It’s the gaming department’s weekly round up of what’s trending in our own personal zeitgeist. It’s time to find out what We’re Just Playing…
I’ve been following the development of Iron Man VR since it was first announced, and I was thrilled to find that a demo showed up on the PlayStation Store a few days ago. A VR game in which players can be Iron Man, flying around and firing repulsor blasts from their palms, sounds like an inherently complicated concept and a difficult technical feat, particularly on PSVR, but developer Camoflaj—it cannot be overstated—nailed it.
The demo itself comprises the first chapter of the full game, as well as a couple of separate flight and combat challenges. The game opens with a flight tutorial in which Tony Stark must fly through a series of checkpoints, and cleverly eases players into the control scheme. Thanks to some playful dialogue between Tony and Pepper, there’s a comfortable feel to the opening minutes.
It’s clear that the developers spent a great deal of time making sure that the controls for the Iron Man suit felt exactly right. The controls are complicated but crafted in a way that it takes a few scant minutes for them to feel natural. When gripping the Move controllers, the thrusters are activated by pulling on the triggers. Though you’re holding the controllers, this acts as though Tony’s got his palms flat, so you can think of the controllers as Tony’s extended fingertips and the triggers as his palms. When pulling the triggers, the direction you point his palms will influence in which direction you are propelled. You can also double tap the triggers to boost or dodge and move your head to direct your trajectory. On paper, this sounds complicated, but in practice, it feels surprisingly innate.
A lot of this is owed to the incredibly precise and impressive motion tracking of the headset and move controllers, so it rarely feels like the motion tracking technology incorrectly interprets a movement. One of the biggest strikes against VR gaming is the occasional gaffes in motion detection: nothing breaks immersion like aiming a gun or cursor only for it to appear violently dislocated and phasing out of the screen. These issues are more noticeable on the aging PSVR, whose dead spots and need to perfectly calibrate the hardware and environment make some PSVR games more work that it’s worth. There were maybe one or two instances in which this happened in the Iron Man VR demo, but the majority of the playthrough was extremely smooth sailing. It’s also very friendly to small living spaces: whilst many VR games require a decently large area in which to move, Iron Man VR has you stand in place while still exhibiting an impressive sense of freedom of movement in the digital world.
The second segment of the demo involves an action sequence in which Tony must rescue Pepper from a crashing plane whilst shooting down attacking drones. Repulsor blasts are handled via the Move buttons on the controllers, on which one’s thumbs would naturally rest. This is where the game’s control scheme really clicks; firing from Iron Man’s palms must still be balanced with maintaining altitude with the thrusters, but the system never feels like it requires too much of a conscious effort. There’s an elegance to the control scheme that requires you to bear both movement and combat in mind but isn’t aggressive enough to punish gaffes in the balance.
The demo features two more segments, a flight time trial and a combat arena, which mostly serve as additional ways to play around with the game’s controls. There’s a decent amount of content here, and you can replay it multiple times to get fully acquainted with the game before it launches on July 3.
I was excited upon seeing the early footage of Iron Man VR, but now that I’ve had a chance to play it, it’s nearly a guaranteed purchase once it releases. It’s surprisingly immersive and it just feels so damn cool to fly, hover and shoot as Iron Man. There’s a clear amount of love put into the look and feel of the game, right down to how the HUD at the start of missions is set up like the Iron Man helmet locking into place before the interface flickers to life. This was made by people who not only intended to deliver a quality VR experience, but love the character of Iron Man himself, and both are almost immediately evident. I am absolutely pumped to check out the full game next month.
I mentioned a while ago that I had bought a few different games that have been on my list that were on sale on the Playstation Store. One of those games was The Hong Kong Massacre, a game from Swedish developer VRESKI. It’s been on my list for a while because it advertises itself as Hardboiled meets Hotline Miami, the former of which is an awesome Chinese action movie from legendary director John Woo, and the latter of which is among my favorite games of the past decade. Reception to the game has been mixed, but mostly positive.
I’m sad to say that I don’t know if the game does it for me. One of the key elements that makes Hotline Miami so great is controlled chaos, where the player can throw caution to the wind and pull off a kill combo well into the double digits by relying solely on their reflexes and the myriad weapons of mass murder the game gives to the player. In a successful run, you might enter a room, punch a guard, which knocks him to the floor, grab his knife, run into the next room, throw the knife across the way at the guard with a gun, punch the closer guard and kill him while he’s on the floor, run across the room and pick up the gun, then turn around and fire it at the first guard you had knocked down as he tries to grab something to kill you with. The game transports players into a zen-like state, and it is absolutely glorious.
Like most action games, they key to Hotline Miami is information. You see everything from a top down perspective, and the pixelated, colorful graphics don’t just look great, they let you see exactly what you’re up against in the blink of an eye. You’re able to take everything in at a glance and it’s easy to understand the information you’re given and then act on it. The Hong Kong Massacre falls flat on its face here. The color palette is washed out and realistic, which is nice from a technical perspective, but it’s extremely difficult for me to see where the clear white reticle is in relation to enemies and the environment. I think I’m shooting in one spot, but I might be completely off the mark.
A lot of this might sadly come down to the control scheme. I’ve long held that Hotline Miami works best with a keyboard and mouse. Said mouse allows for those razor precise shots that mean the difference between life and death since you die after one hit from pretty much anything. I’m playing The Hong Kong Massacre with a controller, and the results are imprecise to say the least. It’s a game that absolutely demands pinpoint precision, and the controller simply does not allow for that.
I have a bigger problem with the game beyond the controls, though, and that’s its reward system. You can slow down time, and the bar to do so refills rather quickly. This helps alleviate a lot of the problems caused by the imprecise nature of the controller, especially when there are multiple bad guys in a room all blasting away at you. You also have a dodge move that gives you temporary invulnerability, although this can be tough to deal with as well since your character wears a brown suit and can easily get lost if you dodge and look elsewhere on the screen to try and line up a shot. Again, slow motion helps a lot here.
The thing is, the only way to earn points in order to upgrade your weapons is to beat a level in a certain amount of real time, forgoing the use slow motion, and not missing a single shot. John Woo movies are known for hyper-stylish, slowed down action scenes where everyone is firing a seemingly-bottomless clip at each other, which usually ends with a set that’s been gloriously torn to pieces. It’s cinematic chaos in the best possible way. The Hong Kong Massacre actively punishes that kind of chaotic running and gunning by withholding its upgrade points, and it even punishes you for using its central mechanic. It’s such an odd choice to me, and it makes me question why it’s in the game at all. I couldn’t even beat the first level without using slow motion, and you can bet that I missed a whole bunch of shots.
The game’s action is plenty bloody, which provides satisfaction on a sheer visceral level, but beyond that, the game seems to get in its own way to the detriment of the player’s fun. Its imprecise controls and bizarre reward system rob the player of the game’s selling point, which is being in control of shootouts similar to ones seen in Hardboiled. This is all to say nothing of the story, which is so confusing that, two levels in, I gave up trying to understand it. There’s no context given whatsoever to any of the characters or situations. Hell, I’ve beaten about seven levels and I don’t even know the main character’s name or what he’s after aside from a vague sense that someone he loves was killed.
I want to continue playing it, as there are definitely some ideas in The Hong Kong Massacre that would add up to a really fun top down shooter as directed by John Woo. I’ll see if it gets any better, but for right now, for all its over-the-top physics and insane amount of blood, the game has baffled me with certain design choices.
If you want something reminiscent of Woo’s filmography, may I point you towards the 2007 third person shooter Stranglehold? It’s a canonical sequel to Hardboiled, following detective Tequila as he becomes embroiled in a comically complex plot. It’s not a mind-blowingly good shooter, but you can slow down time and not get penalized for it, run along banisters, swing from chandeliers, slide down handrails, and more, all while blasting away at criminals and the surprisingly destructive environment. I found it for less than two dollars back in…2012…2013? Point being, it’s dirt cheap, and it’s a lot of fun for that low price. Plus, John Woo oversaw the storyline and Chow Yun-fat reprises his role of Tequila, offering his likeness and motion capturing to give the game a real feeling of legitimacy.
This week I’ve been playing Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition—I’ve settled into it like it’s a pair of comfy pyjama bottoms. It’s been a couple of years since I played it through on 3DS but it feels like I stopped only a few weeks ago. So far, playing it through second time is proving just as enjoyable as it was the first. The new graphics are a huge improvement over the version I played. The characters are much more expressive to match the passionate performance of the voice-actors.
Sadly the awkward (in game) animations remain unchanged, with the new character models making it a lot more jarring than it was in the original. The cutscenes however—which were animated properly already—look spectacular now, as do the environments.
The most noticeable enhancements however, have been to the UI. Side quests are now a breeze as you can see required items, NPCs and enemies on the mini-map. It saves a lot of aimless searching around or having to look online for solutions—something I remember doing a lot of first time around. In combat, attacks are now highlighted with an exclamation mark when they are in their window of maximum effectiveness. Xenoblade has always been intimidating to newer players, so little additions like that will certainly go a long way to easing people in. Oh, and you can turn off the HUD to take screenshots now which is something I desperately wanted in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. It’s not quite a photo mode but I’m going to really enjoy photographing the games many gorgeous vistas.
The thing I’m enjoying most of all though, is seeing the story unfold, knowing exactly how it all plays out. Xenoblade Chronicles is full of big plot twists that are spread out over dozens of hours of gameplay so it’s been fun to see the foreshadowing with a new perspective. It’s making me appreciate its narrative all over again. I’m yet to dive into the new epilogue campaign, but I really need to before I get too sucked into the main game.
I’ve already talked at length about the game and its sequels in an article I wrote earlier this year so I won’t repeat my thoughts on it here. If you haven’t played it, and you think you’d enjoy it, then I’d absolutely urge you to pick it up—you won’t regret it.
Funny you should say that, Sean, as I had a “Treat Yo Self” moment the other day, bought Xenoblade Chronicles: DE, and—eight hours in—haven’t regretted it so far.
I also had the 3DS version of the game, as I missed it (and was unwilling to pay the insane online prices for it) on the Wii, and while having a game like this on the go sounded like a great idea, the graphics were pretty janky. Now, the graphics are finally up to snuff, and up to the standard of the Switch, and I can play it on the go! Sure, you’ll see some textures (usually concrete walls, or mountains) that didn’t get the star-treatment, but the important details and the objects your eyes are drawn to most look great.
I was—indeed—intimidated by the battle system, and found myself quite often overwhelmed early on, frequently succeeding or falling in battle in the blink of an eye. Luckily, I found enough similarities between the system and my beloved Ni No Kuni to muddle through until things started to click for me.
I noticed some unnatural movements from the characters, such as sliding after coming to a stop, but nothing a patch can’t fix. I was talking to Collin earlier in the week about the game, and he mentioned the how the side quests have been streamlined, and I did like that once I completed an objective I didn’t have to run back somewhere to claim my reward.
I love a good JPRG, and I don’t even mind the cliche dialogue. So far, I find the story very well done, and all the characters are likable and have just enough mystery to keep me interested. Knowing nothing of Shulk, outside of the fact he’s one of the cooler looking Amiibos, I’m happy to see he isn’t falling into the “bland protagonist” trap some main leads wind up being.
Oh, and turning off the repetitive post-battle commentary was a nice touch.