It’s just a game, complete with all the regular trappings, that happens to be available in VR.
Stormland will be out later this year for the Oculus Rift and Rift S platforms, although Insomniac has yet to set a price. At the very least, it will almost certainly cost less than developing your own environmentally conscious android.
Be sure to check out our GDC 2019 hub page for all of the latest gaming news and hands-on impressions straight out of San Francisco.