In the overcrowded genre of VR shooters, with quite a few of the zombie variety already out in the wild, Vertigo Games have a take on zombie slaughter that makes enough tweaks to the formula to ensure that Arizona Sunshine stands head and shoulders above the competition.
Arizona Sunshine Details:
Developer: Vertigo Games & Jaywalkers Interactive
Publisher: Vertigo Games
Available On: Oculus Rift, HTC Vive (Oculus Home & Steam)
Reviewed on: Oculus Rift with Oculus Touch
Release Date: December 5th, 2016
Although it offers an expanded scope compared to the competition, Arizona Sunshine is still very much a wave based shooter. The twist? Rather than warping between areas you walk between them. That shouldn’t suggest a casual stroll, because this is anything but relaxing. You get some down time, allowing brief opportunities to stop and smell the virtual roses, but you will also have to clear out zombies along the way. This is more like training, or a buildup before the next big encounter. The rhythms of the game – two player campaign co-op and all – are reminiscent of a slower paced Left 4 Dead. These walks also ease you into the game world as it offers up some scavenging opportunities for rifling through abandoned cars and houses looking for guns, ammo, and health-replenishing food. Taking a walk through the world lets it sink its hooks into you. It’s not an highlight reel, it’s a place. This being VR it feels very solid, very real.
On the armament front you start with a fairly standard pistol. You’ll need to manually aim down the sights, squeezing one eye shut, to get any accuracy at range. This feels as difficult as shooting a gun in real life would be – although being a Brit I can only use my imagination, as the sight of a gun in real life would probably cause me to faint – so there is some considerable skill required before you can start acting like a starring cast member from The Walking Dead. Over the course of twenty minutes or so you’ll notice that your stance gets better, your aiming skills increase, and you can feel yourself becoming the badass the game desperately wants you to be. Then you’ll find a better gun, perhaps one with a torch or a red dot laser sight, and you’ll breathe a sigh of relief that things just got a little easier. At least until the next encounter when your more powerful arsenal will be put to the test. It’s a nice escalation and feels like earning the upgrade rather than bumbling into it, because the major encounters can be very challenging to progress past, and even on the middle difficulty it’s no cakewalk. It’s made harder still when you’re fighting the occasionally clumsy and pernickety teleportation movement system or the Rift’s lack of full room scale with the standard two sensors – but more on that later.
A satisfying assortment of pistols, shotguns, machine pistols, uzis, sniper rifles, and grenades await. I’ve heard tell of a rocket launcher, although by the end I’d only discovered 18 of the 24 weapons and that wasn’t among them. In truth, within each class of weapon there isn’t much to choose between them. Any pistol kills with one headshot or four body shots. Any shotgun is (un)death incarnate at close range. Any submachine gun is great for spray-and-pray moments when you get mobbed. It’s really more down to whether your tastes run to a sleek Bond-esque pistol or a hulking great Dirty Harry-esque Magnum. It’s nice that the choice is one of style rather than a MIN/MAX rush to obtain the most viable weapon.
One thing that may prove divisive is the reload mechanism. When a clip runs dry, you need to tap one of the face buttons to eject it before pulling your controller to your belt to get a fresh one. It’s another small change, but it has a remarkably big impact. Non-VR games have us trained to expect a reload button to reload – end of story. Other VR experiences have trained us that pulling the gun to our belt or chest, or a simple gesture, will reload. Having to both press a button and then make a gesture caused a really surprising brain freeze in me. I resented it for the longest time, until I realised that it was heightening the fear and panic in the larger battles. You can’t help but respect a feature that takes you out of your comfort zone, but I suspect a lot of people will take issue with it. I do remember laughing at myself when in the pitch black, torch held at shoulder height with my left hand and pistol in my right, I emptied my clip in a panic and just didn’t know what to do to reload. It was a disconnect like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time – I wanted to use my other hand rather than a button to swap the clip, and ended up making an hilarious hash of it while zombies ate my face.
Many VR games, usually for budgetary reasons, omit a story entirely. Some have modest, predictable, tales told through written logs, audio logs or bursts of radio chatter. Arizona Sunshine tweaks this with a story told via observational quips from the character you play as you make your way through the game world. It’s human, it’s believable, it’s sometimes funny and – best of all – it sometimes says exactly what you were thinking. The wry observations come with a regular cadence, keeping your interest levels ticking over when the pretty but mundane and repetitive environment threatens to bore. There are moments of gallows humour, others where the slightly manic delivery reveals a mind in turmoil, grounding the experience in a believable way. That’s not to say the game has any pretence at real drama, it’s all firmly tongue in cheek but with just enough humanity in its delivery to hit the mark, whether wryly suggesting a decaying corpse needs to take a shower or just shouting in exaltation after mowing down a horde of rushing zombies with a minigun.
The game will take you on a 24 hour journey in the life of the protagonist in his search for other survivors of the zombie apocalypse. Starting in a cave you will venture into the stark Arizona sunshine and make your way through ravines, over bridges, through towns, various complexes and underground. The game has an impressive array of grand vistas. Ravines with sparkling rivers carving their way through vast rocky edifices, sheer cliff faces, and stark expanses. The varied times of day and the excellent lighting do a lot to offset the reused assets and rather lacklustre settlements plonked in the otherwise very grand scenery. When the credits roll at somewhere North of three hours (way more on higher difficulties) you will really feel like you’ve undertaken a journey. It is to the game’s credit that it kept me away from many of the other games that landed with the Touch launch, and is probably the first VR game whose single player component I’ve felt compelled to complete in one sitting. It’s also slightly damning that I could, of course, but it’s a sad truth of the VR marketplace right now that this is one of the longer experiences out there.
When you’re done with the story there is a horde mode that can be played with 1-4 players. It has a somewhat anachronistic option to key in an IP address (good luck memorising that before going into VR) which suggests that Vive and Rift players could theoretically play together but I haven’t tried – if it works this could do wonders for sustaining a viable player base. It seems like a fun mode, placing the group in a fixed position with stacks of ammo and tasking them with defending it from all sides while a large scoreboard totals up people’s kills and their accuracy. I’ve only been able to play it solo, sadly, due to the usual wasteland that seems to be most VR multiplayer modes. Even so, it’s good fun and it’s hard to resist glancing at the board in the middle of a battle to check your score when you really should be concentrating on those headshots. If you can get a couple of friends together, there’s fun to be had here.
On the control front the teleportation system for getting around works smoothly about 80% of the time, but is a pain for the remaining 20%. On the Touch controllers you press forward on the stick to bring up the targeting region which you aim by pointing the controller, and you can then rotate the stick left or right to orient where you want ‘forwards’ to be when you release the stick. A stamina meter stops you from gaming the system and unfairly escaping the grasping hands of the zombie horde. The control gesture is natural, and the system great in theory, but the process is fraught with the inconsistencies. In a panic, which happens frequently at first as hordes of zombies gallop towards you, it is difficult to get where you want to be. This isn’t helped by combat arenas effectively going into lockdown during these surges. Staircases you could climb moments ago are now artificially inaccessible, as are arbitrary parts of the map. This is maddening, and responsible for many reloads until I understood where I was and wasn’t allowed to go. Trying to navigate yourself close to desks and cabinets likewise can be like pulling teeth, in fact anything in close quarters is likely to trip it up. Pulling back on the controller turns you 180 degrees, but the natural expectation is to be able to back away from the onrushing horde – a style of play that’s simply not possible here. Left and right rotate you in steps, which is useful for realigning if you find yourself falling foul of the Guardian system.
On that subject, you’ll want to go into the Guardian settings and disable the Wall. Unlike the Vive Chaperone, when a controller intersects the Guardian Wall a solid circle appears and grows the further outside of the region you push your hand. In frantic moments of zombie slaughter, especially if your play space is close to the minimum, it’s easy to get a little turned around and have a Touch controller leave the play area, and this circle makes aiming a shot impossible as you can’t see through it. In the end I felt the only workable way to play the game was to embrace the Oculus ‘face front’ method. Every instinct wants you to turn, even if just to pick off that one errant zombie coming at you from behind, but you need to keep those feet planted and use the teleportation controls. I can’t help but feel that Vive owners are going to have the better experience here.
There has been a clear call from the VR gaming community to offer direct control options for getting around. Games like The Solus Project set the benchmark here, with almost every mode of locomotion supported. It’s a brave game that launches without said options, and while there are rumblings from the developers in this area, there’s nothing concrete at this point and no guarantees. If the teleportation were implemented perfectly it would be less of an issue, but as a result of the controls I had to drop the difficulty from Normal to Easy about halfway through otherwise I was tempted to walk away in frustration. Now that I know some of the internal logic of the game, I suspect it will be less frustrating on a future run through.
Those issues aside, Arizona Sunshine is a welcome departure from more static VR shooter experiences, and exudes a special atmosphere all of its own. It is guilty of wearing its modest budget on its sleeve – and launching when it could probably have used another pass or two to tighten up the controls, fix some niggling bugs, and inject a bit more variety into the world – but this is a definite step up in quality from the norm. It’s a fun, memorable, but still brief journey with satisfying gunplay. You’ll revisit the single player, if only to hear the protagonist quip some more.
The world feels very solid and real. The lighting is gorgeous at times, and the landscaping is spectacular. Offset against that are the houses and their interiors which reuse too many assets, and are fairly barren, which does take you out of the experience somewhat.
Something else that takes you out of the experience is the large numbers of twins you’ll meet. I’m not entirely sure whether the zombies are taken from a fixed set of assets, or if they’re remixed on the fly from modular components, but there’s nothing more likely to remind you you’re playing a game when you’re faced with two identical zombies at close quarters. The animation of the enemies also occasionally frustrates, with sudden snaps between directions or different animations robbing you of a perfectly aligned headshot.
Opening doors is unintentionally hilarious, as you’ll grip an handle and thrust your controller forward to be rewarded with a door that swings about three inches. This would be more comical were it not for the fact that zombies clip through doors and walls and can damage you before you can even get a bead on them to take a retaliatory shot. The game also eschews the usual gaming convention of doors swinging both ways – often you will pull a door open and, due to your alignment, pull it through your body. See also drawers, cabinets and fridges – as mentioned all of the townspeople must have shopped in the same store, so get used to seeing the same furniture over and over.
The cabinet and desk drawers deserve special mention, because they frequently feature multiple drawers and the one closest to the ground is always non-interactive. It doesn’t take long to realise why, when the default setup guidelines from Oculus for the sensors will leave you with a tracking volume that starts somewhere between the shins and the knees and any attempts to go lower will often cause tracking to fail.
It also annoys when some objects can be interacted with in one room, but the same objects in the next cannot. It’s a small issue, a niggle, but it does grate after a while especially on the harder difficulties where searching for valuable ammo is a key part of the experience.
The excellent character commentary often loses context. He will panic at imagined onrushing zombies that are actually behind the next door, or laugh at something you haven’t quite seen yet. The game makes an attempt at environmental storytelling, with corpses propped in mundane poses of day-to-day life, but again the asset reuse here robs the moments of any impact.
Immersion also takes a knock with that old scripting chestnut: pick up an item and it triggers a bunch of zombies to spawn. Occasional efforts are made to disguise this, or introduce new adversaries in believable ways, but just as often you’ll find yourself clearing an area completely, picking something up from a car boot or inside a house, and turning around to find it magically replenished with a dozen more targets to pick off.
There’s a lot to poke holes in, then, but there are also some tremendous set pieces and a truly terrifying journey through the darkness underground. It hits as much as it misses.
As the game uses a teleportation system for movement, comfort is very high throughout. Being rushed by zombies might make you flinch, but that’s about as bad as it gets.
One strange issue occurs during the aforementioned trip underground. The game requires you to hold a torch with controller inverted, slightly above shoulder level. This is incredibly immersive, but after a short time becomes physically uncomfortable. Unlike the Vive Wands the Touch controller doesn’t resemble a torch in any way, and was hard to keep a solid grasp on. Its shape does not naturally lend itself to being held the way the game needs you to hold it.
A lot of small changes to the VR shooter formula add up to more than the sum of their parts, delivering an enjoyable experience somewhat let down by overly fussy controls and a lack of variety. You’ll forget all the sleepy towns along the way but you’ll remember the protagonist, you’ll remember Fred and you’ll remember the ending.