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I’m always happy when nothing goes wrong in a virtual reality game. My glasses don’t break. I don’t get nauseous. And the experience is smooth. That was the case with a demo of Firewall: Ultra, a new VR team shooter game for the PlayStation VR 2 from First Contact Entertainment.
I played multiple rounds of the game this week at Sony’s headquarters in San Mateo, California. I grabbed the hand controllers, put the PSVR 2 on my head, tightened it, and was ready to go. The Sony crew told my fellow game journalists how to play and off we went into four-versus-four matches.
The game is a sequel to 2018’s Firewall: Zero Hour, a PSVR title built with Unreal Engine 4. Firewall Ultra is built with Unreal Engine 5 and it’s coming out sometime this year. It was easy to tell the 3D graphics in VR were pretty good. In the first map, which takes place in an office building, there were combinations of well-lit areas as well as dark places where you could hide out.
We played about five rounds on two different maps, one in the office building dubbed Social and another dubbed Oil Rig. OK, maybe they could do a better job of naming their maps.
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We had one fearless Sony leader in our group, telling us about the tasks and the map. In the mode we played, you had to eliminate the enemy team and arm or disarm a computer. One team of four attacked, while the other team defended.
We started out in a lobby that had a shooting range for training. I played around with the controls for weapons. With Circle, I could easily switch weapons between my assault rifle, pistol, grenade and knife. It was pretty quick to do that switch, and that’s good because you don’t want to fiddle with controls while you’re trying to take down an enemy. Like most VR games I’ve played, it was pretty hard to aim down the site. And so I concluded I would just use one hand and spray bullets. By watching where the bullets went I could adjust my fire, and this generally worked. But I wasted a lot of bullets and ran through clips fast.
In the first round, we didn’t know what we were doing. We were defending a spot and the enemy could have come from any direction. They came down a couple of different corridors at once and got the jump on us. I got shot in the back and noticed how quickly someone could down you.
The second match went pretty much the same. But by the third match, after switching between attack and defend a couple of times, we got the hang of it. The enemy squad tried to come up some stairs and we took them down.
One of the cool features happens when you die. If you’re shot, you can be revived. But if you run out of a timer, you die. And then you can see the closed circuit security camera videos. If you use your “eye-gazing” feature where you stare at one of the enemies long enough, the game will automatically mark the enemy so that your comrades can see that enemy on the map. I found it was hard to describe where an enemy was, but I told my comrade that one was walking straight at him and it gave him the jump.
This happened for me when I was the last survivor and saw an enemy light up behind a wall. I moved closer, peeked around the corner, and took the enemy out. I was happy to get on the scoreboard. I liked how the dynamic lighting on the map had dark stairwells or well-lit windows. Our team tried to mix things up by getting in an elevator, which was a bad idea. One of our guys tossed a grenade as the doors were closing and it hit the door and bounced back. It blew up, and fortunately we didn’t die.
The eye-gaze detection could also work in other ways, like closing your eyes when a flash bang is going off that could blind you. That’s a pretty cool feature that you can only encounter in VR.
I noticed that the game loaded pretty fast and the time between rounds was pretty quick, thanks to the game’s dedicated servers.
We played the oil rig map a little bit and it was a bit of a labyrinth to me. It was pretty dark under the deck of the rig and the hallways looked the same in multiple directions. In one match, we took out the enemy but our lone survivor couldn’t find the computer and so we lost that match. I wasn’t happy about that. Going up and down stairs was a big part of this map.
Sometimes it’s so dark you have to pull out your flashlight, and you can use that to blind an enemy at a critical moment. But you can give yourself away using that flashlight.
More to come
The game will have various characters who are Contractors. One of them is Havoc, a decorated former elite military operative who is well-trained, well-conditioned, and well-equipped to get the job done—despite his cocky attitude. In Firewall Ultra, his Conditioned skill increases his resistance to bullet damage and deploys a mine once he’s eliminated from battle.
After the demo, I interviewed David Jagneaux (a former fellow game journalist), the strategic communications manager at First Contact Entertainment. The team has been working on the game for about two years with a team of around 50 people.
The studio was founded in 2015, and its games include Extraction, Solaris Offworld Combat, Firewall: Zero Hour and now Firewall: Ultra. We discussed the finer points of VR shooters and what the team has learned over the years.
The most impressive thing is the better use of lighting in shadows where you can hide in the darkness and ambush somebody. But the overall design is pretty good. When you’re downed, your comrades can revive you. They just do so by holding down the L1 button of the game controller. They don’t have to do a weird gesture in order to pretend like the motion is the best part of the experience.
You also don’t have to go through some elaborate motions to change your ammo clip. I had to spray and pray a lot that I would hit something. And I didn’t want to have to take a lot of time to remember how to pull out a clip and load a new one. All I had to do was hit the X button on my right controller and it happened. These design decisions reflect a certain amount of wisdom about what works in VR.
Call me a slug. But I don’t want to come out of one game exhausted and sweating because a game designer thinks I need exercise. What I want in a game is quick motions to get somewhere fast and a short time to kill. You can press a button on the left controller to crouch, but you can also just duck low and the game will detect the movement and put you in the crouch position. I thought that was cool.
The game accomplishes this pretty well. You hold down your left controller stick to run, and you can draw a bead on an enemy using just one hand to wield a weapon. In VR, I’ve found it takes too long to pull the the gunsight up to your eye and then line up the red dot for a precise shot that is going to go amiss because of the crazy vibration of the gun. The only time I hold the gun with two hands and aim down the sight is when I’m watching a door or precise spot for any movement.
I didn’t get to try a sniper rifle in the game, but First Contact will have such guns where you really need to pull the gun up to your eye to get a zoom shot of an enemy. I’d like to see how that works. I also didn’t have a chance to use my knife. I saw some videos where you could watch an enemy come up to a door and then you can set off a C4 charge with a remote control. That could be hilarious.
I could tell this was the fourth VR shooter game that First Contact had made, since it didn’t make me woozy, it didn’t force me to do things that were cumbersome, and it had very quick time to action and time to kill. Jagneaux said the developers have to find a good balance of realism, interactivity and accessibility all at the same time. And it felt like they pulled that off.
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