Scotch Corner – Flying to the Danger Zone

Read Stuart’s column every week in The Scottish Sun, where he shares his reviews, news and podcasts with the 99.3% of the World’s population not fortunate enough to be able to buy a physical copy of the paper. The following appeared originally in The Scottish Sun on Sunday 27th January 2019.

 

Rolling around in VR

IT was inevitable that indie outfit Dream Reality Interactive would push the boundaries of VR gaming.  It is in their DNA.  The firm is mainly made up of ex-Sony London masters, with VR pioneer Dave Ranyard at the helm.  They all worked on VR Worlds — a title that opened the VR box.  DRI creative lead Albert Bentall, right, told me how their first game, Arca’s Path, was the next step along the VR path.  He said:

“When the company started we were very interested in VR as a platform as well as continuing our learning from working on VR Worlds and bring it into a sort of start-up environment.  We wanted to keep doing VR stuff but we were a smaller team with less budget.  We are interested in keeping good gameplay, strong storytelling and an interesting world.  So we prototyped easy-to-pick-up mechanics for rolling balls around.  At that stage we didn’t know what platform we were aiming for, so we didn’t want to rely on any particular control systems.  Then we said let’s keep all of the controls on the head.”

They also teamed up with Rebellion.  Albert added:

“They are as much a developer as they are a publisher, but they really left us alone to build the game which shows the trust they have in us.  Dave was keen for us to come up with our own IP as a studio.  I started building a story around this really big and complex sci-fi world that soon became too big and unyielding so we mostly had to scrap that . . . but we did take some of the key parts we liked.  The sci-fi fairytale was distilled down to a really short story with a few characters that could be told visually with no on-screen text or dialogue.”

Acra’s Path will be the first of many titles.  Albert said:

“We are focused on AR and VR.  We tried to do a similar mechanic as Acra’s Path in AR, which didn’t quite work, but we took that and built another AR game from it.  As an indie studio we are in a really good position.  If some of the bigger studios step away from looking at VR then that’s a void we can step into.”

Arca’s Path (PSVR and PC VR Sets, £13.99)

ARCA’S Path aims to make you rethink how you play games and the Dream Reality Interactive guys know their way round VR.  They have taken the standard controllers and thrown them out the window.  It seems a simple idea — move a ball through a number of maze levels, a la Marble Madness and Super Monkey Ball, but the twist is you use your HEAD to guide the ball.  The PSVR picks up your head’s movement to control the speed and direction of the ball.  It feels odd at first, but when it clicks you can change things with the smallest head movements.

That style of control stops the most annoying VR trait — looking around you.  You would have to pause the game and go into a free cam mode.  Once you have mastered that, the fun never really evolves across the 25 levels.  Move ball, solve a few puzzles, collect crystals that will unlock a time challenge mode and that’s it.  That is a real shame because the thrill at the start becomes a bit of a one-trick pony.  What story there is revolves around a futuristic fairytale where a young girl lives on a trash world.  She finds a headset that takes her into a puzzle world.  The graphics have a pastel dreamlike feel, but delivering the tale through storyboards is a bit of a miss, especially in VR.

The soundtrack has an experimental electro soundtrack by Ninja Tunes artist Raffertie.  Sometimes it feels great, but then the humming grates on you and you have to mute it.  If you have a PSVR then this is an interesting take on how the tech can be used.  Beyond that it’s just an easy two-hour puzzler.  It’s great for showing off VR to your friends . . . but you can’t help thinking it could have been so much more.

Score: 2.5/5

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown (Xbox One, PS4 and PC, £44.99)

UNLEASH your inner Top Gun with the new Ace Combat dogfight.  For those under 30, ask your parents about the cult Naval Fighter flick with Tom Cruise . . . then re-live Maverick on the PSVR.  Flying games have been a little light on the ground lately.  The Ace Combat series has been missing in action for almost five years, but it’s back with a bang with Skies Unknown.  This is all about mastering the dogfight, but it is also a landmark game — the first standalone VR campaign for the PSVR.

Bandai Namco have built an incredible level of detail into the game — from rivets aircraft to endless things flashing and moving on the HUD.  Beyond that excitement there is a heavy tale that continues the tone from past titles.  You actually fight for both sides of made-up countries, or a made-up problem in a made-up war.  Even Tom Clancy would struggle to get a plot this deep and complex.  It even tries to tackle bigger issues like the human condition, ethics of war and how far humanity is willing to take technology.  The story is built into almost every element of the game, from stunning cut scenes to pre-mission briefings and the radio chat between you and your team in-game.  If you want to get lost in a deep thriller across 20 or so missions then this hits the mark.  But . . . Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is about one thing: going Mach 2 with my hair on fire.  More Top Gun (ask your parents).

If it is a hit in storymode then it is a stellar production in flight gameplay.  It sits just the right side of the arcade line as you rip through the clouds to get a lock on that last enemy.  Combat is split between taking on ground units and bases and classic dog-fighting where you have to push your skills to the limit.  Word of warning: most people may not have spent time with a past Ace Combat title and the game doesn’t hold your hand.  You have to learn some of the moves and practice under enemy fire.  The weather system adds some interesting challenges.  You can lose enemies in the clouds, but they can freeze up your plane if you stay there too long.  Then there is the challenge of strong winds and lighting storms.

The planes are like a Forza for sky jockeys — there’s a huge array of aircraft from different countries.  Each has an interesting arsenal of weapons.  This game was made for online battles — eight-player matches to see who is the real ace.  Word of warning II: human-on-human dogfighting is TOUGH.  The VR campaign makes the PS4 a must-buy.  The story is based on Ace Combat 4, but this mini-campaign is a blast as you attack three missions.  Add a flight stick and this as close to flying as you’ll get without getting your feet off the ground.  It is a great return for the series.  It puts flying games back at the top of the pack, especially in VR.

Score: 5/5

T. Flight Hotas 4 Ace Combat 7 Limited Edition (PS4 and PC, £79.99)

ARMCHAIR Mavericks can take Ace Combat sessions to the next level with the Thrustmaster T-Flight Hotas 4 flight stick.  It is a solid bit of kit that feels like it will take a bashing without breaking.  The stick and throttle are split, but you can click them together and lock them with a few screws, but you will need a table — it’s a bit too big to sit on your lap.  Set-up is super-easy.  It is powered by USB so pop it into the PS4 and you’re good to go.

The gameplay with the PSVR is just awesome, especially if you have done the hard yards getting used to the controls before you start.  Our only gripe was the lack of a headphone jack, but that is no problem if you have a wireless headset or a VR headset like the RIG 4VR.  As well as Ace Combat 7, it works with Elite Dangerous, Ultra Wings, Starblood Arena and War Thunder.  This is the closest you’ll get to the real thing . . . and you won’t have to leave your sofa.

Score: 5/5

RIG 4VR (PSVR and PS4, £59.99)

THE worst part of the PSVR is a heavy headset — now Plantronics have an answer: the RIG 4VR.  It is lightweight with plenty of scope to stretch over your head and the PSVR and comes with a boom mic and two connecting cables.  There is quite a bit of flexibility in the plastic and the white and black colour scheme matches the PSVR unit really well.  Instead of everything being on sliders like more standard headsets, the RIG 4VR has a pop-and-lock system.  To move the ear cups, the head band has three options.  You simply pop the clip out and move it to your desired position.  The same goes for the head band.

The headset has 40mm drivers — they may be small but they pack a punch.  The vent design also lets a bit of real-world sound bleed in, which keeps you in touch with the area around you.  The fixed mic is basic but does the job well.  You can’t really bend it and it automatically mutes when you push it up.  That is a really smart move.  We tested the headset with Ace Combat 7, Moss and Doom VFR in VR and Horizon Zero Dawn and God Of War in non-VR.  They all had a solid soundscape as well as using 3D audio with the VR titles.  If you’re not playing in VR and just want to use the headset for standard play then there are better options on the market at around the same price so that is worth checking.

I also found the cups a bit too small for my ears — even though I manfully squeezed them in.  If you’re looking for a lightweight headset to add to your VR gaming that will not break the bank then get over to Plantronics and check out the RIG 4VR.

Score: 4/5

I’ll be back next week with more from North of the Border.  Catch ye’s…

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Stuart Cullen

Scotland’s very own thorn in the side of the London gaming scene bringing all the hottest action straight from The Sun… well… The Scottish Sun at least, every week!

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