‘Drone Hero’ Makes You Feel Like the World’s Best Drone Pilot While Showcasing VR’s Strengths


With an intuitive control scheme and accessible gameplay, this simple and satisfying VR action game for HTC Vive and Oculus Rift and Touch turns out to be an excellent showcase of the fundamental benefits of using VR hardware for gaming. Drone Hero recently launched on Steam Early Access.

Image courtesy Neuston

The objective of Drone Hero is to fly a small, highly maneuverable drone towards floating blue orbs that spawn in different positions around a room, which is loaded with obstacles and threats that become increasingly more challenging you progress. Collecting the orbs in the shortest time results in more points, and your final score needs to be high enough to earn one star (out of a possible three), unlocking the next level. The game is played as if you are standing in the room controlling the drone remotely, with the control system making use of a single motion controller: the drone mimics the tilt of the controller to change direction, and the trigger functions as the ‘thrust’ for the blades, which determines your speed and height.

Image courtesy Neuston

Having clumsily flown a couple of real drones before, I can safely say that the flight model in Drone Hero is very forgiving; this isn’t a title for those looking for a drone simulation. However, the movement is natural and enjoyable, with an intuitive sense of inertia, and should make you feel like the world’s most-skilled drone pilot in about 20 minutes. It seems well-judged for the kind of gameplay involved; accessible from the start while being precise enough to require time and skill to master. Gamepad support is being considered, as some might want a system closer to that of a real drone controller, but the game already works well due to the tight correlation between the tilt of a motion controller and the drone.

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Launching directly into a basic tutorial, the game first offers a much-needed epilepsy warning, as the virtual play room, which has the sticky ambience of a well-used disco, is covered in lights which pulse and change colour aggressively in time with the music’s appropriately ‘phat’ beats as well as reacting to drone impacts. The game makes effective use of light and dark, taking advantage of the deep contrast of the Vive and Rift’s OLED displays, resulting in a surprisingly atmospheric presentation.

image courtesy Neuston

Developer Jonas Johansson, the (currently) one-man team behind VR studio Neuston explained to me that the drone gameplay was a result of searching for a use of VR’s inherent spatial awareness. “I was working on a few prototypes, looking to find something that made good use of the incredible depth perception VR delivers—that sense of knowing exactly where something is [in 3D space]. Then I started thinking about drones”, he says. “I’ve always been fascinated by them. The way they just ‘sit’ there, in the middle of the air, with great precision—it’s really cool!”

Indeed, the importance of depth perception was the very first thing that struck me about the game—this would not play anywhere near as intuitively on a traditional screen. Being able to naturally gauge how far away the drone is relative to the orbs and obstacles is essential to the gameplay, and it is an excellent showcase of VR’s strengths.

The positive use of VR technology extends to the incorporation of HRTF-based binaural rendering via Steam Audio, and having a buzzing drone under your precise control means that the spatial audio has a discernible gameplay benefit. Flying the drone closely around your head (and at different heights and distances) produces a remarkably convincing effect; the audio adds to the strong visual depth perception and no doubt has an impact on your overall awareness and control.

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The drone noises are complemented by an original soundtrack, which is thumping and energetic, but unlikely to suit everyone’s tastes. It seems to cycle through only three different tracks as the levels progress; a little more variety would be welcome here, or better still, the option for users to add their own playlists, while maintaining the audio-reactive lighting. As the title is still in Early Access, we hope the developer will take this into consideration.

During the Early Access period—which the developer estimates will take 6 to 12 months— some additional variety in the levels wouldn’t go amiss, although the game does manage to stay fresh throughout the 25 currently available. The learning curve is largely smooth aside from the odd difficulty spike at level 8, and the final few levels are suitably challenging to achieve one star, let alone three.

The game can be fully unlocked in a single session if you’re quick to master the controls, but those final few stars might take a lot of practice. Additional levels or a new mode would be appreciated, and an online leaderboard would help to entice players to keep returning for another go, and perhaps a multiplayer component could work well. Johansson has some plans but isn’t ready to confirm the details just yet.

“I want to connect players with each other to collaborate, compete and share”, he says. “There are a few social features in development and I’ll soon reveal more.”

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The trial version of Microsoft’s Monster Truck Madness probably had something to do with it. And certainly the original Super Mario Kart and Gran Turismo. A car nut from an early age, Dominic was always drawn to racing games above all other genres. Now a seasoned driving simulation enthusiast, and former editor of Sim Racer magazine, Dominic has followed virtual reality developments with keen interest, as cockpit-based simulation is a perfect match for the technology. Conditions could hardly be more ideal, a scientist once said. Writing about simulators lead him to Road to VR, whose broad coverage of the industry revealed the bigger picture and limitless potential of the medium. Passionate about technology and a lifelong PC gamer, Dominic suffers from the ‘tweak for days’ PC gaming condition, where he plays the same section over and over at every possible combination of visual settings to find the right balance between fidelity and performance. Based within The Fens of Lincolnshire (it’s very flat), Dominic can sometimes be found marvelling at the real world’s ‘draw distance’, wishing virtual technologies would catch up.
  • Strawb77

    “some might want a system closer to that of a real drone controller”
    i`d like a real drone controller that was closer to the vive/rift`s actually.
    this game does look great tho`.

  • MasterElwood

    Can we get it on home please dev?

  • Peter Hansen

    I really think VR is dead. -.-

    • Then you lack vision, imo.

      • Peter Hansen

        The (tunnel) vision of a drone pilot, obviously. *yawn*

        To all of you: if you want to have fun, go fly a drone. For real. You can even rent them. It is great, you should try it.

        • Raphael

          Ladies and gentlemen… Do not ignore the words of Peter Hansen. He is the original inventor of the first ever physical hardware drone and he hates VR. He also wants to ban flight sims like DCS World for obvious reasons. You can book a flight on a real SU27 in Eastern Europe. Fact.

          P. S.

          Tried to follow Hansen’s advice and rent a real drone. Then I realised it was night time and raining. Back to VR…

          • Peter Hansen

            I used to love VR, but recent developments of so called “games” and other amusement products just keep on disappointing me.

            Btw., I’d really appreciate if you could keep personal comments/assessments/insults to a minimum. Particularly from someone with such a [insert negative evaluation adjective of your choice here] profile picture. There you have it: I can insult, too. Even without insulting you myself. I constantly surprise myself.

          • Raphael

            So you’re a glass half full of poison even though it’s really wine sort of chap.

            Let’s see… So-called games and other amusement products just keep on disappointing you? When stuff keeps on disappointing you then u need to look within.

            I’ve been using VR since 2006, spent a year with DK2 and now Vive. No shortage of games although I confess I do avoid any really short games (2 hours play is short). I go for games with longevity. Back into Elite dangerous now.

            You seem to be an all round grumpy bastard if I may be so bold. I mean here u are telling people to avoid this VR game and go out and rent a real drone. And now here u are telling me that most entertainment stuff disappoints you….

            You must be a lotta fun offline flappy. Perhaps you need to spend more time flying your drone and less time cruising VR sites telling people not to play VR games?

            Come to think of it… what’s that all about? If drone flying is so great… what are u doing posting on VR sites?

          • Peter Hansen

            Please tell me: why do you feel the constant need of insulting me, when all I say is that the current state VR is in is disappointing me?

            Are you so identified with VR that you feel personally insulted by my remarks? Is that why threatening the public image of VR equates to threatening your personal image? In that case I feel deeply sorry for you – sorry, for insulting you accidentally, I mean. ;)

          • Raphael

            It’s your looking for excuses to dislike that irritates. You buy vr then create a drama about finding it disappointing. You think in doing so that you impress people because we are in awe of your very high standards for vr and entertainment. What actually happens is:

            “This numpty did not bother to research vr and understand what he was getting. Did not look at what was available. In any case he most likely still would have complained because that for him is part of the fun in creating drama. Let’s buy some hardware and get a buzz from going to a vr site and telling everyone we find it disappointing.

            Let’s tell people not to buy a drone game because real drone flying is more fun.”

            Do you not know that your need to create drama by finding everything disappointing doesn’t mean you have high standards? You look at all the wealth of vr content and dismiss it all as disappointing. You can’t understand how that reflects your negative disposition rather than representing absolute truth?

            You are way too sour and i wonder what fuels that. Your call to ignore this game and rent a drone is fucking stupid.

          • Peter Hansen

            Sorry pal, but now you are getting ridiculous. Speaking my mind is creating drama? I think the drama is in your head is where it is.

            Also, I didn’t directly call for ignoring this particular game. This game is symptomatic for the current VR scene: we have the tech and just don’t know what to do with it any more. But we don’t want to look the truth in the eye that our current approaches of making VR great are failing. So we do just about anything with it.

            And now I am out of this discussion. I am pretty sure there will be another flaming reply from you, but for me that’s it. Cheers.

          • Raphael

            You’re a troll. Your entry point here was “i really think vr is dead”. That line is designed to start an argument and it’s funny that you then pretend not to know why anyone would have issue with your trolling.

            “we have the tech and just dont know what to do with it anymore” ?

            Looks like you’re fresh out of vr hate school and spouting factless facile nonsense in the hope that you might have a point somewhere.

            Consumer VR is just getting going. Big name publishers are just getting onboard. “VR is dead” is absolute emotional driven shite. There is no logical basis for the statement other than trolling.

            You think vr games are on a downward spiral eh? Developers have peaked and now they’re losing all drive to create content? Really?

            I got news for you muppet… you having an opinion that is completely at odds with what’s actually happening does not make millions of vr users wrong.

            You clearly have that type of personality where you are never able to look at yourself and your own behaviour. It’s called narcissism.

            Nice try though with the “I’m innocently sharing my view what are you getting upset about”.

            When you next try to troll a vr site… use something more subtle than “I really think VR is dead” as your opening line.

            As i say to any anti vr troll:

            If vr is dead… what the fuck are you doing here?
            In future i suggest you learn about some tech before you buy it. I have been using vr since 2006. I knew how oculus dk2 image would look before i ever tried it just from research.
            Buying VR and then whining about tunnel vision and developers not knowing what to do with it only makes you look like an idiot.

            Jog on, flappy. I will look out for you on the other vr sites.

    • Raphael

      Thinking seems to be your biggest issue flappy. Go back to the vodka.