Arktika.1 is a first-person VR shooter that makes more than a few smart choices in its design, something that may have you thinking twice before dismissing its admittedly limited node-based teleportation style lock, stock, and barrel (holographic sight and flashlight too). It’s not to say Arktika.1 isn’t without its clear flaws, but the end result is decidedly a net positive that gives you exactly what you came for in the first place: a ridiculously good looking game that goes pew pew pew.
Developer: 4A Games
Publisher: Oculus Studios
Available On: Oculus
Reviewed On: Oculus Rift [Amazon]
Release Date: October 10, 2017
In an effort to combat climate change, humans have accidentally flung the world into a new ice age, the results of which are much worse than just having to knock a few icicles off your dual-wielded pistols. As an elite mercenary, your job is to protect Arktika.1, a settlement in a frozen wasteland outside of what used to be Vostok, Russia. Machine gun-wielding bandits are a big concern, but at least they’re human. Mysterious beasts called ‘Yagas’—named after the Russian folktale monster-witch ‘Baba Yaga’—roam the multi-level facility looking to feed on anything with a pulse. And these overpowered freaks of nature are genuinely gruesome creatures that like popping out of the shadows and rushing at you hissing and screaming—just the thing to get your heart racing.
Arktika.1’s levels are giant and while you’re gifted with the power of teleportation to traverse them, you’re only allowed to teleport to nodes that the game chooses, creating something that I’m tempted to describe as a ‘mobile wave shooter’ experience. You’ll enter a room, see two bad guys, kill them, which triggers 4 more bad guys to come rushing in. Once you clear the area, you’re then offered a new forward node to teleport to, which effectively functions as a signal that you’ve eliminated all possible bad guys and can move to the next room. I say I’m tempted to call it a ‘mobile wave shooter’ because of the, well, waves of bad guys that you swim straight through, but levels aren’t always big rooms with well-timed waves of enemies rushing in. Oftentimes you’re traversing through tight corridors and elevators, and you just don’t know what’s waiting for you on the other side, be it a trap, puzzle, or one of those terrible Yagas ready to tear your head off.
While you don’t have the freedom to move forward without first eliminating everyone, and you are only given predetermined angles and shooting spots, that doesn’t mean you won’t be physically ducking and hiding around corners to land a decisive headshot, or getting your heart rate up in excitement though. It just tends to structure gameplay in a way that feels a little more ‘paint by numbers’ than genuine exploratory combat would. Outside of that, there are clearly timed waves of baddies in larger rooms, sending a fresh wave your way once you’ve killed the remaining guy in the last wave, which adds to the experience’s overall artifice.
There aren’t a lot of VR shooters out there featuring customizable guns, and Arktika.1 does it right, giving you a mix of clip-on and embedded accessories that both cater to your individual shooting style and also effectively work like physical difficulty sliders; you can stay with your basic iron sights for the most authentic shooting experience, or customize all the way up to an x-ray sight so you can see bad guys through walls, letting you anticipate attacks and even see them in the dark. It’s up to you if you want to deck out any of the ten or so pistols available, and which pistol or upgrade fits your shooting style. That said, I wish the upgrades were a little harder to achieve, as half-way through the game I felt like I had everything I needed.
The shooting experience itself is really well done, and it’s nice to see that the creators didn’t compromise it with awkward-to-hold rifles, instead offering a wide enough selection of pistols and sight types to make you feel like what you had in your hand was enough.
There are two basic reloading styles, and having a mixed set-up (one semi-auto and one revolver) can kind of screw with you at first, but reloading quickly becomes a fast reflex. Holsters are conveniently placed above each shoulder, so you can easily stick them away for button pressing and puzzle-solving.
Bandits are your main foe in Arktika.1, which boil down to three classes: basic infantry, heavy, and sniper. More variety here would have been gladly welcome, because after killing the same identical three guys (with the same voices) umpteen times gets a little tiresome, but the same could be said about established shooter franchises like Halo too. The three classes (plus the odd drone) add enough of a mix to keep you on your toes though, as the heavy really only dies on headshots and the sniper always seems to materialize over your head and land a laser-scoped rifle round to your head. There are a surprising lack of level boss encounters—not a requirement, but an interesting choice nonetheless.
Some of you have been skimming this article for gameplay length, so here it is in bold: it took me five hours to complete, but the usual caveats apply; you’ll probably spend more time if you’re one who likes hunting hidden easter eggs and completing ‘Objectives’ (optional challenges) on each level. Rolling out with the most game-cheapening gun accessories, I only died twice (albeit on the default Easy difficulty), both of which were because of laser traps that I didn’t shut off in time.
Puzzles, although at an impressively wide variety, are an absolute breeze, and are really only momentary tasks on the road to more shooting. This isn’t really about that, so it’s an easy charge to forgive.
Eventually clicking into the frantic task of managing your corners, and making sure you can anticipate the move of every bad guy as he pops out behind pillars, you start to sense a flow in the game. Getting used to the game’s various tasks and locomotion system is really only one part of immersion though, as the world itself has to entice you into forgetting you’re really in your living room wearing pajamas.
Arktika.1 excels visually with its overwhelmingly atmospheric levels, elevating it among the best looking VR titles to date. There’s a thick varnish of neglect and ice on everything, and it’s hard not to feel the biting cold come through. I have some minor gripes with the incorrectly scaled hands of the player, some chairs, and a harmonica the size of a chalk eraser, but these are few and far between.
If you’re looking for a deep story with character arcs that give you a reason to fight, you’ll be a little disappointed in Arktika.1. You’ll only ever get to know one person in the whole game, Viktoria, and while her story does develop, I can’t say I really felt attached. I never had that moment where I said to myself ‘this is a real person worth my attention.’
The opening sequence, a part of the first 25 minutes of gameplay, seemed like a promising start with Viktoria, but she quickly becomes an immobile task master holed up in her command center; the virtual voice in your ear telling you where to go, what to do, why to care, etc. Positioning Viktoria as a chattering task master feels like a cheap solution to the complex problem of telling an in-world story, which in the end makes it feel like a thin guise to get you into that next mission. For many, that’ll be just fine (pew pew pew, amiright?), but a rich story that compels you to care about what you’re doing and drives you forward is a big plus for immersion, though Arktika.1 felt more like dangling the carrot of more money in front of my face.
I’m supposed to be a mercenary, sure, but it would have been nice if maybe a grandmotherly figure popped her head in and made me a hot cup of tea, or if I got to see a group of settlers going about their lives to signal some semblance of humanity worth saving. Viktoria doesn’t even get mad at you when you throw things at her face, and she never asks you questions that may require a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ nod. She talks at you until the game is done, but you never actually speak back or interact with her.
All in all, these sorts of narrative misgivings filter into the back of your mind when you actually hit the action, which on its own is cohesive and varied enough to hit all the right beats.
Even though the Oculus store page says the game supports 360 setups, the game is entirely a front-facing experience. Teleportation nodes place you right where the action is going to be, which again makes it feel a little too ‘paint by numbers’, but makes it ultimately super comfortable. And no, this game probably couldn’t work as-is with smooth forward locomotion, as many levels require you to teleport over large gaps.
Playing this one all the way through, I really would have appreciated a seated mode that placed me at the right standing height so I could finally give my dogs a rest, but this is more of a 30 minute-per-mission type of game, meaning you’ll probably digest this one in bite-sized pieces.
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