Battle royale games are fun. VR is fun. Adding VR to battle royale should ideally result in a game that’s even more fun than its non-VR counterpart. There have been several attempts to date, but so far none have found that point of synergy between battle royale gameplay and VR gameplay. Population: One, the latest attempt from BigBox VR, isn’t shaping up to be the first to break through.

Population: One is competently—if formulaically—built around the core battle royale principles. Six teams of three face off on a large map with a steadily enclosing zone which forces players into conflict until one team emerges as the winner. Loot is scattered about the map: you’ll find guns, health, shields, backpacks, grenades, etc.

Image courtesy BigBox VR

So, our battle royale checklist is all checked.

All that’s left is… the hard part of adapting all of the gameplay to really feel good in VR. Not unexpectedly, that’s where Population: One struggles.

Weapon and Item Interactions

Population: One is a shooting game at its core. So the weapon interaction gameplay absolutely needs to reach the bar that one would expect from a made-for-VR shooter. Unfortunately Population: One is missing the kind of polished VR mechanics one would expect from a VR game released in 2020.

Developer BigBox VR has aimed to streamline many of the weapon interactions. On its face, that’s a good idea, as it means leaving breathing room for players to not be overwhelmed with the additional overhead of battle royale gameplay. But the streamlining just isn’t as successful as it needs to be, and ultimately erodes much of satisfaction of controlling a VR game.

Interactions with weapons and items are just too awkward to support the smooth combat necessary to make a battle royale shine. The game uses the ‘object glued to your hand’ and ‘this 2D menu is your backpack’ approach to item and inventory management.

That means that equipping weapons is done by bringing up a floating menu and pointing to your desired menu with a laser pointer, which then bolts the gun to your hand.

When your weapon runs out of ammo the magazine can be found floating a few inches away from the receiver. To reload, you slide the floating magazine into the gun and then cock the gun with a charging lever. It’s a sensible approach to making reloading ‘dummy-proof’, but the execution is awkward in the way that your hand doesn’t directly attach to the gun which makes it difficult to tell if you’ve established the invisible attachment necessary to actually articulate its parts.

Want to throw your teammate some ammo? Pull up the 2D menu and click on the thumbnail to drop boxes of ammo onto the ground which your teammate then picks up by pointing at the boxes and pulling a trigger to siphon them into their inventory.

On the whole, the game’s interactions feel unsatisfying and in some cases half-baked. Rather than finding synergy with VR, it feels like Population: One is fighting against it.

VR Needs Creative Solutions

Take the grenade, for instance. Instead of actually throwing a grenade with your hand, the game instead presents you with a visible trajectory to aim with, then you pull the trigger to have the game launch the grenade for you.

Now, I could see it being done this way because the developers found that it was difficult for players to accurately throw grenades. That’s a good observation, but the solution seems entirely awkward.

At a minimum, instead of ‘shooting’ a grenade with your hand, why not equip players with a grenade launcher? Or how about a more involved solution that considers the ‘role’ the grenade plays in a battle royale (usually forcing players out of cover) and come up with some other item (with satisfying VR mechanics) to fill that role?

Climbing, Building, and Flying

Beyond shooting and item management, the game outwardly presents itself as being built around three core pillars: climbing, building, and flying.

And while you can do all those things in the game, none of them seem to really mesh well with the overall shooting and looting gameplay. Climbing, for instance, requires you to put your gun away in order to do it, otherwise you’re stuck flinging yourself up a wall with one hand. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if equipping and unequipping your weapon was interesting or fun.

‘Building’ is the Fortnite style of building where you can place square planes pretty much whenever you feel like, as long as they’re attached to something. But it doesn’t feel like building was added to the game because it added something uniquely fun to do in VR, but simply because Fortnite has building.

Welcome to Bland-land

Population: One’s issues seem compounded by its astoundingly banal aesthetics. The theme is like a pseudo-realistic Fortnite, with avatars wearing inexplicable fatigues like motorcycle helmets, puffy ski jackets, and goofy goggles. To restore health you eat a banana… how subversive.

What could have been a creative set of made-for-VR weapons—with interesting gameplay roles and interactions that are uniquely suitable for VR—are instead your bog-standard SMG, assault rifle, shotgun, and sniper rifle that you’ve seen in every other battle royale.

– – — – –

If there’s one thing that’s impressed me about Population: One, it’s that BigBox VR has gotten the fairly large map to run on Quest with decent draw distance (though unfortunately this doesn’t extend to the sniper rifle scopes which render distant objects with very low resolution). It’s great that the game will be able to run on Quest and PC VR headsets with cross-play, hopefully giving it a shot at a stable player base. But I worry that the lack of synergy between battle royale and VR concepts means that retention will be low.

Population: One is priced at $30 with a release date of October 22nd on Oculus Quest, Oculus PC, and Steam.

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  • Ad

    Why do all these companies get huge investments after making okay or mediocre games (Onslaught was clearly an arcade game changed at the last minute), but Pavlov gets no attention and no investment. It’s super popular, has a huge dedicated community, and its Battle Royale mods were pretty much flawless. Obviously a little abstraction for like putting on an outfit but huge maps, the gunplay, and scavenging was all really good and better than I’ve seen in any dedicated BR game.

    • ComfyWolf

      Just because the developers aren’t getting investors doesn’t mean they aren’t getting offers, Pavlovs developer may just not want to go down that risky path. Plus he may just not be good at dealing with people on the business side of things, I’m pretty sure he even admitted himself that he has autism, and his behavior is pretty toxic at times.

      • Ad

        He said he doesn’t want funding, that’s true. Although a company could license some of their work or something. Honestly I just mean that I don’t think the devs with the most potential are getting the money.

  • David Ouillette

    Reading this it really sound like they already had the mechanics for a pancake game and just ported it to being in VR somewhere in the development cycle.
    Not quite as bad as the ports for legacy games (Fallout, Skyrim, Doom) but still not “built for VR from the begining” levels of good.

  • wheeler

    It sounds like in order to reduce frustration they dumbed down the interactions. Problem is, VR–at least with the current state of input and feedback–requires that you tolerate some clunk to actually take advantage of it. E.g. without players actually being able to *feel* the weapons in their hands (and feel them loosening from their grip, etc etc) they are inevitably going to regularly drop them. The solution? Just bolt the weapons to the player’s hands! Sounds like the same logic was applied to “throwing grenades in VR is frustrating because you can’t feel the inertia of the object and modulate its trajectory, therefore just render grenade trails and map it to a button”, “holding a scope up to your eye in VR is difficult so just black out the screen and render a crosshair when you hold the rifle up”, “reloading in VR is difficult so…”, etc etc.

    The result may no longer be frustrating but it’s also no longer interesting or rewarding in a way that only VR can provide. You sometimes see this happen even with flat games when a developer leans too heavily on testing driven game design.

    • benz145

      Yup, I’ve seen plenty of games that ‘dumb down’ interactions but still make them satisfying and enjoyable. Many of these interactions are dumbed down to the point of losing the satisfaction of actually doing something in VR.

    • Viper

      So fucking eloquently put.

      Testing driven game design is what went wrong here. The dev discord is packed with people sucking up and trying to maintain the status quo so theyll be superior at the game on lauch and catch some clout :/

    • nice if this wasn’t a pvp game i would surely love to play a more vr games with limited interaction outside of aiming and shooting

  • NLA_VR

    Hmm sounds like nonpoint getting this and play Pavlov instead

    • Conor

      No please get this game this review is garbage and the game is amazing

  • MeowMix

    $30 and no Crossbuy on the Oculus store. I’m gonna wait this one out on the sidelines and see how it survives over the coming months. This was a day 1 buy for me until I discovered it was not a Crossbuy title (for my Quest2 and RiftS)

  • So, summarizing in one word: meh

  • 3872Orcs

    Disappointing! I was looking forward to this but this just sound bad. I’ll take Pavlov Battle Royale and Standout over this any day. Standout may be janky but it’s really good fun janky!

  • gothicvillas

    After watching YouTube videos I thought it is great. This review is totally opposite to what I expected.. does that mean you tubers hype it for no reason?

    • Viper

      Youtuber here. Sometimes. Its usually in the creators interest to have a fun/funny experience. Moreover, most experiences the first time round have a novelty which is caught during the first vid.

      YT Channels who review are different though, they might hype it as a new and exciting direction or experience for VR, but they’ll definitely tell you what sucked about it.

    • Conor

      Noooo this is the worst and most biased review I have ever seen this game is hands down one of the best VR gaming experiences I’ve ever had the only real criticism they had was that whoever played the game and reviewed it is absolute dog shit at the game and can’t do basic functions lmaoo

      • Adam Broadhurst

        Actually the main criticism of the game was the functions are too basic!
        But in your rage you seem to have missed that.

      • hypergman17

        Seems spot on to me, I complained about a lot of this in batá testing. I Had wished they had just copied the typical Pavlov interaction, because I found the 2d menu cumbersome and too slow for changing weapons.

        Also wanted a virtual rifle stock because sniping stability was garbage.

      • Did you read the critiscisms? The reviewer never rant about being bad at the game nor ever talk about anything having to do with difficulty. It’s okay if you like the game but no need to dismiss critiscisms that seem fair, if the controls are bad, the controls are bad…

        Also, someone not liking something you do doesn’t mean the review is biased or that the person writing it is bad at the game. Learn to handle critiscism, especially when they’re not aimed at you or something you created.

  • Skippy76

    Looks like the review was written by a Pavlov fanboy..
    The beta is tons of fun and its just that… BETA.
    How about you wait AFTER the game is actually released before bashing it!!!

    • benz145

      I was invited to preview the game and share my experience as a member of the press. These were my thoughts from my time with the game.

  • Liam Mulligan

    Damn, had hope for this title. Working in this space daily, interaction design and being on a mission to eliminate janky green laser pointers in favour of natural interface design is paramount. Playtesting immediately reveals your strengths and weakness, i question how was this overlooked?

  • Adam Broadhurst

    It looks like utter garbage to me.
    Yes, I know VR is demanding but this game looks hideous, there really no excuse for a game to look this bad in 2020.

    18 players is also a ridiculously small amount of players for a battle royale game.

    And you can’t ‘virtually’ throw grenades, lame.

  • Nick Medina

    What the hell are you talking about?? This game is blowing up in the vr community and the you tubers flooded the internet with videos and tons of praise – -it’s the vr mechanics that make it incredible instead of just some boring ass battle royale like fortnite

  • Mateusz Pawluczuk

    I noticed some Youtubers tried at first to hand items only to realize you have to drop them on the ground. If Rec Room can somehow do it, so should Population 1. I also feel IK models could be improved.

  • Sasaan

    $30 and they just added microstransactions to the game, no thanks!

  • I was hyped for the game, but the second I saw some videos with that “ripped from Fortnite UI” that floats around you, I almost lost all interest. They should have focussed on doing their own take on the genre with good VR mechanics, that would be awesome.