Genre: VR, Platformer
Release date: April 5, 2016
This is a special review. Not only is it my first review of a Virtual Reality (VR) game using my Oculus Rift, but it's the 100th review of mine published by JustAdventure. So break out the adult beverage and light up a fine imported cigar and for the one hundredth time, let's look at a game.
Windlands promotes itself as a “grappling hook simulator.” Imagine the grappling hooks that Batman uses; ones that grab things and pull you up to swing from tree-to-tree à la Spiderman/Tarzan. There are some limitations – you can only grab the leafy parts of trees and there is a limited range. If you just hang there the grappling hook will pull you up, but holding down the “B” button will reel it back out. When you release your descent is uncontrolled, so aim carefully.
This game took me awhile to get used to. The first issue was the Xbox One controller. It's a nicely made piece of equipment, but I'd never used one before. My first three gaming machines were the Atari VGS (2600), the Commodore 64 and the Amiga. All three of these used the same four-way digital joystick with single fire button. From there I moved on to the PC with mouse and keyboard. There was no reason to get a console – almost all of the good adventure games were on the PC and the exceptions weren't worth shelling out hundreds of dollars for. There was no need to get a controller when all the adventure/puzzle games were point-and-click.
But there's no question that a controller is the right interface for VR. Between moving, grabbing, manipulating and specials there's just too much to do with a two-button wheel mouse. And you can't see the keyboard while wearing the headset, so all the controls must be in your hands and readily available. But still, it's taking me awhile to get used to those analogue thumb pads and all those buttons. This can really mess up your hand/eye coordination. But we persevered.
The game starts in a large room with columns and boxes, several of which have fallen over. A bug in the game caused my point of view to be right at ground level. At first this was disconcerting, but it turned out not to matter. You don't have your hooks yet, so all you can do is jump around. But boy can you jump. The longer you hold the “A” key down, the higher you jump up to a maximum of what feels like about 25 feet. You have to hop around in this room to get up the stairs and get over fallen stuff.
Once you feel comfortable with the controls, you can move outside. Outside you're greeted by a gigantic robot who notes your appearance and slowly lumbers away. The world is a collection of tall columns and you have to stay on top of them (think Coyote Roadrunner Show). So I lined up the first column, ran straight for it and jumped… and found myself 25 feet in the air in free fall. This wasn't good and it soon became apparent that (1) I had no control over my descent, and (2) I was going to miss and continue to fall into the foggy abyss.
Did it scare me? Well, my pulse rate jumped, I broke out in a sweat (which fogged the headset) and I felt a bit nauseous. Yes, it scared me. I took off the headset and figured out how to quit out of the game. This was no abstract POV fall from 25 feet as seen on the monitor. I freaking fell 25 feet!
Well it's not like people don't do even worse than that at amusement parks, so I knew I could get used to it. Fortunately, the game can also be played in 2D. I took a day to calm down and came back to try again, controller in hand, headset remaining on the desk.
Let me comment here that I got this game through Steam. This means that playing it in 2D is easy – just select the version in your regular library and click play. Playing in 3D however, can be a challenge. Steam uses the Oculus app to run the headset so both Steam and Oculus need to be running. When you select your game from the Steam VR library it gives you three choices for starting the game: Play, Launch OR, and Launch Steam VR. Or some variation of those intents. Depending on what you select you'll likely end up in an empty holodeck or in the Oculus Lounge. It appears that you have to select the right choice while the right thing is running. It usually takes me several attempts before the game actually starts, and I haven't quite figured out the combination. It may not even be consistent, and as the launch wording is different for each game, the launch expectations may also be different. But this is what it means to be a pioneer.
OK, I'm up and running in 2D. My POV is now where I would expect it to be – about five feet or so off the ground. I hop around a bit and head out the door. The giant robot lumbers away and I line up my first jump… and nail it with no problems. A few jumps later and I am herded through a door and into a small room. The door shuts behind me.
I'm now in a tower with no stairs or ceiling. It's like a square chimney. My first thought is to jump side to side into the opposite wall and hopefully gain some altitude each time. It actually seems to work sometimes. I just can't get my timing right and I fall as often as I rise. After about half an hour of this (and actually leaping out a couple of times only to fly out into the abyss), I have to put it down and ask my gamer son to come over and get me through this.
He's busy the night I call, but comes over a couple of days later. Never having seen this game or VR before, he puts the headset on, I fire up the game (after several tries) and he's off and running. After getting a feel for the controls in the intro room he's out the door and leaping from pillar to pillar as if he has been doing it all his life. He gets in the room and jumps on out as it it were nothing. Outside he picks up the grappling hooks and learns how to swing like Spiderman.
One half hour later he takes the headset off. He's gone through a significant portion of the game, but the VR is starting to make him woozy. I guess that's the difference between being raised on Duke Nukem and being raised on Zork.
Anyway, I've seen how it was done. The only landing pad is behind the tower. Exiting to the side sends you over the edge and exiting behind you just puts you back at the door. We hang out together for a while and do father/son bonding stuff and he's back on his way. I go back and put on the headset.
This time I get to the chimney with no problems, vertigo or otherwise. But several tries later I'm still stuck at the bottom of the shaft. Finally, out of frustration, I just mash the joystick forward and start jumping… and pop out the top! Being careful not to let my fingers get anywhere near the “Respawn” button, I get to the closest save point and breath a sigh of relief.
Walking up the stairs, I collect my grappling hooks and start swinging. The VR of swinging from tree to tree isn't nearly as intense as falling and I soon complete the first couple of sets.
And find that I'm completely bored.
First there was the thrill of free fall. Then there was the frustration of the chimney. But I watched my son play for half an hour and know for a fact that for the next hour (for me) there'll be nothing but swinging. No story. No puzzles. Just be sure to swing everywhere and collect gems. Even Super Mario Bros had more gameplay variety.
So where does that leave us? The game is professionally made, but is a Johnny-One-Note. I had a few intense moments, but ultimately the game became shallow and the VR added nothing to the experience. The gameplay is hand/eye coordination-centric, while I'm not. If this style of gameplay sounds like fun to you, then go for it. What it does, it does very well. What I got from it was good experience. Even though it's not my style of game, by playing in 2D and well as 3D it went a long way towards getting me used to VR. When I started up my next game, which was more of a classic adventure, there was practically no vertigo or motion sickness.
+ Simple, easy to learn.
+ Fairly safe – the only danger is falling and you can instantly respawn at any time.
+ Good trainer to get used to Virtual Reality motion.
- That's all there is. No story. No puzzles. Just explore and find gems.