Originally published on GameInformer.com August 9, 2017, at 12:00 PM.
6,290 views as of June 4, 2018.
Update 6/4/18: Select screenshots from this pictorial appear at bottom.
Virtual reality gaming has more than its share of skeptics, and the nascent library of tech demos masquerading as video games doesn't help, no matter how impressive the experience (i.e., Batman: Arkham VR). Impulse Gear's relatively new PlayStation 4 shooter Farpoint, however, just might represent a tipping of those scales.
If you've followed its reception, yes, it's true that the title is no masterpiece of game design in general. There are software/hardware limitations, questionable design choices and flaws. But it's far more than a proof of concept and, in fact, excels at immersing the player in its world, which, after all, is the point of VR.
I might be a little biased, as I've been patiently waiting for a retail VR FPS to hit the marketplace since my experience with an arcade version about 20 years ago. You'd think any such experience might placate me, but I honestly believe the narrative, presentation, Aim Controller and gameplay combine for a superior adventure.
First, I want to address criticism of this shooter as it compares with other genre titles. Sure it can be played with a standard controller and TV display, but it was designed from the ground up as a VR experience and to approach it otherwise defeats the purpose. The Farpoint With Aim Controller Bundle is the only version I played.
That's not to say it can't or shouldn't be compared with FPS games, but it really is fundamentally different and that distinction should carry more weight. Indeed, what is most interesting in the assessments I've read is how the game suffers by genre standards but nonetheless is a uniquely fun, immersive and compelling experience.
This seeming dichotomy, combined with my own experience, is what makes me optimistic for the future of VR in particular and gaming in general. Farpoint, despite it's flaws and criticisms, demonstrates a solid and entertaining foundation upon which to build other VR titles, especially FPS games.
The game opens with a sequence that, while executed well, is not exactly inspired storytelling. It's dramatic, it establishes the principals, and it sets up the action to follow. But it's a bare-bones introduction. Your pilot character, a couple spacewalking scientists, and their space station are overcome and separated by a cosmic anomaly that maroons them on a mysterious planet.
That's a simplified version of an admittedly simple premise. What follows is your journey across a hostile alien world to reunite with the others. Let's also get the following out of the way: Your trek is less a story about you than lost scientists Grant Moon and Eva Tyson. The pilot you play has zero character arc/development.
Instead, while on the trail of your lost companions, you find their holographic logs or recover their habitat recordings to piece together the mystery of their disappearance. In the process, you discover a story that is less traditional tale than psychological drama that explores our capacity to persevere in extreme situations.
If you can suspend your expectations in this regard, you'll be treated to a spectacular display of human spirit and the related highs and lows. In this regard, exceptional dialog, voice acting, motion capture, animation and graphic detail combine for a sometimes taut, sometimes poignant, always interesting journey.
This has a lot to do with the authenticity of the characters, especially Eva, who are brought to life with thoughtful portrayals and uncanny facial animation, and are on a par with the best duos I've observed in a video game (Enslaved's Monkey/Trip, Uncharted's Nathan/Elena, The Last of Us' Joel/Ellie).
Of course, how they react to, and interact with, their world is a big part of the game. Indeed, the world can function as another character and, in the case of Farpoint, the VR experience is largely dependent on how well that presentation works. For myself, I found the alien planet alluring despite often barren and inhospitable landscapes.
This is an exceptional admission given that I don't like video games set in desert-like environments. Such monochromatic, featureless, repetitive settings often alienate me to the point of disinterest, despite sometimes compelling gameplay (i.e. Far Cry 2, Red Faction: Guerrilla, Borderlands, Rage).
The planet itself is nothing extraordinary, but it's a consistent, well-realized world with detail and diversity in spite of the inhospitable environment. More importantly, perhaps, its execution in virtual reality is stunning, unlike VR titles that can suffer from poor, blurry textures, static settings or unimaginative design.
In Farpoint, rock formations include piles, giant columns or spires, stalactites and stalagmites, boulders, etc. These are found in a landscape of arches, cliffs, crevasses, caverns, craters, mountains and even an erupting volcano. Up close, rocks display smooth to rough textures and countless cracks, striations and veins.
These timeless, stationary features are accented by occasional elements that help animate this alien world. From shifting high-altitude clouds, billowing volcanic ash and wind-blown dust or debris, to realistic fires small and large, splashing water and splattering lava, environmental animation and particle effects are top-notch.
One element that can have a tremendous impact on realism and immersion is lighting. In Farpoint, it's used judiciously to make an alien world appear familiar in ways that help anchor the player in their journey. Daylight and moonlight both shine believably, creating authentic hues and shadows, as well as realistic rays.
Draw distance likewise influences our perception of this world and the degree to which we feel immersed in it, providing a sense of scale to complement the detailed textures, patterns and features of our immediate surroundings. Mountains, canyons, dunes and the landmark volcano increase the sense of wonder -- and isolation.
Despite what amounts to an essentially linear corridor shooter, walking or running around turns on a cliff or in a crevasse, climbing up or down a rise in your path, navigating a field of rock formations, or selecting which path to take all are suspenseful and feel like organic options in a world so well designed.
A nice touch that I appreciate, in a fashion that reminds me of the biomech union of H.R. Giger's art, is the seeming rock formations that more resemble skeletal remains. Found throughout the world, but ominously growing larger the farther one journeys, these features are reminiscent of giant rib cages, spines, and even a massive spider.
The overall presentation in virtual reality is impressive for the medium, but what helps truly set Farpoint apart is the implementation of otherwise standard gameplay in a VR setting. Yes, the point-and-shoot mechanic is on display here, however, the PSVR headset and Aim Controller elevate this rote method into a responsive, interactive thrill.
Such praise might seem like overkill, but for a longtime FPS fan who has become jaded by the genre, not to mention a skeptic when it comes to the utility of motion controls, the extent to which Farpoint is able to engross this player in its tale of hair-trigger survival was a pleasant surprise.
The Aim Controller itself is a solid, well-built device that also benefits from a practical design. It might not look like it would handle well, but it does. From the shape to the surface texture and controls placement, it is accessible, intuitive and practical in its execution. In game, it feels like you're holding and using a gun.
Of course, that also has a lot to do with the precision tracking, targeting and hit detection related to use of this peripheral. In concert with the PlayStation Camera, shooting is a dream, whether from the hip or looking down the virtual scope. I even used it one-handed like a pistol with the same high degree of accuracy.
The variety of weapons and enemy types, while limited, were enough to keep gunplay entertaining throughout. Players begin with a kind of assault rifle/rocket launcher, then acquire a shotgun/grenade launcher, precision rifle, alien plasma rifle and alien spike launcher. The assault rifle, with unlimited ammo, proved the most effective.
Two weapons can be part of one's inventory at any time. Switching between an equipped weapon and a stored weapon involves raising the former over one's shoulder as if retrieving the latter. Reload also is easy, as is using secondary fire for the assault rifle or shotgun. Doing all these on the fly is important to one's survival, especially when faced with varied or multiple foes.
Hostile indigenous and alien life take several forms, each presenting their own challenge. The former include a variety of spiders: Small or medium-sized ones that burrow (small ones also leap long distances), bigger ones that launch gaseous projectiles, and large, lumbering ones that charge. There is also a giant boss spider that stomps and launches projectiles.
Their AI is decent, with the faster small ones quickly scurrying in different directions, the medium-sized ones will mostly burrow until nearby, the bigger ones strafe from a distance, and the large tank-like spiders will shield themselves from attack. The rifle, shotty and secondary fire from both, respectively, are most effective against foes in order of smallest to largest.
Alien enemies include airborne drones that fire balls of energy (if I recall); tall mechs that fire lasers, launch mortars and emit a rock-pulverizing beam; and humanoid foes that carry plasma rifles and spike launchers. All such opponents mostly stay on the move, while humanoid aliens can leap and will seek cover. The latter also include snipers.
As with indigenous foes, the closer or larger the enemy, the more firepower is required. It's worth noting here that pickups in the form of ammo (grenades/rockets) and weapons can be found in every open, arena-type area. When you first find these, stock up, because it means a lot of enemies are about to be thrown your way.
Speaking of, the precision rifle that is found around the time alien opponents appear is effective against snipers and regular humanoid foes at range. Ammo for it, however, is in pretty short supply. Conversely, I found the alien plasma rifle, which has unlimited ammo though has to charge, and spike launcher both were relatively underwhelming.
Combat follows a familiar pattern of introduce enemy types one by one, increase their numbers, then add variety in arena-type battles. Unlike some critics, I never tired of the enemy types or the combat. I always felt immersed in the action, except when certain issues arose (more to follow). Battles were never too easy, nor too difficult, though I did die repeatedly.
It's possible some gamers might feel there is not enough challenge, but given the numbers and variety (requiring adjusting tactics and weapon or ammo choice on the fly), I always was fully engaged in each fight. In this regard, the precision of the Aim Controller (plus PSVR headset and PlayStation camera) helped immensely.
It also helps that, unlike some other VR games, Farpoint never made me nauseous. I played standing and used the default settings, which allow forward, backward and side-to-side movement. Turning is disabled, and although I discovered later that there are alternative settings, I honestly prefer the immersion of turning my body. I played for hours straight and only felt limited discomfort.
Farpoint, of course, is far from perfect. Besides issues mentioned above, specific annoyances include an invincible sniper (above, bottom) whose insta-kill attack got me even when standing behind a large rock formation (players have to sneak past undetected below his position), and (SPOILER) a late-game mech that can be used (above, top) but not by the player.
Other problems are due to technical limitations, such as a visible grid behind you that indicates where the PlayStation camera cannot see (and therefore where you cannot shoot), enemies that helpfully will sprint from behind when you've passed them, and equipped weapons that are out of alignment when they've gone off camera and have to be recalibrated.
While there is opportunity for improvement, Farpoint for me honestly is a dream come true. In many respects, it is the VR experience I've been waiting for all these years -- an entertaining journey that effectively immerses players in its engrossing world and kinetic action in a way that non-VR games cannot. I felt like a space pilot fighting for survival on a hostile alien world.
Its shortcomings can annoy at times but rarely broke my immersion. Impulse Gear has crafted a quality VR shooter that in my opinion fulfills the promise of the medium while laying the groundwork to improve upon it. And I haven't even explored two-player co-op! As a sign of things to come, this VR title, more than any other, has me excited for the medium.
(SEE "ABOUT" PAGE FOR LINKS TO SPECIFIC BLOGS.)