At this year’s E3, we got a chance to go hands-on with Augmented Empire, a narrative-driven tactical RPG coming exclusively to Gear VR on July 13th. Created by Coatsink, the studio known for the Esper series and helping Boneloaf develop Gang Beasts (2016), the action plays out on a tiled game board displayed as an augmented reality diorama.
Looking at the little dollhouse-sized diorama set before me on top of a virtual desk in my virtual hideout, it’s amazing just how much detail Coatsink was able to pack into a Gear VR title. While I’m willing to admit that miniature objects always look better in VR because of the perceived bump in detail, I just can’t help but admire the game not only from a technical aspect, but from a level design one too. Telling from the 30-minute demo I had, I can say I’ve certainly seen less-appealing visuals on more graphically-capable headsets like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
Simply put, the game doesn’t bite off more than it can chew technically and fills in the gaps with what I’d consider to be an engaging story—something that’s currently pretty rare on mobile VR platforms.
Oozing with a neo-noir atmosphere, you’re tasked with controlling 6 misfits across the world’s three castes, a social system simply called the “Citizen Grade System.” And it’s not an upstairs-downstairs comedy either; high society types live in luxury at the summit in complete ignorance of the world below, and the world’s outliers and criminals live in Detritum, a cockroach-filled ghetto at the island’s depths.
Using gaze-based controls and the Gear VR’s touchpad, I maneuvered a little 3-inch avatar through an interesting story about a mother tracking down her long-abandoned high-caste daughter. Turn-based actions let me sneak past guards, shoot them, and hide from their direct line of sight as they tried to stop me with bullets. Each room was filled with items I needed to go forward, including scrap metal that you can forge into customizable parts for weapons.
At the end of the demo, I was then given my god’s-eye-view control over the daughter, who making her way through the criminal underworld reveals just how depraved society can be. I would put dialogue somewhere between ‘PG-13’ and ‘R’.
I was told by CEO Tom Beardsmore that each ‘episode’ would last around 20-30 minutes, and the entire multi-episode game would be comprised by hundreds of hours of voice overs from established actors such as Kate Mulgrew (Orange is the New Black, Star Trek Voyager), Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), Doug Cockle (The Witcher Series), and Garrick Hagon (Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, Horizon: Zero Dawn).
In fact, there is so much dialogue, users will have to download the game in discrete batches, otherwise risk taking up too much space on their smartphones.
“With a strong focus on story and deep but accessible gameplay, we wanted to give Gear VR gamers an extraordinary experience. We’re thrilled with the calibre of talent involved in Augmented Empire” said Beardsmore.
After a hectic day at E3 of walking, writing and interviewing, sitting down with Augmented Empire was an exceedingly relaxing experience as I dialed into the drama and action before me, albeit pint-sized. I was promised that my decisions, chosen via the game’s dialogue tree system, would allow for multiple endings and hours of gameplay. I’ll be looking forward to checking out Augmented Empire in my review when it launches next week, and hope the tactical ‘cover-and-shoot’ system can hold my attention even if Kathryn Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager (1995) and Ed from Shaun of the Dead (2004) are personally charming additions.