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Review: Half-Life: Alyx



Given the deserved rapturous reception that Alyx received, I'm going to start my review with the negatives


Negatives:

So, the game is great, and these are going to be nitpicks. But they're worth raising:
  • Characters don't turn to face you:

    This shocked me for some reason. A few of the NPC moments in tight locations, where there's no room to manoeuvre and change the angle, were outright wonderful. But the fact that protagonists wouldn't react to your position in wider spaces was a surprising missed beat & immersion-breaker.
  • At points it just settles into being a rote shooter:

    The innovative twisting and layering of game mechanics didn't happen with quite the same cadence of the HL2 series. Half of the innovation is purely the conversion of old tropes to VR itself. Satisfying as they are, this leads to a few levels dipping down towards being glorified wave shooters. And at times during that process, as you wait out the '3 second suppressing fire' pattern that you now know intimately, those game mechanics did feel like they'd dipped below marvellous.
  • An innovation for classic gaming, not for VR gaming:

    For VR vets, with a few years under their belt, there's a laundry list of things that Alyx could have added, but didn't. And it's obvious why they didn't. This is the ultimate glossy 'killer app' attempt, an onboarding for VR that doesn't want to push up to the hard edge of what's possible, in case it triggers nausea in some adopters. Aspects like the 'transition over ledge' & 'teleport to top of ladder if you miss a rung' mechanics, although slickly done, are obvious stabilisers on an otherwise free-wheeling experience. And lord it would have been so great to have stuff like:

    • Verticality: The ability to clamber up parts of the locations, dangle perilously, peer through discovered gaps to scout danger, get surprised and fire one-handed while doing it. All of that would have brought the spaces further alive, added to the 'action puzzle' aspect, and given it an extra kinetic kick.

    • Melee: I can see why it might have been a horror step too far. The ability to grab headcrabs out of the air shows how much this stuff can add though. Being able to baseball bat them would have been even greater


Positives:

  • Attention to detail:
    The quality touches are everywhere. Feeding a ceiling limpet a picture and being showered by a jumble of broken frame and other pieces. Walking under a limpet and having it snatch the hat off your head. Playing a piano, or wheeling a bike around just because you fancy it. The physics system, interactions, and general art quality control are lush and pretty replete.
  • Excellent visuals:
    Thanks to their use of adaptive pixel density this is the most absurdly good-looking game I've played to date. Genuine 'I am absolutely in this grounded alien-invaded wonderland' absorption at points. At its best, this raised the stakes to epic levels.
  • Just the right amount of horror:
    I'm not the biggest gore or horror fiend, but they did a great job of reaching into the bag of horror tricks at the right moment and scaling the challenges. There is a moment, where you have to collect your torch, but you really, really, really don't want to, which is a great example of this. And the way the headcrabs go from being genuine terrors, to basically puppy dogs compared to the other horrors, speaks to it too.
  • A HL:A wave shooter level can still be good:
    It was still good to escape a claustrophobic section and get back into open areas to duke it out with the Combine. The heavies are, unfortunately, as dumb as rocks, and embarrassingly easy to kite. But it's still possible to get mobbed, cornered, and into trouble as events progress. Hunkering down behind obstacles, blind-firing around corners, picking shots between gaps, weathering suppressing fire, scurrying to new locations. All of this works well ultimately, and the weapon upgrades, although slim, are all fun to deploy. The fact that one particular enemy needs to be tracked down amongst the melee gives you a reason to keep on the move that just about keeps the right tactical tension.
  • Jeff!:
    He deserves his own mention. And yet I can't say much for fear of spoilers. It felt like the most HL2-ish of the stages at that point, in the sense that it flipped some established behaviours around. There was only one real new game mechanic introduced, and it's pretty minor, but it was more about some existing mechanics being brought to the fore. I've seen almost every element done in other VR games, but have never felt quite so reliant on the ability to move objects with fine-grained levels of force...
  • Those final levels:
    They just took the lid off with the last few levels, culminating into a great final passage. Almost art-house notes in there, narrowing down into an absurd wish-fulfillment scenario with a great novel mechanism and setting. All tumbling cinematically towards the final conclusion, which if it perhaps stretched credulity a touch, still felt ultimately believable and fitting for the game. Worth staying past the credits...


(+)
__________________
Virtual Reality chatter on a movie site? Got endless amounts of it here. Reviews over here



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Review: NeverBound



This is basically abandonware, but worth a sale buy just to experience the fun central mechanic.

You can change your gravity orientation by teleporting to nodes on walls, or walking up curved intersections. Surprisingly light on nausea!

Throw in some environmental puzzle gating, slow-time, and some grenades with their own definable gravity orientation, and you've got a whole lot of potential here. Much of which is explored in the two large levels available.

It only really starts getting Escher-esque with the gunplay and orientation in the latter level, but when it hits the right notes on those fronts it's pretty damn great.

There are some indie/EA style bugs still present (guards stretched like rubber through a closed door at one point, and I hit performance drops with the sniper rifle & one room featuring a display screen). Other than that it's pretty robust and has a decent spread of weapons, enemies and challenges.

+(+)



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Aww well damn, now I have to play this too. Some guy's Unity build from back in 2016...



So many freebie Star Wars experiments



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First Look: Detached



This has been intriguing so far. Infamous in the early VR scene for being a bit of a nausea-fest, I can see why. They break a lot of rules with their control scheme (fast yaw rotation etc).

With my VR-legs under me though, I'm enjoying it. I'm not sure if it's going to progress beyond the 'fix this installation' / 'follow the mission marker' style stuff, but given it's a mixture of fun / challenging to zero-G around the locations and through empty space, and given they've added a new game mechanic for each mission so far, I'm cool with it.

Essentially this almost feels like a 'vehicle' game, more than a 'space walk' game. You can't look around too much within your tank-like suit, you boost about, swivel and turn against inertia (when charging around against the clock in space). You can't palm off surfaces, you just brake and reorientate etc.

The narrowed peripheral view all feels a bit claustrophobic when trying to path through the interiors, and the nausea-blinkers they throw in give a torch-like focus to your view, which plays into that too. The locational puzzles haven't been too tough to date (which is fortunate, as otherwise I think I'd just be spinning around lost in a giant air duct or something )



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Review: The Curious Tale of the Stolen Pets



Not a huge amount of content here for the asking price, and being aimed at younger players the puzzles are relatively easy too, more about searching around / prodding everything. (Itís still possible to get stuck at the odd obtuse solution, having breezed through the prior though).

Itís still pretty cute for all that, both visually and conceptually. And it made me giggle with at least one set piece in each of the later levels.



Suffers a touch from the VR potential slope, in that once you can clear snow with a hand drier, or rustle leaves from a tree, you half expect to be able to physics-interact with everything. (I can see they didnít have the budget to embrace this though, or to disentangle any novel and trollish interactions from the actual solutions). Anything not related to the solution tends to bounce playfully or just fall off the map when prodded.

The narrative of revisiting some grandchildrenís old play haunts is a bit of a missed beat, focusing on squabbles but deployed via a cloying / hammy voiceover from the grandparent. Does have a minor payoff by the end though.

All told, alongside the Wintergatan music, a pretty genteel way to spend an evening though

(-)



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First Look: Runes: The Forgotten Path



Loving this free oddity. Not sure why theyíre giving it away. Hopefully itís to generate interest for a future project, because thereís some great stuff in here.

So far the highlight has been the 'escape the magicianís den' centre-piece at the heart of the story, which you keep returning too. A really cool little apothecaryís abode packed with physics interactions and fun little puzzles.

Surrounding that is the odd tortured-wizard-trapped-in-limbo-with-amnesia narrative, with hand-cast spells and a mixture of twitch combat & puzzle combat.

Its budget shows in many places, but there are some lovely touches too. A cool surprise



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Review: Runes: The Forgotten Path



A surprisingly impressive little adventure this, given its indie roots.

As a magician trapped in some unidentified limbo you naturally have spells to hand to help you. The slow-motion 'clock face' hand-casting here is robust and fluid, the throwing is satisfyingly accurate, and the bonus puzzle deployments are welcome crossover. But it's not actually the central attraction.

For me that was the 'memory room' hub that sits at the centre of the story. A great little 'escape the room' puzzle den, packed with pipes to smoke, secret compartments to uncover, and runes to decipher. The puzzles are straight-forward, but I loved the old apothecary vibe alongside the mysticism narrative.



The surprisingly robust physics system meant drawers fit snuggly into their housing without too much of a fight, levers flipped where you expected, and ladders slid around satisfyingly. Object selection for telekinesis was slightly eccentric (which could be a bit hair-raising in the firefights), but that's not super unusual.

NPCs are on the odd end (the use of story masks to save on animation is a neat trick, but does depersonalise them a touch throughout the story arc). They seem to have used VR acted hands & heads (although credits claim mocap) which is another budget note ultimately, and sometimes feels overdone to make up for the deadpan faces.

The plot, while very much a flow of familiar tropes about memory, moral dichotomies, and reckless wizards (delivered via some slightly over-earnest voice acting), was still fun and pleasingly eerie at times.



When you aren't deploying newly discovered spells to unlock a puzzle, you're out in the wilds dodging mystical plasma or trapping deadly perils in spheres of ice. It's not all wave shooter by any means (although the final scene did essentially become that, if with enough welcome little tactical options that I had fun completing it). The balance between poking bronze mechanisms and flinging your latest set of flames felt right to me.

Get past the hokey story aspects and the rougher indie edges and this is a genuinely a well-rounded affair, and which almost adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

It only clocked in at three hours, but it was a fun trip. And bizarrely... free! (I do hope they've zapped the price to raise awareness for an upcoming launch, because if so, I'd like to play it )



++(+) [FREE]



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Review: VR Furballs - Demolition



This Angry Birds, erm, 'homage' worked pretty well in the end. It's a deranged riot of upgrade noises and novelty silliness in many ways, and they've just thrown everything they can think of at it, but some of it sticks

Good Things:
  • The projectile qualities add some decent variety to the shot types you're going for, and give a feeling of strategic choice when probing ways to solve a new level. Each coloured furry interacts with key materials in different ways:
    • A heavy grey one will smash through stone, but you have to account for the extra drop in flight that his weight brings.
    • A green one will bypass indestructible green materials, but are too light to cause much downstream carnage.
    • The bombs wrack up the physics carnage, but are the most unwieldy to fire of all.
    • Etc
  • Hand-held tools just work for this. I pretty much stuck with the classic slingshot (the grab-bag of tennis racquets and golf clubs were more for novelty value, and inter-stage mini-games).
  • Some of the 'scenarios' are pretty playful.
    • Concrete planes with explosives packed in their engines, if you can burrow to them, and various furries in the act of parachuting out via balloons.
    • Theme parks with slides made from each of the materials, and furries teleporting down them in an endless loop.
    • Cream-cake castles stuffed with magnets and trampoline traps, who's vagaries you can only unlock through judicious smashing




Shonky Things:


They've obviously tried to design a lot of the levels with specific solutions in mind. (Use the third furry, the wood smashing one, to bring the concrete level down on the furries you freed from the paddling pool... etc). But half the time the physics expression is so variable, or the actual game mechanics so indie-shonky, that neither the game designer's plan, nor your own personal one, proceed as intended.

Some rounds I'd breeze through a fiendish set up at the first attempt, purely due to some random cascade of destruction. And then I'd get stuck on another for 20 goes, in part because of reliance on a cascade going your way. Bonus glitchiness didn't help either. (Having a key teleporter lose its anchor and teleport your furries half way off the map instead was, not helpful...)

Aspects like the 'hit a button to cycle all of the materials around' felt like nice ideas, but their execution again felt fairly random rather than strategic in practice.

---

Overall though, I enjoyed the 'one more go' carnage, for all its elastic indie formlessness at points.

I'll give them some bonus points for the manic mini-games too. And the fact that you can design your own levels by hand.



(+)



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Review: Silicon Rising



Pros:

- Surprisingly good cyberpunk settings and robot stylings to the enemies
- Dodging slow-motion projectiles in real-time has a Matrix-esque vibe
- Satisfying weapon handling and variety (with basic hand reload)

Middling:

- The attempts to mix up the levels with sniping and driving are fun attempts but fell short
- The story bookends to the action are so stilted they're hilarious.
- I wish I could throw back grenades, instead of just getting harried between locations by them.

Cons:

- I spent a lot of time cheesing from behind cover. I'm not sure if this was intended.
- Most salvos of slow projectiles could be defeated by a simple strafe.



There was a moment when a giant missile twirled through a gap between some cars, spinning serenely passed me, that I had to reflect on where the hell I was and what the hell I was doing. Then I went back to spamming shots at robot heads amongst the neon reflections of a cyberpunk parking lot.

This is essentially a 'dodge the bullet' roomscale wave shooter that had character motion added at the 11th hour. And it's fun, if occasionally absurdly spammy.

They do attempt to mix things up, but I'm not sure getting a gun torch made getting penned into an elevator for the third time that much more varied.

At its best it had you out in the open, where the added mobility seemed to raise the game. As the heavy clanks of some giant robot sound behind you and you strafe desperately between pillar and post trying to find a safe niche for a moment, laying as many headshots as you can as you try to thin the ever burgeoning crowd. (Surviving some of these 'Oh my god' moments was pretty cool, as you snag a last ditch kill, shoot the resulting icon for a weapon upgrade, and rocket blast yourself a bit of breathing space).

The HMD-orientated locomotion did cause me to run into walls in a panic at points though. (Much prefer being able to run in one direction and look another). And as a minor left-handed quibble, it was also tricky to run and reload, as the reload button remained on the left controller, right next to the stick you're using to move.

I did like the variety of the sniper level in principle, even if the scope was a bit tiny and squinty, and the prompt dialogue repeated clunkily. And the driving level was a cute touch, if often turning into a blind-firing exercise as you can't really drive and dodge. It felt like the ability to accelerate and decelerate with the triggers, rather than just strafe, would have elevated it.

All round it's surprisingly shiny for a short indie offering though, and is kinetic fun when it gets beyond some of its spammy wave principles. Go for it on sale.



-(-)



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Some fun looking indie demos on Steam as part of the 'Steam Game Festival'

https://store.steampowered.com/sale/gamefestival?tab=12

Personally I shall be trying out the pseudo Rocket League that I know is gonna be pants



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First Look: Mini Motor Racing X Demo

Yeah, this is silly



Liking the interior view with hand-held steering here. Fun in quick, arcade-y, knockabout way. The weapons seem a bit daft (see the spanner bouncing in an impossible barrier in one of the races). Shame the pseudo Rocket League mode wasn't available in the demo, even if it does lack aerial boosts anyway.



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Review: SACRALITH: The Archer's Tale

Another bizarre, glossy, unfinished indie spin on the wave shooter genre. But it works

This one opens with your NPC companions singing you the plot, and keeps up these strange beats throughout...



From there they tutor you in the art of keeping them alive, as they fight their way around some very pretty fantasy-medieval settings.

Essentially they are tanks, and you have to keep them alive by winnowing down the hoards of soldiers and fantasy creatures that attack them, teleporting to new vantage points as they progress.

The challenge comes in shooting around armour, laying headshots under pressure, and not hitting your companions... (because friendly fire is very much on )

And it's... fun! Absurdly spammy at points, as wave-shooters tend to be, and with all the arm ache that entails when holding a virtual bow. But I totally got my Legolas on playing this.



There are excessive moments, where you're dog-piled by 20 heavily armed Roman soldiers (for no apparent reason), and have to use the 'Zeus' arrow, or some other splash damage magical unlock, to peg back the carnage. Or you suddenly find yourself with just one enemy, a fully armoured troll, who's been rendered invisible apart from his eyes due to a waterfall... along with your companions, who you can't see at all...

At the height of the carnage you're desperately trying to get the 4 consecutive hits that will nab you a bonus boon like time slowing. This is the core loop that escalates well as things get more difficult.

The restart points are reasonable throughout though, meaning no stage is unscalable, even if it takes a few goes, and a few attempts to figure out the best positions and strategies.

By the end it just goes totally nuts. There are elephants, there are dragons. There's a story that makes close to zero sense. And it's clearly shorter than it was meant to be. (The map is only half used, and you can unlock a quarter of the magic arrow tree at best).

But it was well worth a sale buy for 2 hours of carnage, and it's one of the few games where I'll probably replay it on the harder level, as aside from the unlocks, it's you getting your eye in and picking the right shots that's key to progressing.

(+)



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Ok so I did good with my 'big money' buys in the Steam sale

First Look: The Under Presents



What to say. Eclectic mix of a shared puzzle space (with Journey style online), and a 'rewind time' / 'hear all the conversations' mystery in a bottle similar to the Invisible Hours at the heart of it.

Think I enjoyed the shared puzzle solving (and mutual confusing) the most, with its magical masks. The mystery is pretty slickly done too though. (I just wasn't totally sold on how they used their finger-clicking mechanic to force you to zone in on the mystery-world conversations. It was effective, but slightly annoying in practice).

Ironically the 'distend the world' teleportation technique was borderline nauseous, but it was trippy too, so I stuck with it. Damn difficult to get around tight corners with though...

On balance, I enjoyed Virtual Virtual Reality by the same guys, and this is a fresh twist with similar experimental beats.

And as others have said, best to go in knowing as little as possible. That said, one of their mysteries won't be supported for much longer, so here's a SPOILER

**SPOILER**





WARNING: spoilers below
There are live actors in certain shared shards, nudging you towards certain realisations about the game mechanics


First Look: Windlands 2



Enjoying this more than the first one. Partially because I've got my VR legs these days, and could spend the time getting the 'swoosh around things' (rather than swoosh into things) going, and get my momentum up. And partially because there's a bit more shape and direction to it. But mainly because of the boss battles. (The fact that you could die but keep your hits felt a bit odd, but also welcome, given you're trying to score aerial bow hits )

If nothing else, even the basic act of low-gravity jumping to a new spot feels grand in VR. Still not totally sold on the 'find 10 things' areas, but when I actually chained some decent paths around the green grabby-bits, or figured out a way to path to a tricky area, it all felt pretty ace. Nailing an air shot in the boss battles, having done a momentum-switch spin, is the best bit though



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Review: Quanero 2 - System Release



This is a very neat freebie. It features 4 scenes which you can rewind, replay, and move amongst, tagging possible clues in an emerging future crime as you go.

Much prettier than the previous one, with a more obvious narrative backdrop (itís an unfinished larger project ultimately). The dialogue, voice overs, animations, and nefarious plot are all a major step up, if still punching above their budget roots rather than totally hitting top quality. Very cool to ghost around these living scuzzy and shiny scenarios though.

I liked the detective system and the summaries back at your base, but it did feel like some of the time windows for the incident tags were a bit off, or eccentric at points, leading to some "this is really suspicious, let me tag it!" moments as you wrestled with the system. (Not sure if Iíll 100% it on those grounds). Very cool to move amongst and play around with though.

Can only really recommend it as an experience ultimately, due to the unfinished nature of it, but it's a pretty damn fine one for a free student project!



++



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First Look: Djinni & Thaco



Enjoyed this tower defence demo, with its daft medieval sports commentary, and 4 gestural spells to ward off the oncoming knights and elves.

The sandstorm slow-spell seems like the most tactical of the earlier ones. (Even though all of them seem to have pretty weak-sauce impacts compared to the towers. But they do allow you to chip away at tanky types, and shield-bearing dwarf mages and such).

Breezed through the 2 free levels, but it was on normal difficulty. And I was still figuring out how to make fire come out of my finger...

Pretty slickly presented on the whole. If a bit too in love with its own comedy narrative. But hey you can skip it



Review: Extreme Escape



Very short, but nicely done, 'escape the descending weather balloon' scenario. I really don't know what to say about it. It was £5. I got 45 minutes of minor puzzling and minor peril out of it.

I enjoyed the vertigo of clambering outside the balloon to identify issues for sure. But ultimately, I spent the first 5 minutes not getting the teleport to work, and just mooching around looking at tools, and still survived. There's not really much challenge to it, or much replay value. But yeah... the setting and the dangling around outside. That was all cool. The experience being this short just means 25% of it was spent placing tools in and out of holsters. Robs it of a fair bit of impact...

--



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Good News: Rockstar AAA VR Open World in the works

By the Aus LA Noire team:

Dev Behind L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files Is Making A AAA VR Game For Rockstar

Interestingly, the Senior Animator role does note the applicant: ďwill be working with characters, vehicles, weapons and general props.Ē
Linkedin announcement

Having finished the critically well received L.A.Noire: The V.R. Case Files we are now gearing up for a new project, a AAA open world title in VR for Rockstar. 2020 marks our 7th year of working exclusively for Rockstar in Sydney and we are excited to taking on this ground breaking project.



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LA Noire VR: Mini-games



Rockstar added some mini-games a while back. Some shooting range challenges, 3 simple race tracks, and these 10 boxing rounds with story characters.

The boxing is particularly surreal, with story dialogue seemingly recycled to form their smack talk, and gurning thrown in too. Although the fighting is still pretty basic they do seem to come with different styles. Some favour a particular punch, like wild haymakers which are easy to block. Others mix it up with sneaky alternating jabs etc. (Not sure how I let the giant solider catch me so many times with those, but I was trying to pat his face consolingly a lot...)

The shooting galleries and driving are also worth a shot.

The driving itself is pretty easy once you figure out how not to oversteer, and getting ahead of the pack means they can't barge you.

The shooting galleries are mainly 'shoot the villain not the captive' training scenarios, which are neat but very do-able. The fairground shooting range is a fair bit trickier though.



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@Austruck

The Under Presents is currently free on Oculus Store!

https://www.oculus.com/experiences/r...9995092457108/

I'd recommend it. Very cool mix of puzzler and bizarre theatre


---

EDIT: Hmm, it might actually just be free for the first half hour? Bit confusing.

And it seems they're doing performances of The Tempest too. But that's $14