What I’m Playing: VR Multiplayers
I talked last week about Run of Mydan, the pretty VR game that never had a chance to bloom. I played that game as part of my “Multiplayer Montage” I was running in the hopes of breathing life, at least for a day, into some of the older multiplayers that never really took off, like Skyfront and Battlesky. Alas, the montage was not a success. But I did get some good games out of it, and I’m thankful for that. Thought I’d just give a quick rundown of the different games.
One thing, before I jump into the games: A key limitation of VR is the limited space. Obviously one can’t walk across the world of Skyrim, even if one can create a virtual space. Even the most high-end VR home sets limit themselves to a 2m x 2m space, which is itself more space than most people can afford. This is especially a problem because while your eyes may tell you that you’re rushing toward an enemy, your brain knows that your legs aren’t moving, a disconnect that creates a strong sensation of vertigo. All games must deal with this problem, and the more natural the solution, the more immersive and the more compelling the game is. Each multiplayer game listed here found its own solution.
Iron Wolf remains one of the more popular VR multiplayers, frequently listed as a “must buy.” Unfortunately that’s something of a relative term here–though it’s much easier to find a team than other games, it requires a little coordination either with friends or with the Iron Wolf Discord community.
It’s a brilliant concept. Up to four players man a WWII submarine, in four tiny station that don’t move the player outside the 2m x 2m space. All the controls are physical–turning a wheel, moving around a periscope, or even locking torpedo tubes and flooding them one at a time. They’re surprisingly complex, too, with players being able to set firing solutions and timing mechanism on the torpedos, or turn off electrical systems to conserve battery power–though certain stations can be automated to make the game simpler.
Iron Wolf is a near-perfect engagement of what VR can be–physical interaction in a small space that maintains immersion. Simple in concept yet complex in execution, it’s a great game that will likely maintain its popularity as VR grows.
Sci-fi shows and movies today, like Pacific Rim or Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, envision mechs being controlled by VR-like control schemes, where the pilot controls the mech almost as his body. So it’s ironic (no, really, it is) that the best VR mech game treats it as more similar to driving a truck.
Vox Machinae genuinely feels like operating a complex futuristic weapons platform, with physical controls for throttle, steering, and weapons in a physical cockpit. There’s even a wholly superfluous mechanism for blowing a truck-like horn to celebrate victories. It plays perfectly into the limitations of a VR space, because even though you’re sitting down, your body thinks you’re driving a car, thus eliminating the vertigo so often encountered in VR movement.
A more modern and more mainstream-style game, Vox Machinae is more active than Iron Wolf, though again fellow players can be hard to find without coordination. On the day of the marathon, more than 8 players showed up–more than enough for a enthralling game experience.
Nearly every review on this game says the same thing–the game has great movement, varied weapons, beautiful environments… but no players.
Their solution to the locomotion problem is definitely innovative–partly wrist-mounted jets, partly grapple guns. It creates a high-octane experience where players movements can be unpredictable and rapid, and gives players a lot of chances to experiment with physics by slingshotting themselves. It’s great fun, and definitely the game’s chief selling point, though the floating quasi-ancient Earth environments are also really cool to look at.
But even with advance notice and coordination with the community, there were only two players who showed up. They were very generous players who helped me learn the controls at my own pace without constantly massacring me; but it simply wasn’t enough for a sustained experience. Skyfront’s story is a perfect example of the failed limited market–a great game, but dead despite it.
I love BattleSky. That puts me, admittedly, in the minority–their wide expansive environments can make it hard to spot the other players against the massive sky, and the decision to make the dragon’s movement based on how the player flaps their arms, while cool, makes for an exhausting experience. The controls can be a bit janky at times.
But c’mon. You get to play either a dragon, or a flying alien robot, or a steampunk lady with gravity guns.
Each has unique attacks with strengths and weaknesses. Each has different methods of flying (flying is another common way of avoiding the vertigo problems.) The avatars are great, the environments, again, superb. I played the game once with the developer David Huang, and enjoyed myself, despite the lack of other players. BattleSky even has the distinction of being awarded a Viveport Developer Award.
Yet that hasn’t netted it any players. No one showed up at all to this game’s session, which wasn’t even that surprising–the Discord has been dead for nearly a year. It’s less compelling than Skyfront, but again, it could be a really good game with more players. Certainly TribalInstincts thought so. Let us hope that the game someday gets the attention it deserves–or failing that, a reboot
Hover Junkers was a success, partly due to its early appearance on the VR scene. It’s even featured in the original ad for the HTC Vive. along with early classics like Tilt Brush and Audioshield. Again the solution to the locomotion problem is to have you driving a vehicle–this time a scrap-made hovercraft that flies you around a desert environment while you shoot with handguns at other players. It was fast-paced, it was interactive, it even had a community.
And now, no one will show up. Several players said they would have, with more warning, which is encouraging as I’m hoping to repeat this idea in the winter. It is admittedly less impressive by today’s standards–though it still holds up remarkably well. And in a happier note, the developer, Stress Level Zero, has gone on to make two other VR hits–the bizarrely creepy Duck Season , and the extremely interactive Boneworks, which is generally considered one of the best examples of VR action games
I tried this game, but couldn’t get the hang of it. It may be good, but I’m just not good at turning a jet airplane around a corner.
What I’m Reading: Tiamat’s Wrath.
Tiamat’s Wrath is currently the last book in the Expanse series (Leviathan Falls is due out Nov 31, and I would not have “completed” the series in time if I’d actually read it from beginning to end instead of watching the television series instead of reading the first six books.) I’m going to keep spoilers for the book itself to a minimum, but inevitably there are going to be spoilers for previous books in the series, so keep that in mind.
I was deeply sceptical how James SA Corey would manage to make a six-person team defeat a massive evil empire powered by the protomolecule hyper-tech (The first time I wrote this, I wrote “protoculture” and I sort of wish I could call it that, but of course Robotech already stole that term.) Of course, it turns out to be not just, or even mostly, the six-person team. They certainly take advantage of some beautiful opportunities, but the lion’s share of the work is done by the Laconian Empire being, simply, an empire. An efficient, intelligent, well-managed empire, but still a system dedicated entirely to a single man.
Persepolis Rising ended with Emperor (well, Pro Consul) Duarte revealing his plan to attack the Goths–the common name for the mysterious creatures that killed the protomolecule. James Holden told him that was crazy. Multiple people, in this book, tell him it is crazy. But because Duarte is the god-emperor of the Laconian Empire, all their words mean nothing, and Duarte plows on ahead despite it, with his entire empire following blindly behind.
To be clear, Duarte isn’t crazy. There’s a certain logic to what he’s doing, which his devotees will always bring up. But that’s not the point. Indeed, the point isn’t that Duarte is stupid, or that the Laconian Empire is particularly cruel, or at all dedicated to greed, power,or anything like that. The point is that all authority being rooted in a single person, however intelligent, is an inherently flawed governing system. As the Laconian Empire gradually falls apart, time and again the root cause is not any specific stupidity, but its overall dependence on a single man for its vision and authority.
Tiamat’s Wrath continues The Expanse series’ trend of being rooted in hard science (for the most part) and clever devices. The entire system used by Naomi Nagata’s resistance for moving around the heavily policed empire is genius, lining up perfectly with laws of physics and the established rules of the universe. (Some of my favorite moments in the book come from Nagata getting random, unexpected moments of hero-worship, showing how she’s become a legend in the shadows.) The “shell game” played by Naomi and the ships in her fleet is so clever it makes the Rebels in Star Wars look frankly ridiculous. The fun new antimatter superweapons that aid with a key victory are well explained and plausible. The partial explanation we finally get of who the Goths are and how they killed the Protomolecule Creators is maybe a bit abstract but it makes sense and is a lot more than space magic or assorted technobabble
It also continues the Expanse’s tradition of stories that wind up almost unrealistically perfect. I’m particularly irritated by the suddenly-revealed device of the Laconian Repair Droids, which has earth-shattering implications that somehow have never come up before. It’s a tribute to the writing, though, that despite this tradition, every scene feels tense and dangerous. I think it comes from the author’s ability to make you like and believe in secondary characters before killing them off. You feel–especially given how old all the heroes are–that anyone genuinely could die, even if experience suggests otherwise.
I had great fun reading Tiamat’s Wrath–I finished most of it in one day. I’m delighted to learn, too, that the next book will be coming out so quickly. Makes me feel like I chose the perfect time to start (sort of) the series, and I’m excited to see how the series wraps up.
(I also watched Dune and The French Dispatch this week, but not in time to write about them. Guess that’ll be next week.)