Budget Cuts is a stealth-action virtual reality game in development for the HTC Vive. The polished experience has the player avoiding humanoid robots and attacking from the shadows with throwing knives and crossbows. The game’s portaling locomotion system is a lesson for VR developers.
Budget Cuts impressed me with its polish and playability when I stepped inside using the HTC Vive Pre at Valve’s SteamVR Developer Showcase. Developed by a tiny indie team at Neat Corporation, the game is one of the first we’ve seen in VR to focus on stealth gameplay, and it delivers.
Locomotion That’s Intertwined with Gameplay and Lore
The slice of Budget Cuts that I played has players infiltrating an office environment to find an approve their own job application (presumably for deeper infiltration of the company). Navigating through the office space requires quite a bit of movement, and the developers have come up with a slick and functional method of locomotion that not only ties into gameplay, but is also thematically in place within the game.
Navigation is done with a portalling/blinking system, which essentially means you choose where you want to go and you appear there. We’ve seen systems like this before, and they work quite well to allow players to cross large virtual distances without any motion sickness. But without any context, portaling/blinking navigation can seem out of place. Budget Cuts instead makes sense of the system by making it part of the gameplay and the game lore.
It works like this: the player holds two futuristic-looking multi-tools which can be used to grab objects and store inventory items inside of them. The multi-tools can also turn into a teleportation gun by clicking on the thumb-pad of the Vive Pre controller. From here, the player can shoot the portal gun which lobs a blue ball into the world. This ball will bounce off of surfaces until it hits the ground. Once planted, the multi-tool shows a small circular window of the new location on a floating display which can be articulated using your hands. When you want to teleport to the location, you squeeze the side buttons on the Vive controller and the window into the new location envelops you, suddenly transporting you to the new space.
This system is quick and seamless, and smartly ties into the gameplay, grounding it within the world and making it seem sensible rather than out of place. For instance, at certain points in the game you’ll be blocked by a locked door. If, however, you’re able to find a vent which you can fire your portal ball through, then you’ll be able to teleport to the other side even though you couldn’t fit yourself through the vent.
The portal preview window is also useful; you’ll be trying to avoid patrolling robots, and looking through the window to make sure the coast is clear, before actually teleporting, is a must for remaining undetected. In the game you’ll find yourself lobbing the portal ball around corners and then holding the window up to look in every direction before jumping through.
Budget Cuts makes its locomotion mechanic not only part of the gameplay, but also gives it thematic context within the game world. Access to this ability comes thanks to fictional company Trans Corp, which “develops and refines space-time technology to perfection,” and is equipping spies with their tech to infiltrate competitors. This makes it fit in the mind of the player much more readily. Not only that, but the game and locomotion design could work on VR systems of many scales, not just room-scale (and we’ll likely see the game come to Oculus Touch before long).
VR developers starting in on new projects should take a page from Budget Cuts and think first about how players will navigate around their world and choose the locomotion system that can fit into that game’s setting and intended gameplay.
Throwing Knives That You Actually Throw
On occasion in Budget Cuts, you’ll spot a robot with its back turned to you through the portal preview window, and that’s where the game’s excellent throwing mechanics come into play. With the motion tracked Vive controllers, new gameplay opportunities are all around, including actually physically throwing a throwing knife at enemies rather than doing so with the press of a button or pull of a trigger. And let me tell you, landing a long range hit with a throwing knife is supremely satisfying, much more so than if I were ‘throwing’ with a button and ‘aiming’ with a reticle.
As I started my way into the Budget Cuts demo, I quickly found a supply closet which quite conveniently had two boxes of throwing knives sitting on a shelf. At first I didn’t actually know how the throwing mechanic worked, but I reached out to pick up a knife using the trigger on the Vive controller, then whipped my arm toward a wall and let go. The knife sliced through the air and stuck satisfyingly into the wall with a metallic thud. It worked exactly as I hoped, a testament to the intuitive controls afforded by VR motion input.
I gathered the knives up into my inventory (which is housed inside of your multi-tool and splays out nicely in front of you for easy selection with the press of a button), and set off looking for robots to kill. Robot guards patrol the office environment and will shoot you dead quite quickly if you’re spotted, forcing you to stay out of sight. The Vive’s headtracking makes it possible to physically peek around corners which is incredibly helpful in remaining hidden while carefully looking to see if the coast is clear.
At one point I teleported to the right side of an open doorway and peeked my head around only to see a robot just about to turn in my direction. I whipped my head quickly back behind the wall as a sense of adrenaline overcame me. I reached to my side to grab a mug off of a nearby shelf and tossed it through the door. The robot went to investigate and passed by the door, exposing its back to the sharp blade of my throwing knife, delivered with an expert (and oh-so-satisfying) toss. I launched the portal ball over to the bot’s corpse and first checked my surroundings through the portal window to make sure there weren’t any other enemies before portaling over to retrieve the knife from the robot’s back.
Later in the level I’d have to find a key hidden in some drawers which I could use to disable the anti-spy laser protection covering a vent. Once disabled, I removed the vent cover and fired my portal through to get to the next area. I also found a crossbow attachment for my multi-tool which allowed for more accurate robot extermination than the throwing knives.
I’m looking forward to playing more Budget Cuts and very curious to know how the experience will get deeper as players move beyond the polished bout of sneaking and robot killing which I got to experience in my brief time with the game.
Disclosure: Valve covered airfare and lodging for one writer to attend the SteamVR Developer Showcase.