VR is one of those things that needs to be treated with a kind of optimistic caution, much in the same way people should react if spaceships ever start appearing in major cities. We should all cross our fingers and hope they’re bringing 2001 Arthur C. Clarke-style spiritual and physical ascension, but there’s always that slim chance there could be half a dozen Borg platoons firing up the phaser rifles to kill us all.
And what with VR being new technology (but not the Borg kind, hopefully), people still aren’t sure what to make of it or how best to utilise it. Helpfully, I’ve developed a theory: moving around in first person whilst wearing a VR headset should be banned by the Geneva convention, because it’s like being kicked in the stomach whilst being turned upside-down. I was playing the VR adaptation of the first Serious Sam game, and I had to keep taking off the helmet so as not to violently redecorate my computer desk.
But maybe Dead Effect 2 VR can do it better. Maybe they found that magic formula that’ll allow us to run around without waiting for the contents of our stomachs to fall behind and whiplash back to us a bit too fast. I really hope so, because it’s hard to aim for a bucket when you’re wearing a small TV over your eyes.
Dead Effect 2 VR is available on Steam for £14.99
Cards on the table – I didn’t play the first Dead Effect game, and I don’t think it was wrong of me to make that choice. When a game shows up on Steam with a name cheaply formed of two (much more successful) game titles smashed together, I do feel the need to proceed hastily onto something else. You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but that doesn’t stop people doing it anyway. What image immediately came to mind was a game stitched together from Unity assets store and thrown into the Steam store like a dead cat pushed through a letter box.
But colour me all wrong and a suitably dignified shade of cobalt blue to go with it, because Dead Effect 2 VR has that name for a different reason – it’s a parody. I assume the first one is as well, but like I said, I haven’t played it. Actually, I’m assuming that this game is a parody too, because I could barely hear what the characters were saying half the time, and following the basic story was practically impossible with the, ahem, troubled sound engineering. It hardly matters, though, because the plot’s more recognisable than Bohemian Rhapsody. You’re a living weapon supersoldier on a space station and zombies break out in the same way that lice do in a primary school; and all probably because somebody broke the glass vial contained in every science lab ever since the days of Resident Evil, the one that somehow contains more concentrated nastiness than Pandora’s Box and the Phantom Zone combined.
So the undead spread across the station and you have to escape. I gleamed that much, at least, but it’s hardly original. Oh wait, I guess that’s the parody defence card coming into play? “You can’t accuse us of being unoriginal, because that’s the point,” hmm?
Alright, I can pick on the humour instead. There’s three characters to play as and whilst they function differently on a mechanical level, they’re all about as funny as an infected stab wound. Or, if I’m being really cruel, The Big Bang Theory. It’s mainly due to the fact that each one is a single joke repeated over and over, and the rest of the world is actually pretty straight-faced in how it’s portrayed. I get the feeling the mission might’ve been to mock games like the ones in the title, but I don’t see how it does. I couldn’t draw any meaningful parallels to Mass Effect even if you put a gun to my head, and whilst it roughly tells the same kind of story as Dead Space, there’s nothing in particular that seems to be picking on it, it just feels like it’s ripping it off. This is parody? Where’s the deconstruction? Where’s the wit? Where’s that all-important sense that Dead Effect 2 is actually in some way smarter than the thing it’s mocking, or at least has some meaningful insight on the subject matter?
I never got to the story ending – and we’ll address why later – but I can’t say this fact fills me with sadness. I had better things to do than listen to the redneck spouting off interminable one-liners, and so should all of us. Even if you like the game, you deserve to play it with a podcast or something in the background.
Credit where credit’s due, there is some good work done here, and I’m thinking mainly of the user interface. Suitably enough for a sci-fi VR game, it’s done with a combination of holographic projections and even a tablet device you can wield in-game. This last choice is actually a very clever solution to the problem of UI, because using it and moving it feels entirely natural. After all, tablet devices are something most of us use every day, and this interface just hijacks that skill set for its own use.
The graphics, on the other hand, are just kind of mediocre. The colour usage is fine (if a bit unexciting), using bright neon colours to stick out against a grey background and highlight all the pickups you can find, but the actual game models are a bit off. Your human NPC companion is especially creepy, with unblinking, unfocused eyes and uncomfortably-detailed nipples poking through her top. Apparently it’s very cold in the depths of the uncanny valley.
And like I said earlier, the sound quality isn’t up to much. The voice acting is probably meant to be hammy and over-the-top, so I can let that go, but it’s hard to be able to tell much of the details when it’s all fuzzy and a lot of the sound is going on at once, so you have to strain your ears to hear your radio buddy over a frantic firefight. I found out later that DE2 started life as a mobile game, and the depressing thing was that I wasn’t surprised to hear that. It still looks and sounds like one, and that gets to be a strain on the senses in something as immersive as VR. It’s also hard to make out specifics over a very specific sound…
Yep, that’s the one. I guess Dead Effect 2 VR hasn’t cracked the nausea code, because I got so ill playing that I had to tear off my goggles thirty minutes in and stand over the sink, blowing out my cheeks and trying to gulp down breaths of air to hold the inside of my abdomen where it was. You can teleport with a laser pointer in-game, but it’s very unreliable and it’s hard to see where you’re aiming when you’re getting surrounded by melee-focused enemies blocking your sightline, so that leaves the walking movement to cover you instead. And the game is all about movement and exploration, so without the comforting frame of a vehicle cockpit or something similar to stop your inner ear from freaking out, the conflicting messages between your legs, eyes, brain and equilibrium all just happen to meet in the pit of your stomach, and something else has to go in order to make room.
This is the current problem with straight-up adaptations of games into VR – the lack of consideration as to whether it’s a good fit for the technology. Superhot VR worked really well because they made whole new levels and mechanics based around the player being rooted to the floor, and as a result you never feel queasy because you don’t have to move. Elite: Dangerous works OK because you’re sitting in one place and the ship’s hull is always something static you can focus on. But Dead Effect 2 needed some serious redesign to solve these issues, and doesn’t seem to have been interested in any of that. And because of all this, players get to experience the fun of what they ate for breakfast twice that day.
The core game itself is a corridor-based first-person shooter with some depressingly token RPG elements thrown in, usually connected to either increasing stats or adding additional powers to supplement your gunplay, like freezing people in place or holding enemies in the air. It isn’t bad, it just feels very tacked-on, like none of it is making much of a difference to your overall power. The best thing you can do with your time is pick up a gun and just open fire on the undead hordes shambling towards you, rather than footling about with time-manipulation doohickeys or insignificant upgrades to your accuracy.
The thing I found really odd was the game’s approach to two-handed weaponry. When assault rifles got introduced I assumed that I’d just be holding one in each hand, a la Wolfenstein: The New Order. Turns out that if you try that, it has all the reliability of a snake in a chicken coop, firing wildly everywhere except where you want to bullets to go. You have to use a second hand to hold the end of the barrel – a more realistic approach to be sure, but there’s two problems with this. One, it’s just less fun than it would be if we got to dual-wield some big guns, and two, the motion tracking on these weapons is absolute turnips. The theory should be that there’s a straight line between your two hands and the bullets are coming out of the end, but regular glitches made it almost as much of a lottery as one-handed firing was.
And the rest of the game just is what it is, a shooter with uninspiring enemies and a growing sense of nausea. There’s a few weapons that mix things up – the bow and arrow comes to mind – but it’s all temporary distractions to a game that isn’t as good as it could be, should be, or even would be if there were no tummy troubles. Yes, I’m not shutting up about those until the Pepto Bismol kicks in.
I never finished Dead Effect 2 VR, because I ran the serious risk of doing the technicolor yawn every fifteen minutes, and when a game is making me legitimately ill, it’s pretty damn lucky if I push past the first hour. Those of you with iron stomachs might find some enjoyment here, but I can think of better VR games even without considering motion sickness. Maybe give it a tentative sniff if you haven’t eaten recently, and have pretty broad standards, AND it’s on sale. Otherwise you might end up with a very wet – and chunky – floor.