The hottest new Oculus Rift game last week was Damaged Core, a first-person shooter (sorta) that lets me possess a variety of robotic war machines in order to shoot a lot bullets.
The virtual reality-focused website UploadVR gave it a score of 9.5/10—its highest score ever—and said it “stands as the new high-water mark that VR game studios should strive to surpass.” Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, game designer (and early Oculus investor) Clifford Bleszinski, and Adam Orth, the designer behind one of my favorite VR games, all recommended it on Twitter.
I played a few hours of Damaged Core, and while it does offer something different and of higher quality when compared to the rest of the games on the Oculus Store, it's mostly an example for how low the bar is currently set for VR games.
As I’ve said before, the biggest problem with bringing first-person shooters to VR (and any VR games, to a lesser extent) is locomotion: It’s hard to give players the same freedom of movement they enjoy in traditional games in VR without making them sick. Moving forward in VR while the body stays still causes motion sickness.
Teleportation remains the best solution I've seen so far. Rather than moving with a continuous motion, players simply point at where they want to go to next, push a button, and teleport there instantly. The sudden cut can be disorienting at times, but it doesn’t cause motion sickness. Demos for Budget Cuts, Fallout 4, and Bullet Train already do this.
Damaged Core was wisely built around this idea as well. It’s set in a future where mankind wages war with the machines, and it casts players as a form of software that infects the enemy, jumping from Terminator-like robot to turret, to tank, and so on.
At one point, I ended up providing cover for a friend on the roof of a dilapidated skyscraper while she shut down an enemy signal. In a traditional shooter, I’d run from cover to cover while fighting off waves of enemies, but in Damaged Core I jump from enemy to enemy. I look at one of the humanoid robots, push a button possess it, then turn to the left and use its shotgun to blast a few enemies. Just when I'm about to die from taking too many hits, I look up to leap to a stationary turret on a nearby roof, which I then use to snipe another wave. And on it goes, jumping from enemy to enemy, using their own weapons against them.
It’s a neat solution, and especially so because the developer, High Voltage, even found a cool fictional conceit for why I’d play a game this way.
All that being said, Damaged Core, delivers a below-average experience when compared to any other top- or mid-tier shooter on the market today.
This is obvious from the first frame. Like most VR games, Damaged Core looks like an imported relic from the last console generation. Characters lack the high number of polygons I’m used to seeing in models in modern 3D games, and low resolution textures are spread thin throughout. Damaged Core's action takes place among military bases and destroyed cities, but the presentation does little to distinguish them from the scores of other such representations in other modern video games.
Then there’s the game’s defining design choice—the ability to teleport and possess enemies. It’s true that it prevents motion sickness, but positioning and movement define first-person shooters just as much as pulling the trigger, and there's little of the former half of that equation in play here.
When the Wii first launched with its motion controls, some critics feared that too many game developers would lean too heavily on its most obvious application: arcade-style light gun games like Time Crisis. Given the locomotion problem and that all the major VR headsets—Vive, Rift, and PSVR—will eventually have motion controls, I have the same fear about VR. At its core (lmao), Damaged Core is basically a light gun game you play with your face.
It’s simplistic to a fault, and the high praise surrounding it only serves to highlight the absence of any good shooters for the Rift (or many good games of any kind, period).
When new consoles launch, critics tend to review the first wave of games generously. Developers have to struggle with working on a new platform, and there isn’t much else to play anyway, so launch titles get higher scores than they would if they were released later into the console’s life. Though it relies on existing platforms, VR is in many ways like a new console, so I can see why early adopters would cling to Damaged Core.
But Oculus Rift development kits have been in the wild since 2013. We should be seeing better games than this by now. Hopefully we’ll transition out of this forgiving phase soon.