The folks at Oculus have made some serious strides toward creating a version of virtual reality that feels like it’s more than just a screen on your face that moves with your head.
Oculus Touch is the biggest step in that direction, using a combination of head tracking and motion controls to help make VR feel more like an immersive experience. The Touch controls mimic your hands, creating a pretty intuitive way for players to reach into virtual spaces and manipulate virtual objects. Breaking office supplies or defusing bombs is fun and, maybe more importantly, feels at least somewhat realistic in VR games such as Job Simulator or I Expect You to Die. But as Epic Games proved with its new demo, Bullet Train, Oculus Touch and VR in general might not do anything as well as they do shooters.
Proof of Cool Concept
Bullet Train is a new demo Epic created for the recent VR convention, Oculus Connect 2. It specifically makes use of Oculus Touch to allow players to actually reach out and grab weapons and manipulate them as if they were real. You spend the demo blasting bad guys as you pick up guns like pistols, shotguns and assault rifles, and use them until they’re spent. Then you can toss them away and grab something new.
The demo itself isn’t anything most shooter players haven’t seen before, and most of its interesting features are to help it adapt to VR. The game itself is a small arena shooter (it’s a mall or an airport or something) where teams of armor-clad enemies are trying to intercept and kill you. You blast them first, you win.
The notable difference from most shooters is in how you get around – by way of short-distance teleportation that lets you reposition around the arena, instead of by running – and in the ability to slow time, so that you can pluck bullets and rockets out of the air and throw them back at the enemy.
Epic’s demo at Oculus Connect 2 was definitely nowhere near a complete, finished product. Enemies dealt no damage to players, for example, and the bad guys were constantly getting confused, running up and down escalators aimlessly as you took your time zeroing them. As a proof of concept for a full VR game, however, it’s easy to see the implications of Bullet Train immediately.
For one thing, it elegantly solves some of the problems inherent in doing a VR game without the benefit of a traditional gamepad, like movement (although the Touch controls do sport thumbsticks and face buttons). For another, it integrates the motion control tech that’s going to help elevate VR games above just being a new brand of the same old gaming experiences.
Most of all, though, it’s a game that nails the action movie feel of grabbing a gun and taking on the world.
A Perfect Pistol Simulator
The Oculus Touch controllers, which look like pistol grips with plastic wrap-arounds, help to provide the tactile sensation that you’re actually gripping an object, which makes the controller a lot easier and more intuitive than other motion controllers or Xbox’s camera-based Kinect. When you pick up guns in Bullet Train, you can take them by the grip in either hand, or use your off hand to steady the rifle barrel or pump the shotgun. And in general, the feeling of holding a gun when playing Bullet Train is fairly convincing.
In other contexts, the Touch controls require you to train your brain a bit. They simultaneously feel natural and unnatural in the way they simulate picking up and manipulating objects. Touch controls include two main triggers on each hand: one under the index finger, and one under the middle finger. The middle finger button is meant to represent opening and closing your grip, while the index finger is reserved for pushing buttons or, of course, pulling actual triggers. Picking up something like a ping-pong paddle takes getting used to, as the middle finger button isn’t something our brain is used to having to press.
Put a gun in the paddle’s place, however, and suddenly the scheme makes a lot more sense to your brain. Especially among Americans, a collective culture of childhoods spent with Nerf blasters and Super Soakers (to say nothing of handling actual weapons) makes picking up a virtual weapon with Touch an instantly recognizable sensation. The Touch controls are shaped more or less like pistol grips, further increasing the immersion of the experience: you pick up a gun in Bullet Train and it’s not far off from what you’d expect it to feel like when holding one in real life.
That immediately makes Bullet Train feel like a more tactile, true-to-life shooter experience than just about any game that’s come before it. You can look around the room, kind of feel the weapon in your grip, and aim using your hand and arm. Suddenly, your shooter experience goes from The Wizard to John Wick, at least in terms of how it feels to play.
An Arena Shooter Where You’re Glued to the Floor
Here’s the thing about the Oculus Rift: you can’t move around while using it. Sure, you can lean, duck, and so on if you’ve got the Oculus Touch and the tracking cameras that come with it, but you’re certainly not able to run around in an empty room that’s filled in by virtual reality. When it comes to playing something on the Rift, even if your head and shoulders are moving, your feet are mostly staying put.
That makes for a difficult situation with shooters. The Rift already has another Touch shooter game demo called Dead and Buried, which is basically an Old West-themed target shooting range. You stand in one place, blasting away at targets that appear in front of you, not unlike a carnival game. It’s fun, but not the most compelling first-person shooter experience.
Epic’s big addition to VR shooters in Bullet Train is an attempt to solve the moving-around problem. Because the head-mounted display in VR is attempting to make you feel like you’re somewhere you’re not, seeing motion can be disorienting and uncomfortable because your body knows you’re not actually moving. Bullet Train skips traditional movement altogether with its teleporting ability.
The teleport is tied to a face button and easy to execute: you look where you want to go, and a second later, you show up there. Teleport spots are fixed and permanent, and each has a gun beside it in Bullet Train, so you can plan your moves based on where the enemy is and what you want to bring into the fight.
Teleporting around the arena isn’t perfect, but it does suggest that, with refinement, it’s possible to make fast-paced shooters in VR with one added benefit: They won’t make you sick.
Little Cool Ideas
The other reason Bullet Train is worthy of more interest than a tech demo might otherwise warrant is that it’s full of the little, intuitive things that make messing with VR or Oculus Touch a fascinating experience.
You can grab a gun in each hand, for a start, and they don’t have to be of the same type, meaning Bullet Train quickly begins to encourage different strategies for how you could face challenges. Adding in slow-mo bullet time has the added benefit of encouraging you to do crazy action movie stuff: You can throw a pistol into the air with your left hand, grab and fire an assault rifle, then drop it and catch the pistol again as it falls back down to keep firing.
And you can pluck bullets out of the air and then toss them back, which gives you a slight Matrix vibe that could be applied to the full game in countless cool ways. The final “boss” encounter of Bullet Train, where you fight a big robot drone, actually requires you to catch and fling back the rockets it fires at you. Taken all together, Bullet Train‘s mechanics and its VR integration make the potential full game seem super intriguing.
Bullet Train shows that, if nothing else, VR is going to do a few things very well. It’s great for simulating the cockpits of spaceships and fighter jets. It seems perfect for oppressive, claustrophobic horror games. And it’ll likely allow shooters to create intenser and more realistic experiences than they’ve ever been able to before.
Phil Hornshaw is a freelance writer and the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Time Travel and The Space Hero’s Guide to Glory: How to Get Off Your Podunk Planet and Master the Final Frontier. When he’s not overthinking game stories, rewatching the films Alien or The Thing, he lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two annoying cats, and can be found on Twitter at @philhornshaw.