Thanks a lot, VR: You've ruined blockbuster FPS moments for me

I might be preaching to the choir on this one, but I find it difficult to get excited for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. And after watching the reveal trailer (immediately followed by a listening of David Bowie's original ‘Space Oddity’ to create some kind of karmic balance for that unsavory grunge cover), it occurred to me that my apathy might not be entirely Infinite Warfare's fault. Call of Duty games - and every other FPS with a big-budget single-player campaign - need to consider how their degree of immersion will compare in the wake of VR headsets. That is to say: now that I've played through plenty of VR demos, I don't think I can ever appreciate those trademark cinematic FPS moments like I used to.

In the most general sense, one of the biggest advantages of the first-person perspective is the illusion that everything's happening to you. Even though you're well aware that you're playing as a character, there's an instinctual difference between danger coming towards your face - your perspective - rather than at an avatar viewed from third-person. And plenty of shooters love to restrict your control so they can perfectly present a climactic scene without having to worry about you staring at the ground or facing the opposite direction during a particularly key set-piece. You've no doubt experienced your fair share of them, given how often they pop up in everything from Call of Duty and Battlefield to Half-Life 2 and BioShock. Some merely restrict your movement so that there's no way to flee the scene; others completely strip you of any agency and force the camera to move in whatever way best serves the action. There's nothing inherently bad about this brand of in-game storytelling; it's a great way to ensure that the player focuses on a critical event that could shape the way you experience the rest of that particular world.  

The problem is that VR experiences often employ this same format, and by virtue of the fact that you're wearing an all-encompassing headset instead of sitting away from a screen, they're much, much better at immersing you in the action. Explosions, enemies, pretty much any physical object you can think of - they don't just seem to be in your face on a TV, they're in your face actually. It's comparable to the difference between wooden roller coasters and the tricked-out, strap-in hypercoasters you'd find at Six Flags. Once you've experienced the latter, the former just seems underwhelming. First-person shooters and roller coasters are typically designed to deliver maximum thrill and excitement, but the technologically advanced versions seem to make their predecessors feel awfully lacking by comparison. I don't mean that as a generalization, as if VR could be the death of TV gaming - but in the case of lifelike first-person scenes that make you feel like you're actually there in the thick of it, I think it's absolutely true that VR has the means to do a better job.

I'm fortunate that I get to try out tons of VR games and experiences as part of my profession, but even if you have no intention of ever buying a headset, I imagine you'll try one at some point in the near future if you haven't already. The prohibitive price of VR is a reasonable deterrent for plenty of people but - like the Neo Geo or 3DO back in the day - we've all had a friend who's willing to shell out for the new tech, and we'll happily give it a try while hanging out at their place. Even if you only try VR for a mere five minutes at a mall kiosk, you'll be getting a glimpse at just how much more real the games of the future can seem.

And once you get a taste of VR, I wonder what you'll think of all the FPS moments that used to amaze you. For me personally, my familiarity with VR makes the most climactic moments in the Infinite Warfare trailer feel completely hollow. It's hard to get riled up by a soldier shouting in my face, now that I've been interrogated by a virtual thug in PlayStation VR's The London Heist. Those spaceship battles look like playing make-believe in a cardboard box compared to the head-tracking dogfights of EVE Valkyrie. And that bit when a robot desperately leapt out of a wrecked space station to grab 'my' hand, throwing me tumbling to safety before I could float off into space? That's nothing compared to the likes of Adr1ft or The Climb, which briefly tricked my brain into making my body think it was actually in danger, if only for a second. Once you've experienced that level of immersion, quasi-cutscenes pale in comparison.

As more and more people dip their toes into the VR pool, it'll be interesting to see if big first-person shooters will make any adjustments to up the immersion ante. Mind you, it could be years until the mass market has acclimated to VR, to the point that their dissatisfaction with ordinary games and dwindling interest forces developers to step things up. But it feels like there's a sea change in the making here. It's not just Call of Duty - every 'normal' FPS will likely need to try a lot harder to convincingly sell those single-player moments that make you feel like you're standing in the middle of a warzone, or that an NPC is genuinely talking to (or attacking) you. I'm not sure what the solution is - I just know that if I'm seeking thrills, a wooden coaster has a hard time competing with a hypercoaster.  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lucas likes his games like he likes his music: eclectic. With all the weird and wonderful stuff he's played over the years, the two of you are bound to feel the same way about something!
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