I don't play music games, except for brief stints with Wii Music, Auditorium and Nodebeat. Not Guitar Hero. Nor Rock Band. But the first time I fired up Electronauts, at midnight, I played for two hours straight and would have played longer if not for having to wake up three hours later for work.
This virtual reality music creation game by Survios, the studio behind video games Raw Data and Sprint Vector, can make musical neophytes feel like empowered DJs with its deep but accessible repertoire of sounds and interactive music studio tools. The game's genius interface and superior controls provide powerful assists.
I admit to being smitten from the start due to a simple visual element that's absent from most, if not all, VR games I've played: A fully integrated body in first-person perspective. VR games tend to rely on disembodied hands like in Robinson: The Journey, but in Electronauts, players have arms and legs that extend out like one's own appendages.
This minor feature has a big impact on immersion. Granted, showing one's entire body sometimes results in awkward stances, and arms/hands can bend bizarrely when controllers are out of calibration with the camera, but these are minor issues not uncommon to VR that do little to detract from this impressive accomplishment.
On the issue of immersion, the setting might be far from realistic but suits the electronica/EDM soundtrack. The distinctive sci-fi fantasy theme not only clothes your avatar in a kind of space suit but sends you hurtling through digital soundscapes on the deck of a DJ spacecraft. It's as good a fit as Daft Punk scoring Tron: Legacy.
In fact, players will be forgiven for living their Daft Punk fantasy as their helmet wearing avatar in selfie mode crafts new versions of songs by Tiesto, Odezsa, Zhu, Tokimonsta and more. Key to this ability is the game's Music Reality Engine, designed to allow anyone to produce and perform music that's on key and doesn't skip a beat.
The varied and deep tool set allows an impressive degree of creative freedom. To begin, players can view an image and guide of each musical instrument or device in the Options menu. Each guide provides simple steps for how to interact with the instrument or device, which include orbs (percussion), sonic grenades, a harp, FX cube, backing track, arrange tool, looper, vocals, etc.
Once familiar with these tools of the trade, players can head to the tutorial. This helpful training mode puts those instructions to the test in an easy to follow format that explores how to interact with the tools at your disposal, and how they interact together as part of the equipment that forms the DJ control console.
The setup involves three stations laid out in a semi-circle in front of the player. In between each are cubes that represent the different instruments/devices available per song. One is loaded at each station to begin, but the player uses the Move motion controllers to swap them out for the others any time.
A typical setup has the backing track on the left, orbs in the center and sonic grenades, looper, harp or other orbs on the right. With backing track players can alternate between intro, groove, build, break, drop, deep, etc., by toggling the respective button on the device. Toggling buttons works the same as moving cubes, by depressing the trigger on the controller.
Players will discover quickly that the Move motion controllers are very well implemented into this game. There is virtually no latency, so player actions on screen are reflected in real time. Likewise targeting is spot on, and object detection is good, so interaction is easy even as players' virtual conductor's batons/drum sticks pass through objects like cubes.
Such actions include moving cubes, throwing sonic grenades, adjusting loops or creating FX by touching them with the baton and holding down the trigger until ready to release; toggling buttons on or off for backing track, vocal and arrange by touching them and pressing the trigger; or hitting orbs or the harp by touching or swinging with the controller.
The same holds true for the menus. Selecting between menus and respective choices under Options is a breeze, as is choosing tracks by song, genre or artist under Select Song. Navigation between six pages of eight songs each under song is simple, while pointing long enough at one song will provide a preview including artist info.
Song choice is a variety of electronica that includes tracks from house to hip-hop and have a range of beats per minute. Players select a song and are launched into a digital world of pulsating, rippling and beating soundscapes that likewise vary depending on the track. These colorful settings provide an entertaining stage for crafting a unique electronic arrangement.
Expect to find fantasy realms lined with palm trees that keep the beat, giant hands that gesture approvingly, pulsating asteroids, rippling surfaces, pyramids, an ocean and, yes, disco balls among the sights that pass by as players move forward in a linear, on-rails journey. The creative visuals provide the perfect accompaniment to the digital tracks.
There are currently 12 different soundscapes and the visuals cube allows for tweaking the speed of forward movement, the hues and saturation (if I recall). There is also a selfie mode with a virtual floating stick that shows a forward view, selfie view or rotating aerial view of the player and DJ control console, though taking an in-game pic currently is not an option.
The real draw of Electronauts, however, are the musical instruments and devices players will use to craft their own versions of each track. Discovering the sound each emits is part of the game's joy of discovery, but what especially impressed was how some instruments, at least, create sounds that complement a given track. In this way, as in others, the experience is rarely the same.
This is most obvious with the sonic grenades. There are five total, each one replaced the instant it is tossed. And every grenade has a unique sound upon impact that can vary among tracks, including brief digital noises, sound effects or vocals. A hip-hop selection might have more vocals, for instance, while a strictly EDM track might have more digital sounds.
Orbs and loops likewise can vary from song to song, though orbs and the harp are the most similar instruments. Orbs are the most common item with about three different variations of this percussion instrument. Each orb cube, when installed at a station, features seven orbs (four on top, three on bottom). The harp has seven cords.
The orbs and harp cords are positioned from lowest tone on the left to highest on the right. Each orb or cord can be touched or hit/strummed to create a sound. Because orbs and harp cords, respectively, are within close proximity, it's easy to hit multiple ones in quick succession and string together certain tones.
Other instruments include the looper and FX cube. The looper features several cylinders that resemble lava lamps. Players raise or lower the contents of one at a time to generate a specific background sound. The FX cube has three effects that create sounds or alter current sounds like vocals when the baton/drum stick is passed through its chamber.
An echo button is available for most, if not all, instruments and works as advertised, adding a deeper, more multi-dimensional sound to each one. The harp is my only exception for using echo, as I think it sounds best without. To help with arrangements, holding down the Move button while using the controller with an instrument will record a sequence for repeat use.
The backing track, vocals and arrange cubes are the deepest and arguably most influential. The backing track selects tracks (intro, groove, build, drop, deep, etc.) and toggles stems on or off (i.e. bass, keys, snare, kick, percussion). In my time with the game, I've used this to tone down tracks during a song prior to building into another.
Vocals, like other elements, can be turned on or off. Players can also choose which verse (typically of three) to insert and when, or which track to use from one of 16 sections. Helpfully, this control shows where the vocal is in each section of each verse. Players can then time when to use other elements like a backing track or instrument, or just when to change the verse.
Arrange is the cube I used least but potentially could be the most significant contribution. Players can toggle arrangements on or off, queue a state to be played and save/load an arrangement. Elements can be added or removed. Arrange, vocals and backing track all can have a big impact on the overall sound of players' creations.
A typical session for me involves using musical instruments alongside the intro or early tracks (sometimes two at once like orbs and harp, thanks to precise Move controller implementation), toggling vocals on and adding sonic grenade accents or instrumentation, toggling stems off on later tracks, then toggling stems on and switching to earlier tracks with instrumentation.
Taken together, impersonating a musician/DJ in these fantasy virtual reality settings is an exercise of pure joy thanks to the myriad tools and thoughtful design. Cons are few and mostly superficial, such as wanting to take actual selfies, having more soundscapes or visual custom options (like map creation), being able to select favorite tracks, or even allow players to create tracks from scratch.
The bottom line is that I had enormous fun experimenting with all the tools of the trade at one's disposal and no doubt barely scraped the surface of what this game has to offer. For someone like myself who loves music, especially trance and EDM, but has no real ear for music or its creation, Electronauts is a blast to play.
For those who invest the time to explore how deep the gameplay and music creation options can take them, I suspect they'll be richly rewarded with custom tracks that show off their prowess. It's hard to find fault with the overall package, as musical elements are rich and varied, controls are precise and intuitive, and the entire experience is consistently entertaining.
Last but by no means least, I forgot to mention that Electronauts is designed to be played cooperatively as well as alone. I didn't have the opportunity to test that aspect of the game, but the concept, wrapped in this exceptional package, holds a lot of promise.
Electronauts will be available August 7 at noon Pacific time on Steam and Oculus Home for HTC Vive and Oculus Rift at $19.99, and PlayStation Store for PSVR at $17.99. It's also launching in VR arcades across 38 countries worldwide. (I received my preview copy from Survios for purposes of this article.)
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