The promise of virtual reality was realized for me when playing Elite Dangerous: Horizons at E3 in 2016 wearing a VR headset and with flight stick and throttle in hand. That immersive space combat demo left me craving a true VR dogfighting experience. Eve: Valkyrie on my PSVR comes close, but it took Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown to bring it to fruition.
What Elite Dangerous and Eve share is an impressive fantasy created around space flight. The Ace Combat series on the other hand, while long utilizing a fantasy narrative, is renowned for a photorealistic presentation that models its make-believe world on modern military aircraft and aerial combat mechanics, fueling gamers' fantasies of being a fighter pilot.
The inclusion, therefore, of a virtual reality mode in Skies Unknown is a dream come true for longtime fans of the franchise such as myself. That's why I was compelled to finally invest in a flight stick/throttle combo prior to the game's release this past Friday. Armed with the Thrustmaster T.Flight Hotas 4 and my PSVR headset, I eagerly explored the game's VR missions.
The fact that there are only three missions in virtual reality is a disappointment, but it doesn't lesson the impact that the Ace Combat experience has when transplanted into VR. What makes the series popular makes the transition, though with mixed results, including intuitive, fluid and responsive controls as well as a good presentation in virtual reality.
Notice I wrote "good" and not "great" as the franchise is otherwise known for. The reason is the lower fidelity typical of PSVR games in general with a few notable exceptions. But the presentation is still a quality one especially considering the speed and activity on display. The player's cockpit control panel, other aircraft and even landscape and landmarks are well-rendered.
Particle effects, too, are well done. Missiles criss-cross the sky, aircraft explode into fireballs, smoke billows from the ground, waves ripple on the ocean and raindrops streak the windshield. The sounds of your aircraft and weapons, or passing missiles, aircraft and explosions, as well as radio chatter, likewise impress. The one drawback are clouds that can appear blurry instead of billowy though not enough to distract.
What matters, of course, is that the gameplay and controls create an immersive experience that helps lend the settings a realistic quality. The intuitive, nimble controls implemented on the DualShock wireless controller are sensibly transferred onto the Hotas 4 flight stick/throttle for the kind of responsive, accurate actions that Ace Combat has always enabled.
Pushing forward/pulling back on the flight stick with the right hand controls aircraft pitch down/up, moving the stick right/left rolls the plane in those directions, and twisting the stick to the right/left adjusts the fighter's yaw in those directions (yaw controls are also at one's fingertips on the throttle). Missiles and special weapons are under thumb, as is targeting. One's index finger can trigger guns.
The throttle has three settings. Forward generates the most thrust, the middle setting provides cruising speed and pulled back reduces thrust. Besides the yaw control lever, the throttle also includes controller face buttons under thumb for general use especially in-menu. It should be noted that the detachable stick/throttle work fine connected on one's lap, though that configuration corresponds to right/left hands only.
The control configuration provides for great, fluid action even in the midst of a frenetic dogfight or bombastic air/ground combat. I was never frustrated by the controls or felt like I had to fight them at any point, though I'm still getting used to how I can switch between missiles and special weapons, and placement of the share button on the controller base is inconvenient but a minor quibble.
What likewise adds to immersion and cannot be underestimated is the ability in virtual reality to track enemy aircraft or other targets/objectives by turning one's head. Akin to following a dragon as it flies overhead in Skyrim VR, tracking jet fighters as they soar past helps players maintain pursuit and immerse themselves in the dogfight at hand, or simply make note of their surroundings and targets.
In this regard, the first mission is pure dogfighting bliss. Taking place in the skies above an archipelago, the clash of aircraft is breathtaking and terrific fun, with nothing to impede the joy of a fighter pilot fantasy come to life. The problem I had was with the second mission, which introduced air/ground combat in VR, and the related motion sickness that can arise.
For those unfamiliar with VR, the technology can make players nauseous due to the disconnect between visual input, which tells the body there is movement, and actually being immobile. I've found that, for myself, the less visual input that suggests movement -- such as flying/racing past stationary objects -- the less I experience discomfort.
So any game where I'm moving fast past stationary objects (such as in DriveClub, War Thunder or this second mission), I'm prone to get nauseous. Eliminate that setting and I can play indefinitely in VR (such as in games like Skyrim VR or Farpoint). It didn't help that for some reason on my first play through, I could not lock on to ground targets for most of the time.
Eventually I powered through because I wanted to unlock the third mission, though I haven't felt well enough to return to the game for days. Of course that's a personal physiological reaction and not game design, though being unable to lock on ground targets prolonged the experience and made it worse. Still, the thrill of the first mission, and promise of the third, are enough to keep me playing the game in VR. [Update 6/20/19: See below video of the third mission. It's more challenging, and great fun!]
That Bandai Namco Entertainment has been able to take what makes the Ace Combat series so successful and put it in to a virtual reality experience so faithfully and with so few issues to undermine the gameplay is yet another indication that VR is not only a viable option but an important one for immersing players in a game world. I, for one, will at least be replaying VR Mission 1 over and over to scratch that fighter pilot itch.
I have long held that video games indeed are an art form and, of all the titles I've played, few games demonstrate this better than a new favorite called Gris. It has been praised for its beauty, but the game's considerable value goes far beyond its impressive aesthetic.
Gris, created by Nomada Studio and published by Devolver Digital, is a video game that is at once ethereal and tremendously intimate. A poignant journey, it traces the path of the title character, a young girl, as she attempts to overcome a trauma that has shattered her life.
Presented as a side-scrolling adventure, this platformer allows players to control her fate as they navigate a faded, shifting reality and environmental puzzles that obstruct her path toward becoming whole again. Overcoming each obstacle allows Gris to grow emotionally and see her world in different ways.
As she progresses through her grief, new paths are revealed and her dress is imbued with new abilities to aid in navigation. Her dress can weigh her down, allow a double-jump and enable underwater swimming, sometimes using combinations, for gameplay that is fluid and entertaining.
Clever level design means Gris can take advantage of the environment to initiate leaps, leapfrog shifting platforms like tree tops, operate weights or moving platforms, and even use frozen settings to optimum effect. Gameplay variety is thoughtful, though this is not a hard core challenge.
Indeed the game is described as "an experience free of danger, frustration or death." While the stakes are high for the title character, the journey is meant to be positive and life-affirming. In fact it is an altogether sublime gaming experience that rewards the player with an emotional and powerful journey.
Part of this equation is the superior presentation that inspires with its minimalist but gorgeous design, lithe animation and lyrical score. A highly stylized look with graceful lines and a striking color palette is accompanied by cinematic cut scenes and spare but melodic music to create a unique and transcendent display of rare artistry.
Gris actually reminds me of another classic game, though the comparison might not be readily apparent. But in its simplicity of design, emotional journey, engaging gameplay and stark but appealing aesthetic I'm reminded of Shadow of the Colossus.
That game likewise begins with a desperate quest and conveys the tumult of its journey with action rather than words, as the protagonist follows a similar solitary path in a vast world of changing settings and personal challenges in an effort to save a life.
While the obstacles in Shadow of the Colossus are more physical they still take an emotional toll -- on the player and on the main character Wander -- not unlike the significant impediments confronting Gris as she struggles through the trauma she's experienced. And both characters are changed as a consequence.
Gris is a game that begs to be played. To describe its inner workings in greater detail is to spoil what makes the experience of playing the game so rewarding. And yet there are elements worth noting, which I will allude to below though I encourage gamers to explore on their own what the game has to offer.
I'll try to avoid giving too much away but did want to emphasize certain features that I appreciated. First is the gameplay that reveals itself over the course of the game, either in ways that Gris can use her dress, the environment or a combination of both to proceed.
For instance, her dress can form a heavy block, allow more lift in the air or enable her to glide underwater and, depending on the setting, can interact with the environment in multiple ways. The settings themselves are dramatic, with traversal across land, air and water in sometimes shifting environments and perspectives.
Creatures, too, might aid or obstruct during the journey and at times in profound ways both in gameplay and in cutscenes. The interaction between Gris and them can be inspired, especially with one "forest friend" in particular and, later, with a denizen of the deep.
There are breakthroughs and setbacks throughout, and the immersive presentation and gameplay ensured I shared, to an extent, the elation and heartbreak that Gris experienced during her journey. That is creative and effective game design at its best.
It should be noted that there are optional skill-based challenges in the game and, to judge by a tally that the game keeps, I still have several to unlock/achieve even after completing the game. So in that regard there is added replayability, besides just wanting to revisit a remarkable journey.
To the extent there are any negatives, I did have trouble on a few occasions (playing the Switch version in portable mode) detecting telltale environmental clues for triggering certain actions, namely due to the relatively small imagery and similar shades of color to the surroundings. But this didn't have an appreciable impact on gameplay or on my enjoyment of Gris.
For all the reasons described above, Gris easily stands as one of my all-time favorite games and, in my humble opinion, as a landmark of video game design and interactive art. I look forward to seeing what Nomada Studio has in store in the future.
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