Previewing games during a pandemic has been a surreal pursuit. It’s a strange approximation of normal as journalists jump onto Discord, go through virtual meeting rooms and check out titles through some online method. It’s not ideal but it works for the console and PC titles I’ve been playing.
On the other hand, virtual reality demos are another story. They actually work better than I expected. Donning a headset, I got a sense of presence as if I were at an event with a handful of people. That’s how I felt playing “Population: One,” a battle royale game built for Oculus Quest platforms and PC VR.
Members of the BigBox VR teams greeted me in-game and showed me the ropes. Similar to “Fortnite,” I could scavenge for guns, health items, armor and resources. I could build make-shift structures to shield myself, but “Population: One” has more going for it than that.
The most obvious feature is the Vertical Combat System. It’s what makes this battle royale title unique. Players can climb wherever they want and just as easily glide toward safety. Those simple moves can be woven together and comboed so players can scale three-story building, glide down and crash through a house window 20 feet away like an action hero.
“We want to make it effortless,” said Gabe Brown, chief technology officer of BigBox VR, about the traversal. “We want to see what you would do if you’re were in ‘Ready Player One’ or ‘The Matrix” and bring that fantasy to life.”
MAKING VR COMFORTABLESurprisingly, “Population: One” does this while making the experience comfortable. BigBox VR does this by giving players the option to narrow the peripheral vision while moving and employing smart map design that makes the world fun to explore. The enhanced methods of travel improve the immersion and the tactical nature of the gameplay, and it also makes one a little more jumpy.
I felt as though enemies could come from any direction. Although you’re looking straight ahead while taking cover behind a wall, you could miss a foe soaring above in order to get the drop on you. Players have to understand human nature and realize that many people don’t naturally look up.
That means in “Population: One” taking the high ground is essential. That can mean climbing a skyscraper under construction so that players can have better sight lines and angles to attack. It can also mean setting up a platform atop a tree so that shooters can ambush players below.
Before going to run, glide and gun, players have to understand a few rules first. Players can climb walls and even hang off ceilings, but if they’re shooting with a handgun, they won’t be able to move. You need to free hands to quickly scale walls or even monkey bar across the ceiling. The same goes for gliding. Players have to hold their arms out in a T pose if they want to swoop down. Technically, they can glide and shoot but it’s a more difficult maneuver and it takes practice.
STARTING A MATCHIn the three matches I played, I was part of a three-person team that squared off against five other squads. The 18-player contest started off on a platform. We jumped into a pod and that took us to a random place on the map. (If you’re team is confident, they can also float off the platform.) From there, it’s all about scavenging for weapons, shield batteries, backpack upgrades, ammo and food. Bananas heal players while a soda gradually restores health.
The weapons come in four different tiers with the gold ones being the best because they can hold the most ammo before having to reload. That’s important because adding a new clip to a weapon requires a series of gestures. Despite the over-the-top traversal, the combat in “Population: One” is grounded and granular. Players have to toss in a clip and pull back the slide on a handgun before firing. The same goes when eating food for health. Players have to peel the banana before shoving it in their mouth or pop up a can before pounding it down.
Obviously, players will die in a match, but that doesn’t mean the contest is over. A team is still in the game as long as one person is alive. The dead teammates can follow the survivor almost like ghosts as they meander the map and look for a safe spot. When that happens, the survivor can take out the defibrillator, rub them together and shock a person back to life.
That happened to me a few times. I died from an ambush and I followed my partner until he was in a safe zone for a revive. Unfortunately, when players die, they lose everything and they have to start from zero. They have to again scavenge for guns or get one from a teammate.
The vertical nature of the maps also creates some interesting scenarios as it shrinks. In the one matchup, where my team was victorious, the teammate who carried us was sitting on top of a building and the map narrowed until the safe zone was the size of a phone booth. He stayed on the roof while the opponents rushed in and tried to climb the wall after him. They exchanged gunfire at awkward angles until our opponent died.
It pays to have the high ground. I feel that there’s more room for interesting scenarios like that thanks to the vertical design.
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AN AMAZING SPECTATOR MODEIn the other two matches, our team didn’t make it to the end, but that was all right. When players die, they’re treated to a fantastic spectator mode. They get a bird’s eye view to the action, and in virtual reality, the contest looks like a GI Joe action figure battle that came to life. The competitors look like toys shooting at each other. There’s a bit of dollhouse feel as the spectators shout and discuss the tactics of the surviving players.
Normally when I die during battle royale matches, I just exit out and jump back into a match, but the spectator mode in “Population: One” is fascinating. It’s a way to pick up tips while also being entertained.
“That’s one of the key things,” said Chia Chin Lee, BigBox VR CEO. “The game is as much fun to play as it is to watch. You can study players. We want our game to become an e-sport.”
With that in mind, “Population: One” is set to be a live service product along the lines of “Fortnite.” The big difference though is that because it’s in VR, there’s a better sense of presence and it brings up unique moments of interaction. Some of the more enjoyable instances will come before the match when players are milling about, testing out weapons and exploring the map.
The game lets players feel like they’re hanging out with 17 other players. It’s human contact but done in the safety of a virtual space, and with the coronavirus, that makes “Population: One” an intriguing playground. It’s the first online VR experience that has me hooked on the social element, and the option to customize characters and guns with skins will likely make it worth returning to.
Players will have a chance to experience that when the game is released Oct. 22 on Oculus Quest and Rift platforms, HTC Vive, Windows MR and Valve Index. Crossplay will also be available. It will sell for $29.99.