Superhot Is a VR Bullet Ballet
Superhot, a clever puzzle game that masquerades as a shooter, has received praise for good reason. Tying the passage of time to one's movements is an inspired concept and, reportedly, its execution in prior releases has been impressive. Superhot VR on Oculus Quest is my introduction to this gameplay, and looks to raise the bar for a game so heavily influenced by motion.
The Superhot Team to a certain extent went back to the drawing board to recreate their game in virtual reality. The rebuilt game apparently features levels and gameplay that differ from prior versions. Others can address how those compare. I'll focus on how Superhot VR works as its own virtual reality game, and in the process presume that readers are unfamiliar with the game, as I was.
The first thing made clear to the player is that there is no story. The fact is that the game is a series of shooting galleries and wastes no time establishing that. And while Superhot VR works exceedingly well on that level, and plenty of games suffer with tacked on storylines, I was disappointed to discover that prior versions have a compelling narrative that is conspicuously absent here.
Still, an approach that forgoes such attempts in favor of immediate action, especially when that action is so immersive, has its advantages. Call it "bullet time" a la Max Payne or Stranglehold. I prefer bullet ballet. Whereas the former is more offensive and allows players to get the drop on foes with precise targeting, the latter emphasizes defense by dodging bullets or melee attacks to set up the next shot.
The jumping off point is a closet-sized room with tables holding computers, monitors and floppy disks, and walls covered with challenges written on Post-Its. Players select from disks labeled to reflect each mode or option the game offers, put one in the hard drive and place the virtual visor over their head to begin. In between missions, completed challenges will have moved to the door.
The disks themselves represent the main Superhot game and related options like Reset Progress and Guest, or other modes that are variations on the core content, including Speedrun Game Time, Speedrun Real Time, Hard Core, Headshot Only, Don't Die and Endless. I found the main game surprisingly short despite multiple deaths, but the various other modes provide a ton of replayability.
Whichever disk is selected, each mission unfolds in the same way. You stand in a white environment over black guns or melee objects (bottles, ash trays, billiard balls, etc.) and opposite advancing, featureless red avatars that carry guns, knives or fists of fury. Levels might lack detail or texture but are varied, including an airport, mall, helipad, office, construction yard, bar and restaurant.
The settings usually provide some cover and weapons, and the moment you reach for either time starts to advance along with your assailants. That's why it's important to always assess your situation and plan your next move. In this way Superhot VR plays out more like a puzzle game where the player carefully choreographs every engagement, though deaths and trial and error gameplay figure prominently.
What's especially impressive about this setup is that I rarely felt frustrated or cheated. There are never so many foes or so few weapons or cover that players can't survive, so it comes down to how well one can analyze each scenario and choose which weapon to use when and on which enemy. Getting killed becomes a lesson in the pitfalls of impatience or carelessness.
Players gauge who is an immediate risk, either due to proximity or weapon. If nearby, a fist or melee weapon will save ammo. Are they bunched up or spread out? Find a submachine gun or shotgun for the former, handgun or melee for the latter. Have they raised their weapon? They're the first target at range. Of course, a quick check of your nearby arsenal will inform each decision.
Thankfully, foes will react to your choices. Fire too far in front of a distant moving target and they might change direction. Too close and they might avoid your shot. Waste your bullets on errant shots and you'll find yourself hiding behind cover or contorting yourself in borderline uncomfortable ways to avoid taking just one of many bullets and starting from the beginning of the mission.
Every single firefight boils down to how well you plan and execute every single move, and the game brilliantly takes advantage of that in virtual reality. Reaching for weapons at arm's length or farther, throwing melee weapons while firing a pistol, or dual-wielding guns to target different enemies, all the while positioning yourself low or high, right or left, creates a unique, immersive and entertaining experience.
I don't recall a VR game that challenged me in this way, demanding I use my entire body at all times in a relatively quick, responsive and thoughtful way while also anticipating how each scenario will play out. It's exciting, fluid and rewarding, especially when weapons can also stop bullets and a kind of energy beam from extended fists can help in a pinch (never mind its odd placement in a game without a story).
It's fun, when it all works. Thankfully that's often the case, but I was frustrated on several occasions by grab/hold buttons that stuck in place. Of course that's a problem with the Oculus Touch controllers, however, it's also a function of game design when players are required to hold weapons by continuously pressing down on the grab buttons. Release the buttons, and the weapons fall. (Usually.)
In most games such as Robo Recall, one press will grab an item/weapon, a second will release it. In a game that requires pressing down until you want to let the item/weapon go, the chances are greater that the button will stick. At best, I lost precious time trying to throw or change weapons; at worst, I suffered multiple cheap deaths because I could do neither.
This wasn't a constant problem, and it only became worse the longer I played. While annoying, there were few other issues that I had with game design/controls. Despite the main Superhot VR mode being surprisingly short, the variety of other modes adds considerably to the game's replayability. I found myself playing levels over and over to improve my kills in Endless or times in Speedrun.
My overall experience with Superhot VR was a joyous one that lived up to the hype. The immersion of full body movement, including (SPOILER ALERT) a required leap from a building, was exhilarating and still rare in virtual reality. Also, while my play space is limited, I was impressed to read how others on Quest could take advantage of larger spaces to reach farther weapons and foes.
Another feature of level design that was appreciated is the option on some levels to teleport to a second position within eyesight. This allows players to flank unsuspecting foes at a moment's notice and also enjoy a different perspective on the same map. Like the energy beams, I didn't take advantage as often as I should have, but their inclusion likewise increases replayability.
While there's room for improvement, the Superhot Team has crafted inventive must-play scenarios that provide a great foundation for future VR content. More than most virtual reality games, Superhot VR exploits the medium in entertaining ways that impress and inspire, and hopefully will lead to similar quality experiences going forward.
(This review is based on a review code of Superhot VR for the Oculus Quest. The game released May 21 on this console.)
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