Unreal Tournament (1999) was one of the staple arena shooters of my youth. It’s simple; find the best gun you can, stock up on as much health and armor as possible, always keep moving until you die, respawn, rinse and repeat. In this respect, Ubisoft’s latest foray into VR has replicated much of this, which paradoxically leaves me undecided if I really like Space Junkies or not from what I’ve seen from the closed beta.
If you haven’t followed along with Space Junkies, here’s the skinny: Ubisoft’s Montpellier studio is producing the classic arena shooter for Rift and Vive, but in the wild world of zero-G. The closed beta just kicked off this week, and features two vs two deathmatches, free-for-all matches for up to four players, and duel mode for one vs one. Only quickmatches and private matches are available for the beta, which run five minutes in length.
I’ve had a few opportunities to play Space Junkies throughout its development, and from the very start it’s been a supremely polished and comfortable experience. It’s clear that care and a unique understanding of the medium has gone into it, what with the lifelike hand gestures, cool-looking characters, badass collection of weapons and secondary gadgets, and engaging level design across its four available maps. That said, Space Junkies personally feels just a little too familiar to be called truly innovative in the year 2018.
Here’s the counterpoint that balances this out somewhat: it’s masterfully done, and includes enough VR-native controls and clever design tropes to make it a breeze to pick up and play for almost anyone. Comfort is a big issue that Ubisoft has almost entirely cracked with their previous VR titles (especially Eagle Flight), and in Space Junkies it really shows. Playing for multiple hours was an easy prospect, and left me feeling absolutely nausea free.
Options are aplenty too, giving you the choice to toggle FOV blinders on and off, use room-scale or snap-turn locomotion, and head or hand-relative movement. The studio really pulled out all the stops to try to listen to the community’s preferences.
Counting the pros over the cons, it’s clear Space Junkies is not your run-of-the-mill VR game either, but my gut feeling says it needs more player engagement to capture the casual user – more reason for people to come back week after week than I saw during the closed beta. Multiplayer games are set at a much higher bar than their single player counterparts simply because when the userbase dries up, the game is as good as useless. We did get a taste of some promising systems, like its earnable coins that you can spend on cosmetic items like name placards and player icons, but it’s not really enough for me at the moment.
Objective-based gameplay that requires real cooperation has definitely found a home in VR, and in that sense I really wanted to find a reason to engage with fellow players outside of the standard chat-up between matches. As it is, nearly every deathmatch I played was entirely quiet; at its current point, the nature of the game requires no real cooperation outside of swooping in by mistake next to your teammate and trying to gank a fool. Ok. So maybe this isn’t (dare I say) Echo Combat, and maybe it doesn’t need to be, but it still seems like objective-based gameplay is missing for now.
Reviewing my game footage of my full match, it dawned upon me that Space Junkies is actually trying to cater to a scene I’m much less familiar with. It’s being positioned as a budding eSport; the monitor view, which you would record for a livestream, comes replete with death cams, kill counts, death counts, and kill to death ratios, etc. Players move up and down the leaderboard, and all of the relevant info is laid out for easy watching. If Ubisoft is going to get behind a Space Junkies eSports league, that may be fuel enough to keep the studio interested in pushing regular content updates.
While shooting fools in deathmatch is fun, there’s a very real possibly the critical mass of players simply won’t be there months down the road – if Space Junkies follows in the footsteps of Ubisoft’s other VR games (Eagle Flight, Werewolves Within, and Star Trek: Bridge Crew before its TNG DLC). All of these games are functional, well-researched exercises in what makes VR great, and are fun in their own right, but they’ve lacked content updates and were left to languish for months on end. If Space Junkies really is resting their hopes on eSports to save the day and keep the servers going, and can also manage to keep the updates coming, we may just see a bustling arena shooter after all. I’m certainly hoping so.
Whatever the case may be, we’ll be there to find out when the game goes live when it launches soon. In the meantime, check out this video of a full match to whet your appetite.