Tag Archives: Virtual Reality

Review: Windlands – Sweat & Neck Ache and Totally Worth It

NOTE: No screenshots are contained in this review (because I’ve not figured out how to do it yet with the PSVR – look at some here www.windlands.com)

Well, today I’ve gave Windlands by Psytec Games Ltd a go. That’s not true actually. For the last 3 weeks I’ve been playing this exclusively. My last binge, World of Final Fantasy, got put on hold whilst I took a punt on something for my Playstation VR. I knew nothing about this game, but I wanted something to show my buddies at a Poker night that would demonstrate the PSVR in a manner they could get to grips with that was not a puzzle game, or “experience”. My poker buddies are a great bunch, really funny, but have such a narrow taste in games, that if it does not begin with FI and end with FA (note: a banned word in my house) it doesn’t get a look in. Fortunately, I think I’ve a reputation among the bunch as not just being the geek, but a trusted geek, and when I asked the host if it was OK for me to bring the PSVR round, he jumped at the chance – I needed to impress. I had Thumper, Tumble and the demo disc with DriveClub. The latter might have been fun for a bit but would get a little predictable, and the other two were probably just too boring (though I think they’re great fun). Wanting to give the guys an experience they would never forget (phrasing) I hurriedly scanned the PlayStation store for something that looked vomit inducing, and most importantly – cheap.

Windlands it was then. It only had 12 ratings, but all five star. It was from a company I’d never heard of but seemed to be some sort of indy dev collective. I was attracted to the fact that I had to look for this – clearly the marketing budget was minimal. The elitist snob inside my gamebrain thought this was a good sign, as mere “regular” gamers would overlook a potential gem, and I’d have the scoop all to myself.

It downloaded fast and I thought I’d give it a little try before leaving for the poker game.

The VR buzz kicked in – “WARNING! THIS IS A FULL MOTION VR GAME!” floated in front of me. Then a load of options appeared that narrowed down how I wanted to consume this experience. Naturally I just X-mashed this until it went away and then it started. Well almost. Some frankly very poor voice acting introduced some cheesy dribble about, I don’t know, some robot and an island and crystals etc (x-mashing was not helping at this point).

I appeared in a room. I looked around and it’s a very static world. Though it tracked beautifully, there are no animations, just some dust floating about and a slightly lo-fi soundscape playing. Damn I thought, have I been duped? Has my gamebrain snob got this one wrong? I pressed a stick to walk forward – whaaaaaaat? What just happened? What was that sensation? I pushed a bit more, and immediately thought to myself that this might actually be the single most exhilarating experience of my entire life! I’d taken two steps forward in a clearly Unity engine static game world, but it felt like I’d just awoken in the f%^$ing Matrix! You see, I’d not had this with PSVR yet. I’d driven cars, flown space craft, stacked blocks, and err, thumped, err giant aztec space beetle head things, but now I was in a real game world! As per usual, the left stick moves your legs, and the right stick rotates your torso. In a very, rigid, segmented way. You see, to minimize the chance of involuntary dinner removal, it rotates your view in chunks (though the head rotation movement is smooth). Don’t like this, Game Options, Enable Smooth Rotate – Ow my Eyes – Don’t like this, Game Options, Disable Smooth Rotate – Ahh that’s better. Actually, the chunky turning movement is very clever. After a minute or so of chunking, I did not even notice it, and combined with the head movement you only need it for large turning maneuvers.

I walked towards the brightness and stepped outside and a giant (and I mean huge) robot tried to grab me and then walked off and sat down for a sulk. I looked around and walked around a bit. I had the VR smile from ear to ear as the sensation of actually being in this artificial world was just great, it really was. Then I pressed the X button. I lept what felt like 20 meters into the air, in a really pleasing floaty way. It felt like I was on a roller coaster. This will truly be one of those game experiences I’ll never forget. I genuinely believed I’d just shot into the sky. Whilst in the air, I looked down and saw the ground coming rapidly towards me. I actually bent my knees as if to soften the blow. My vocabulary is simply not sufficient to describe the sensation. My biggest fear was that this feeling would wear off with more play, so I jumped sparingly. I took running jumps, and realized I could wall jump (a la Super Metroid). Soon I was bouncing all over, and I was still stood just outside of my original spawning point. With each leap my brain sent physical sensations to my stomach and limbs – I was feeling this world. And I’ve not felt sick once.

The game quickly gets its point across. You have to explore a complicated collection of ruins, forests, and mountains to collect crystals which unlock more areas to explore, and tablets, which really are just something to collect. These collectibles are are hidden in places that require dexterity in order to reach, so wall jumping and running is a must, but the most important item is the only tool you get – a pair of physics-y elasticated grappling hooks. Now the game has really started, and you will learn to use these hooks as an extension of your body. By default, you can only grip foliage (yup) which forces some thinking from the player in order to overcome obstacles. You will need to manipulate your momentum to swing between grappling points and effectively fly around the world. Please bear in mind how exciting just walking forward was! Swinging and flying is intense! You really feel it. I was pouring with sweat. The sensation of movement along with the reasonable yet genuine difficulty in getting to a high up location, coupled with the feeling of genuine loss when you mess it up and get sent back to your last checkpoint (of which there are few), is just superb. I was gripping the joypad so hard my hands were hurting – I MUST NOT LET GO, I MUST NOT MISS THIS JUMP! Brilliant.

I had to top playing after two hours, I was exhausted and my neck was sore from all the looking. I took off the headset and found myself facing completely away from my TV. I had a break for 20 minutes, and then dived straight back in, and it’s been like this for the last three weeks. It’s an addiction, such a fantastic experience from such a simple concept.

Windlands will take about 8 hours to beat on “Normal”. I don’t care though, it has replay value, and has built in speedrun leader-board challenges, which really do make you try your hardest to optimize the most perfect route, and even exploit the odd glitch here and there. I firmly believe that this is a first generation VR masterpiece, and I hope it is a sign of how the genre will develop. It’s not just VR for the sake of it, it really exploits the medium to provide a very natural interface to a gaming world. Well done Psytec Games Ltd, Well done.

My Poker buddies liked the demo where you headed a football.

PlayStation VR – Day 0 First Impressions

Hello!

On October the 13th I went to work as normal, but in the back of my mind I new something exciting was happening in the gaming world. At around 11am, whilst sipping a coffee, I thought about seeing how the world was reacting to the ‘event’, and found myself ferociously scanning the internet trying to find if it was at all possible for me to take part.

Of course, I’m talking about the Sony PlayStation VR package. I should first highlight my experience of VR – I remember game shows in the early 90s that tried to be cool by having teams competing in virtual worlds. They wore big bright yellow and green head sets and took part in “virtual” battles. I’m hesitant to allow this to be called virtual reality, I’m sure there is some mathematics that show reality can’t be represented in fewer than 60 flat shaded triangles. Since then VR has been the next big thing that never quite arrived, with one slightly naff implementation after another. Travel through time 20 years and I dabbled with Google’s cardboard. A nice toy, but you really can’t escape the feeling you have a phone sellotaped to your face. Reminded me of making stuff out of cereal boxes and toilet roll tubes when I’d live with my grandmother in the summer holidays.

Now I’ve watched the coverage of VR over the last two years, and read the extremely polarizing comments to be found online. Sure there is a degree of fanboy-ism and there are those that simply need numbers to be bigger in order to validate the world around them. But I’ve maintained that since Sony announced its Project Morpheus, that they would be the winners. Despite wherever you sit on the gaming spectrum, Sony have been developing things that humans USE for decades. They have a strong history in it too. And I mean USE, as in genuinely interact with the tangible. I don’t believe this is the case with HTC, or Facebook. So if any company was going to provide me with equipment to bolt to my face and distort my brain’s perception of my surroundings, I’d trust Sony to at least do it in a comfortable way.

Back to the coffee. I had no intention of buying a day one VR system. It was going to cost me £380 (well, cost the bank £380), and I had recently purchased a rather spiffing 55″ TV. So I checked Amazon. None available. Tesco. None Available. Fill in the gaps… Argos. Available! Damn! This thing was in demand! Was there going to be a shortage? “Next in stock 14th November” “Next in stock 10th December”. Of course some websites were more than happy to take my money for one, with the promise of delivery tomorrow! In return for my soul and every number ever used to represent any facet of my existence. Yeah, no thanks. So I clicked through to Argos, where I happily added the PSVR to my cart. Now I have a few argos’s’s’s near where I live. Collecting from the store meant I’d get it sooner. It hadn’t dawned on my yet that little over half an hour ago, I had not even contemplated getting one of these things. I had VR fever! I had to own one! Now I’m assuming you don’t know me, but please have some blind faith when I tell you that this behavior is not like me at all. I’ve never purchased anything day one. I don’t care about technology fads. The prospect of not taking part in the rush was terrible. I phoned Mrs Javidx9 and asked for her thoughts – “I don’t mind if it’s something YOU’LL enjoy, but don’t (click)” – excellent, she’s onboard. Right Argos check out, its just you and me – what, wait…, you’re now out of stock! What utter sadness. I felt both guilty and silly that I was actually upset by a very first world problem – I was not going to own a virtual reality headset on the day it came out.

Back to work then. Decided I’d try the Argos anyway on my way home, and the PC World and Currys on the same industrial estate. I felt pathetic, desperately wandering about in the miserable grayness of a rainy closing industrial unit. As I walked back to the car, I saw a Smyth’s Toy Shop. Well it’s worth a go I though – I didn’t even know if they sold games or not. It looked like Lego and bright pink tat from the outside. They had three VR units on the shelf.

Review Starts Here

Opening the box, you are presented with… another box, full of boxes. Admittedly the box alone must cost £20. Its a sturdy thing with a ribbon to stop it opening too much, a white, thick, seamless holder of technology. There’s a bunch of wires, and an instruction manual, and thankfully a demo disc. It didn’t take very long to get installed. Frustratingly, it requires a separate power supply, and the HDMI splitter box does not seem to play nicely with my soundbar (YSP-2500), meaning I have to power everything up in a very precise sequence to see a picture on the TV (hopefully ironed out in a firmware upgrade? Sony? Are you listening?). The headset itself feels premium, and is very comfortable to wear. I affix the camera to the top of the TV, and strap Mrs Javidx9 into the headset and headphones and switch it on.

HER:”ooooh, it’s very dark” – ME:”it’s loading” – HER:”what will I see? will it be @~^%^£$!!! I don’t like it! Oh. My. God. It’s stuff around me. Blurgh I just looked down. Don’t look down. I’m not looking down again.” – ME:”well look up then, it’s just the menu screen” – “Blurgh I just looked up. I don’t like looking up…” The simple truth is, it just worked. She put it on her head, sat in front of the camera, and she was off in her own virtual reality.

It was my turn. Now I’m a seasoned developer. I’ve an academic background in perception and computer graphics. I was going to analyse this with the most technological thoroughness I could muster. Two hours later I removed the headset, and found myself facing the opposite corner of my living room. It was staggering. I recalled the first time I played a non-wireframe 3D game. I had been completely engrossed. Forget the numbers of the hardware involved. I had been transported across cities in the clouds, driven a Ferrari, piloted space craft, been to the bottom of the ocean, and watched a small girl play with matches on a boat. How or why it worked was not important to me, it just did, and it worked really really well. The experience had completely surpassed my expectations.

I was blown away by an “experience” called “Allumette“. It’s like a movie, it has no controls, you can’t interact with it, but you can lean and look around the scenes. I was in that world. I have no memory of thinking I’m wearing a headset. Just memories of astonishment and satisfaction. Working my way through the demo disc the feeling of technological achievement never subsided – though some of the titles are duds – Driveclub VR and Battlezone where a tad disappointing as they forgot to bring the fun, but everything felt solid, responsive and immersive. Scouring the PlayStation store I discovered VR Playroom. I’d seen the PS3 version of this with little robots running around, and I thought what the hell, she’ll like it. Those robots are now my friends. The playroom is a collection of mini-games designed to encourage localised semi-social interactivity. Screw all that, they have one mini-game which I can only describe as a VR Mario. You guide a little robot on a map collecting coins and swatting enemies. Par for the course. But I am also on that map, and I need to look around in order to find the hidden coins, pathways and other bonuses. It works very well, and I hope this leads the PSVR out of the world of tech demos into full blown games.

I’m under no illusion that this is a first generation mass virtual reality product, and yes it runs on slightly out dated hardware, and sometimes it even jumps around a little, but the whole package is just so remarkably well done, that you don’t care. For the first time in years I was playing the games rather than assessing them.

Should you get one? Yes.