When the Robo Recall title screen first appears – a voice calling its name out like a boxing ring announcer while the electro-rock soundtrack builds in the background – arcade aficionados could be forgiven for thinking they had stepped into an alternate universe where Sega’s legendary arcade divisions were still churning out hits to this very day. That’s the company in which Robo Recall belongs.
Unlike an arcade machine you won’t need a stack of shiny coins to play this shooter. If you own an Oculus Rift, it’s being brought to you absolutely free of charge.
Robo Recall Details:
Epic Games’ Showdown demo first shown way back in 2014 was a cinematic walk down a street during an assault on a giant robot; rockets firing and bullets whizzing all around you, people diving for cover, cars flipped into the air by explosions, and you right in the middle of it all. You reach the end of the street and stop beneath the gigantic robot, where you look up and take in the scale of it all, and the culmination of the demo is when this robot stares right into your eyes and roars. It stayed with me, and it’s still well worth a look today if you haven’t seen it.
You can draw a line from the Showdown cinematic from 2014 through to the playable Bullet Train demo that captured everyone’s imagination in 2016, and now to Robo Recall. The same DNA runs through them all. From humble beginnings with a tiny team begging, stealing, and borrowing assets and time to build prototypes for their VR vision, the partnership with Oculus has allowed Epic Games to spin up a team of 15 people to turn Bullet Train into Robo Recall. It is telling that in the nascent VR industry even bigger players like Epic Games need partnerships to justify investment in VR content.
Robo Recall, then. Comparing to those earlier sketches it’s what doesn’t make the transition that sticks in my mind more than what does. The excess of Showdown’s environmental destruction is completely absent; Robo Recall’s world is one that you traverse through but never impact. Cars are static. Windows don’t shatter. Lampposts shrug off rocket blasts. There is no ongoing pitched battle between opposing forces, we’re back to gaming’s favourite lone wolf cliché as you clear each area solo. There aren’t any vehicles to take a trip on, and with the exception of a few blimps high in the sky there’s not much else moving around the play area.
That’s the sort of thing that was lost on the journey from Showdown to Robo Recall – a reflection of the relatively modest size of the team working on it – but what have we gained? Quite a lot as it turns out, not least of which is a far more lighthearted tone, resulting in an experience that is all the better for not taking itself too seriously.
The Unreal Engine is put to good use building a visually arresting future cityscape, with supersampling options that allow those with the GPU horsepower to improve clarity even further, and enough graphical settings to ensure that even minimum spec machines get a smooth ride. Clean lines, readable environments and enemies, and an excellent sense of scale abound as billboards shine their adverts at you, and blimps pass by overhead. The robots themselves impress with a tangible solidity and presence, and they chatter away to you endearingly during gameplay. This is no grimdark future, it’s all very tongue in cheek and deliciously meme-heavy which may delight or annoy depending on the individual.
…it’s all very tongue in cheek and deliciously meme-heavy which may delight or annoy depending on the individual.
This is a game about mastering movement while engaging bad guys through the twin mediums of guns and casual up-close dismemberment. Grabbing enemy ordnance out of the air and sending it back at them is a frequent happening – the signature moves from Bullet Train all present and correct – and you’ll need to get good at analysing enemy abilities, managing encounters, prioritising targets, building and keeping your multiplier up, and finding your flow. This is all in service of completing challenges and racking up immense scores to attack the leaderboard.
There are echoes of Rocksteady’s Batman combat, Platinum Games’ Vanquish (2010), and even the recent Doom (2016) reboot. Fast paced, kinetic encounters with time slowing at critical junctures to allow you to execute (pun intended) your plan of attack. Being in VR lends this a crisp realism that those games could never match: when you clear a zone it was you clearing the zone, not the abstract byproduct of button mashing, and each encounter feels very personal as a result.
Due to the generally rudimentary enemy AI, only very rarely do the encounters pose a real sense of threat. You can feel the game walking the line between VR shooter enthusiasts and more casual shooter fans, aiming for that delicate balance that serves both in different ways. The satisfaction comes from efficiently demolishing the assembled robot ranks rather than a sense of winning through against impossible odds – in this regard it’s almost a puzzle game, and I frequently had to adapt my tactics in order to grow my score multiplier.
Robo Recall neatly sidesteps the whole teleportation vs. direct locomotion debate. The gameplay couldn’t function without teleportation. To return to the Rocksteady Batman comparison, that game sees you dart with improbable speed between melee combatants with the flick of a stick and tapping of a button. That is the equivalent to the teleportation in Robo Recall, where you push forward on a stick to ‘launch’ out your destination marker, and then rotate the stick to alter the direction you will be facing when you arrive. Teleport ’n’ Twist, if you will.
Editors Note 02/03/2017 @12:00pm GMT: This review was conducted using a 2 sensor ‘front facing’ Oculus Touch and Rift configuration. It’s transpired since launch that there may be some fundamental issues with the teleportation mechanic in Robo Recall when used with a ‘room scale’ multi-sensor set up as documented in part here. We’ll be reaching out for comment from both Epic and Oculus on the issue and will report back once we have more information.
This teleporting system allows you to coordinate – no, to choreograph – your assaults: teleport behind shotgunner, relieve them of their robotic head, use torso as shield, toss it at a group of face huggers, spot a robot leaping off a truck, teleport beneath it, use the brief slow motion moment after each teleport to juggle the robot in the air with the revolver, meanwhile grab a face hugger, teleport to the top of said truck, and then lob the face hugger – now ticking down to self destruction – into a group of robots beneath taking them all out in one explosion while reaching behind to grab your shotgun and dispatch the rocketeer whizzing overhead. The whole manoeuvre is executed in a few scant seconds.
The combat is exhilarating, slick, satisfying, and challenging and it simply wouldn’t be possible to reach this John Woo level of acrobatics and bullet ballet if one had to trudge through the environment one step at a time. The teleportation isn’t simply a concession to comfort – although the team did have the inclusive mantra that ‘nobody will get sick in this game’ – instead it’s integral to the gameplay, if sometimes a little too fussy when trying to reach points at the extremes of its range, very close in, or above you.
The game awards three stars for escalating tiers of score in a mission – the third of which will feel completely out of reach at first. Additional stars are awarded for completing a variety of challenges that encourage repeat play such as finishing a mission without firing a gun, only using weapons scavenged from fallen enemies, or taking out a large number of robots in one of the timed extermination events. A challenge to finish a particular mission without taking any damage still eludes me, as does a boss rush that needs to be finished in under five minutes. The game threatens to turn into a racer as you look to shave off a second here, a second there, in your mad dash to the finish.
The combat is exhilarating, slick, satisfying, and challenging
Your weapons are upgraded as you unlock stars, reducing recoil, increasing damage, adding holo-sights, the usual. Once a clip is empty a weapon is largely useless but it can still be used to bludgeon robots, bat ordnance away, or thrown. After a respawn delay a brand new, fully loaded, weapon will be teleported into your holster. XP awarded after each mission feeds into your overall level, and this awards perks that decrease respawn time for weapons and teleports and increase your scoring potential. When you have earned five stars on a mission its All Star variation is unlocked, and this is where the real meat of the experience is to be found for those looking to engage more seriously with the game. Enemies are more numerous, move faster, and react more swiftly to your actions. The AI isn’t any smarter, but your reaction time is greatly reduced. You will need to significantly step up your skills to rank on the separate score leaderboards for this mode – its rhythms are so different from the standard mode that it almost feels like a different game entirely – but you need to unlock it first, mission by mission, and that process is far from easy.
One of the few frustrations in this package is determining when a weapon has been teleported to your holsters. In the midst of a frenetic battle it’s all too easy to reach behind to attempt to grab your shotgun, or go for the revolver on your hip, only to come away empty handed and waste valuable seconds before you realise your hand is empty because the gun hasn’t yet respawned. Later upgrades naturally mitigate this somewhat, as does the realisation that if you have spent a lot of time in slow-motion you’ll need to wait a lot longer in ‘real’ time before a weapon respawns.
In your time with the game you will ‘recall’ thousands of robots taken from the varied roster in evidence, encompassing basic pistol or shotgun wielding bots, through shield carriers, arachnid style skitterers, flying drones, leaping rocketeers, mini-bosses and one major boss, with each requiring you to mix up your repertoire of moves. They are visually distinct, either by shape or careful colouration, so every scenario is eminently readable as you plan your moves. You will clear areas of all robots, defend areas against attack, and even collect undamaged robots (neatly forcing you into non-lethal action by tossing them into a vortex that fires them up into the sky to be collected in a blimp for ‘analysis’).
The three environments that are home to the nine missions are distinct, but not particularly evocative: City Centre, Old Town, and Rooftops. Even the names sound mildly disappointed in themselves. Why not set part or all of a level on the blimps? Why don’t we ever see inside a building during a mission? Why not start in a building and erupt into the streets a few storeys up? I was waiting for an area set around a bullet train in homage to the famous prototype but nothing so dynamic ever appears, with missions electing instead to criss-cross the same handful of areas again and again. It gets old fairly quickly. What is there suggests a lot of effort has gone into constructing this world, so it’s a real shame we get to see so little of it and what we do see is limited to streets and boxy rooftops. They’re fun because the core gameplay loop would be fun anywhere, but there’s a sense that these aren’t quite the carefully crafted combat arenas and scenarios that they could be.
…there’s a sense that these aren’t quite the carefully crafted combat arenas and scenarios that they could be.
There is a welcome sojourn between missions to your basement HQ, where you can equip weapon upgrades, view your XP level, check on your unlocked abilities, and select missions. It’s inside this HQ that the single most important feature is to be found: among the bobblehead models and desk fans that you can interact with you will find coffee mugs. When you pick a mug up by its handle, the pinkie finger on your hand is extended. This is the kind of class that can’t be taught, you either have it or you don’t.
And Robo Recall does have class. It has the assured game mechanics of people who had a singular vision. It has crisp, sharp visuals and stable frame rates that come from people who intimately understand the technology they’re working with. It’s all too easy to forget how hard it is to make something this good, even if the combat arenas don’t quite live up to Epic Games’ own storied lineage. There just isn’t enough of it, despite the innate re-playability. Back in the days of their humble shareware beginnings this would’ve been the taster episode before the main event. Just when it feels like it’s finding a groove it’s all over.
The tantalising promise of All Star mode gives the game one source of longevity. Another comes from an extensive suite of modding options, allowing the community to build their own levels, encounters, and bad guys. Epic Games will be seeding this with demo content taken from their own games as well as some well known third parties. Nurturing a modding community is something that Epic Games have been famed for, so there is a real possibility that the community will supplement the core content on offer here.
Getting down to cold, hard, facts let me throw a few numbers at you. It took me two hours to complete my first run through the nine missions. It took another two before my scores were getting respectable, and another full hour in a frenzied attempt to unlock the All Star mode on one particular mission. The average player should be well into double figures of hours played to grab the majority of stars and upgrades – but that player would have to be a fan of arcade style score attack games, and at peace with replaying the limited content.
That I want more of it is a testament to Robo Recall’s quality, because what it lacks in breadth of content it makes up for with style, flair, and verve. It’s great to be playing the type of arcade game that Sega would’ve been proud of in their heyday.
Two belt holsters and two back holsters house your pistol, revolver, shotgun, and energy rifle. You grab them – and anything else in the world you want to pick up – with the hand trigger on the Touch controller and shoot with the primary trigger. The actions of reaching for weapons at your side or from your back are so ingrained from movies and TV shows that they feel instantly naturalistic. It’s hard not to feel like a badass when you reaction-grab a revolver from your side holster and despatch a passing robot with a head shot. It’s hard not to feel like Neo in The Matrix as you’re plucking rockets and bullets out of the air.
As with other Rift shooters, this game makes the most of the Touch controllers. The ergonomics allow the hand grip to be used in a way that the equivalent Vive Controller button just can’t support, and that grip+trigger combo really improves the sense of realism.
Leaning around and under incoming fire, especially when the game’s signature slow motion is in effect, is likewise very empowering and incredibly cool. Grabbing a robot by its front or rear torso-mounted handle (to its plaintive cry of ‘why did they give us handles?!’), and then grabbing its hands and pulling the arms off would be grisly if it weren’t all so lighthearted and comic. Likewise removing the head (and then using it as a bowling ball to dispatch his colleagues). They’re appliances, not people, which allows us to enjoy the gratuitous nature of the violence without the need for too much introspection.
The sound deserves special mention. Effects are meaty when they need to be, subtle when they need to be, epic when they need to be and wonderfully positional. The sound mix overall is very effective, and this does ground you in the game world.
Unfortunately immersion does take a big hit when you realise that said world is entirely static. Windows don’t shatter, abandoned cars ignore rocket blasts, and even in scripted moments the world is left alone. It makes it feel sterile in contrast to the vibrant art style. It’s a backdrop, you just happen to be ‘in’ it. I’d even welcome hoary old clichés like exploding barrels and crates, just a little something in the world that recognises and responds to the carnage. In fact any sign of life in the world aside from the robots would be welcome.
Some technical issues also intrude to reduce the immersion. When grabbing certain robots from behind to use as a shield, and then wanting to finish them off, you will discover that the back of the head is entirely impervious to gunshot. You need to tilt it unnaturally to get an angle from the side, or release it and then shoot it from a distance. Sometimes weapons clip into the bad guys, and the shot issues from ‘inside’ their hit region and doesn’t register. This wouldn’t be so bad if the pace of the game didn’t demand a constant stream of kills to keep the multipliers going – it’s frustrating to lose out when things look like they should work but don’t, especially inside VR. There also seems to be an issue with hit registration when robots are in the middle of recovery animations after a jump or fall – there is a window in which they appear invulnerable but it isn’t consistent. Sometimes they take the hit, sometimes they don’t. Or maybe I’m just awful at aiming at fast moving targets.
The teleportation also suffers somewhat in specific circumstances. If you arrive in a location just as a robot also moves into it, you end up in a physics-breaking wedlock and they start to jitter uncontrollably and clip into your view space. You’d imagine that a more graceful solution would simply be to have robots in that situation pushed away or destroyed. Most likely easier said than done, but the net result is very distracting.
Shooting and teleporting issues can likely be patched out if they are widespread and not just down to the build I’ve played – updates were rolling out daily as I played the game for review, so the team are clearly on the ball here – but right now the immersion does take a hit when these issues crop up.
In common with other Touch-enabled titles using the standard two-sensor layout, the temptation – especially in the heat of battle – is to occasionally aim behind yourself to pick up a stray robot. This invariably ends in disaster, with a complete loss of hand tracking and more valuable seconds wasted as you reorient yourself with the teleportation. Those with three or more sensors, and the requisite coverage, will have more joy here. It suffers somewhat without full room scale, but if you’re accustomed to the ‘plant feet, face forward’ Oculus mantra you won’t have any problems.
Those annoyances aside, the immersion in general is excellent. The kinaesthetic nature of your interactions with the game make it feel very naturalistic, very rewarding, to play. Be that shooting weapons, grabbing robots off their feet, or grabbing bullets and rockets out of the sky. The fact that you’re pulling off Neo-esque manoeuvres and Batman-style takedowns is entertaining even after several hours, and it’s a credit to the team behind the game that you rarely fail to achieve what you want to: you grab what you intend to, where you intend to, when you intend to. In a game moving this quickly, that’s no mean feat.
With its reliance on natural movements, and a teleportation based system of motion, the game is entirely comfortable throughout. You are in control at all times.
It is possible to teleport yourself to the edge of tall buildings, so those suffering from vertigo might unwittingly put themselves in an uncomfortable position. One third of the game is spent in an area called ‘Rooftops’ so consider yourselves warned.
On the purely physical side of things I found that half an hour in Robo Recall was more of a workout than many dedicated VR sports games. Depending on how ‘into’ it you get, you may well find yourself exhausted after a strenuous session.