Lethal VR is essentially a shooting gallery, taking its inspiration from sources as far and wide as gun clubs, action movies, and arcade games like Point Blank and Time Crisis. The twist is that it’s presented in an ever-changing VR environment. The instantly recognisable action, coupled with the motion-tracking brilliance of the HTC Vive, has resulted in a game that feels both inventive and accessible.
“Part of the reason we chose the target range idea is because it requires so little upfront explanation,” explains game designer Chris Roberts (no, not that Chris Roberts) after an hour-long demo. “Anyone can play it because people understand the concept of a target range, but we have been careful to give the idea enough legs so that you are encouraged to want to do your best and improve every time you play.”
Depth comes in the form of variety and precision. Thanks to the sophistication of the HTC Vive controllers, the game is able to track your movements and register the minutiae of your inputs, making it extremely precise when recording your reaction speed in quick-draw challenges, and your accuracy when attempting headshots on dummy targets.
There’s a compelling “just one more go” feel to Lethal VR. Knowing that the game is able to register that 1/100th of a second improvement to a quick draw makes it irresistible to have another try at topping your previous score. In turn, this makes the leaderboard all the more enticing, because top players will (usually) beat the rest through actual physical skill rather than any videogamey hacks.
Just like the movies
The game throws a wide variety of gunplay at you. There are levels that involve shooting multiple moving targets at once using two guns, making you feel like Chow Yun-Fat in a John Woo movie. Wielding the hand cannon that is a magnum revolver against dummy bad guys with hostages as human shields helps you channel your inner Clint Eastwood, while the knife-throwing challenges give you a sense of what it’s like to be V from V for Vendetta.
Feeling like famous movie characters isn’t a coincidence. Roberts says that Lethal VR takes more inspiration from cinema than it does from video games, although this is more due to the lack of experience most developers have with VR rather than a greater understanding of film.
“We have to consider that people are coming to VR new; it’s a whole different thing than what games have done before,” Roberts says. “It’s a new and different gaming language. That’s a really exciting thing to work on, and we have wanted to do something with VR for a while, as it feels like a whole new frontier. Actually getting people to understand that they have to physically move to perform well is an entirely new thing for them to learn because that’s just not how games have normally worked in the past.”
Having players physically emulate Clint Eastwood, then, makes it easier for them to understand that achieving high scores requires moving your head to look around a virtual wall, kneeling down to shoot through gaps, leaning from side to side to find a better shooting angle, and spinning around to destroy targets as quickly as possible.
These ideas wouldn’t feel natural if Lethal VR had just copied the language used by first-person shooters, which are designed to be played through the abstraction of a traditional controller. Individual games often require you to learn their foibles before you can play them with any kind of skill, whereas everyone understands how to physically move and shoot.
Concepts taken from video games do exist here, however. Three Fields Entertainment was founded by three former employees of Criterion, the studio behind Burnout. Roberts himself is credited as designer or lead designer for the first three games of the car racing/crashing series. Burnout, at its core, is a game about setting high scores—and so is Lethal VR.
High score rewards
“One of the things we love in our games is the risk-reward factor,” says Roberts of why he is so interested in having players chase high scores. “As far back as Burnout you have a risk-reward core in terms of wanting to get more boost, how we encourage you to get boost, how you go about getting more boost, and then how dangerously you want to drive to get it. That created a strong risk-reward loop and we had a scoring system that reflected it.”
“We’ve always been interested in the idea of scoring and how you bring that out in a game,” he continues. “In the games we’ve worked on, it’s been scoring that has been key and VR works really well in bringing a somewhat realistic game concept, and blending it with the kinds of scoring mechanics you get from arcade cabinets. That blend is important because a lot of VR experiences tend be just that: experiences. We wanted to bring out the game side of things too, as though you’ve got your own arcade cabinet in your house.”
The risk-reward factor in Lethal VR reveals itself in a number of ways. Do you want to predict where the next target is going to pop into view? The risk is that you’ll be wrong and have to waste time searching for it. The reward is that you shoot it immediately and set a great time. Do you risk not reloading in order to save a few seconds, or do you take the time to reload now and set yourself up for future targets? Do you shoot a target twice for extra points, or shoot once so that you have to reload less often?
Ultimately, the strength of Lethal VR comes from how it rewards physical skills as opposed to finger gymnastics on a controller. If you have a fast quick draw in real life, you’ll have it in Lethal VR; if you’re accurate with a gun at the shooting range, you’ll be accurate with one here; if you’ve strong legs capable of squatting up and down with speed and stamina, you’ll ace certain challenges.
In this sense, Lethal VR delivers on the promise of VR video games—to make them feel more “real” than reality.
Not a fad
“I find that 3D in cinema or TV wears off after a short while,” Roberts says. “You only really take notice of the 3D at the beginning of a film and you think it’s really cool, but about half an hour later you stop realising that it’s even in 3D and the effect is lost. That doesn’t happen in VR, as it feels completely instinctive to be inside of it—so it seems 3D and real all of the time. Having that depth and feeling of being part of this space gives it a real presence.
“Presence,” he adds, “is an overused word when describing VR, but it’s true that it’s what this provides.”
Hackneyed terminology or not, Lethal VR is one of the more complete VR games currently available. Since the launch of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, we haven’t really had a deep, hours-long experience, and it’s only now, following the launch of PSVR, that developers are finally giving gamers something to dig into. Which is not to say that the shooting gallery is the most sophisticated of genres, but a real effort has been made to make Lethal VR a game you’ll want go back to again and again.
VR represents a whole new language within the constantly evolving world of video games, so it makes sense at first to design an experience using familiar real-world concepts. As such, Lethal VR is an excellent gateway into VR gaming: it’s easy to understand and surprisingly compelling too. A simple proposition it might be, but sometimes simplicity is what you need to sell a complex technology.
Lethal VR will be available November 8 for the HTC Vive. A PlayStation VR version will launch before the end of 2016.
This post originated on Ars Technica UK