I’m listening to the soundtrack of The Matrix right now, and it’s because I just played SUPERHOT VR, a one-of-a-kind game exclusively for Oculus Touch that will make you feel like you’re in the midst of the highly choreographed slow motion action that The Matrix is known for—except in VR, you’re the director.
Superhot VR Details:
Available On: Oculus Touch (Oculus Home)
Reviewed on: Oculus Touch
Release Date: December 5th, 2016
Superhot VR is built around an interesting slow-motion mechanic: time only moves forward as you move. If you stand completely still, the game world is frozen. If you begin to move your hands or head, the action picks up speed until you stop again. With bullets flying toward your face from multiple directions, you’ll find this power quite handy as you pause to think about what to do next.
The beginning of the game is a bit bland as a few enemies come at you unarmed, one at a time, looking for a first fight. The punching mechanics aren’t exactly fleshed out—the red enemies will take goofy swings at you when they aren’t even close enough, and a single punch of almost any force dispatches them with ease. You’ll be happy that it works this way later on though, when the action starts ramping up and the guy about to punch you in the face is the least threatening thing in the scene.
As long as you don’t move much, you can survey the scene around you before you act. Occasionally, a scene will start with a gun leveled directly at your head, which can be rather intimidating, as being hit with a single bullet (or any attack for that matter) will kill you instantly and take you back to the last checkpoint. You’ll find that you have no body (like most VR games), so only a shot to the head will kill you, but I found it natural to try to dodge bullets with my real body anyway, despite knowing it didn’t matter to the game. For the most part, the hit detection against you is good, though every once and awhile a bullet will come close to your head and still kill you even though it might have seemed like it shouldn’t have. Other times you’ll get hit squarely in the face and curse the unrelenting enemies… only to start the scene over and make sure they get an extra helping of pain this time around.
After the first few tutorial scenes of just punching people, you’ll move on to thrown objects. Pretty much anything that you can grab—an ashtray, a stapler, a fire extinguisher, etc—will kill enemies with a single hit. Aiming and leading in the start-and-stop reference frame of Superhot VR is challenging without feeling unfair. Later you’ll get access to guns, and you’ll delight in landing a perfectly led headshot (for no other reason than to show off skill, as a hit anywhere will kill any enemy, and there’s no bonus for a headset); if you miss it’ll be no one’s fault but your own.
Pretty much all of the gameplay elements are introduced within the first quarter of the game. There’s a number of enjoyable and challenging scenes, but Superhot VR comes up just short of the gameplay crescendo that it seems to be building the whole while. One particularly cool scene at the end really challenges you but is ultimately just a long string of a similar gameplay mechanic repeated. A few extra mechanics beyond punching, throwing, and shooting would be welcome, especially level interactivity—perhaps destructible environments or other hazards to befall you and your foes.
Never in VR have I felt like the sort of action hero that Superhot VR has made me. When you kill an enemy, the object they’re holding flies sympathetically in your direction, making for awesome moments of catching a gun right flying through the air just in time to blast the guy that’s about to kill you. You can be sure that people are going to make up their own ‘trick shot’-like challenges to enhance the difficulty of the game and to show off creative and skillful ways to kill enemies (like using only punches, or maybe only thrown objects).
At one point a scene began with me grabbing a gun and landing a headshot on a nearby assailant. I began to turn to the right where the next enemies were approaching, but the gun was at that point going to fly behind me. Thanks to slow motion, I actually managed to catch the gun with one hand behind my back, and then quickly whipped it around in front of me leveled weapons to give the next threat a double dose of hurt. It felt awesome.
Controlling the slow motion mechanic becomes second nature with ease; I honestly found myself, ever briefly after taking off the headset, feeling like the real world should be slowing down around me as I moved more slowly.
One very cool aspect of the slow-motion mechanic is that the ‘difficulty level’ is automatic in a sense. If you want it to be harder, just move faster, and the scene around you will do the same, forcing you to act and react faster. If you learn a level well enough, you can play it in near real-time, executing a series of skilled moves to dodge and defeat enemies to clear a scene in just seconds. It’s a very fun way to increase the difficulty of any part of the game.
Superhot VR tackles many of the VR game design critiques I pointed out just a few days ago in a Twitter rant. Every movement matters. Every pull of the trigger counts. My body is anchored inside the virtual world because I have to dodge punches, knives, and bullets—it’s interacting with me in a significant way. Enemies aim well, and you have to dodge better to stay alive.
Like Neo stopping the bullets for the first time at the end of The Matrix, I wanted to be able to hold up my hand and say “No,” to what I knew in an instant was the end of the game that had come a bit too soon. But, despite my training, I was not The One.
At $25, the roughly two hours of initial game time would feel a little too pricey if not for Superhot VR’s alluring gameplay. The thing is, if I could pay twice as much and get twice as much content, I’d do it (and recommend it) in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, like many of the most compelling VR experiences right now, that’s not an option.
The world of Superhot VR is one of three colors—white for the environment, red for enemies, and black for weapons.
Enemies are human-shaped, but are devoid of any details like a face or fingers. Instead they’re represented as being made of some sort of crystalline structure, which seems like a good choice because killing one of these creatures amounts to a ‘shattering’ of the head, arm, or torso, whereas a more realistic portrayal would be technically complex to achieve (and really quite violent). You’ll fear these enemies, especially when one has a shotgun, but they don’t feel particularly human, even if they take on the silhouette.
The rest of the environment is completely white, like the minimal aesthetic of Mirror’s Edge, except even more extreme. Literally everything is white except for enemies and weapons. This lets you identify the bright red enemies—and the objects you can use to dispatch them—quickly and easily, but it does detract from feeling like you’re in a real environment. Fortunately you’ll be focused mostly on surviving, rather than gawking at the space around you.
Speaking of the space around you, each time you clear a room, you’ll be teleported to another with more foes to dispatch. You’re technically teleporting from one region of the same scene to another, and you’ll be able to occasionally see the enemies you destroyed in the previous room still shattering into slow-motion shards. It can be tough to tell how one teleport connects to the rest though; a single color on some prominent feature in the—otherwise entirely white—environment could act as a visual anchor to aid in the player’s environmental awareness.
Watching and hearing a bullet whiz by your face is seriously intense. One bullet will kill you, and when you turn to find one coming right at you, you’ll have to repress your “oh sh$%!” instinct and manage to stay still and calm until you can figure out how to dodge to survive. It can be awesomely visceral. So too can moments where bullets intercept and deflect off of one another, or when an enemy’s bullet blows apart a knife careening through the air which was your last hope of survival.
Superhot VR has a hint of a narrative framework but it doesn’t amount to much; the game is largely an arcade title that mostly focused on the unique gameplay. It would be great to see more narrative woven into the gameplay, or maybe even just eliminate it all together—right now what’s there feels like a novel distraction.
It actually seems like a bit of a missed opportunity that this game isn’t literally built on The Matrix IP, as the execution elicits that feeling of awesome bullet-time combat that the franchise is known for (not to mention all the VR themes), and would open up rich narrative opportunities. Who knows the Wachowskis? We need to introduce them to Superhot VR.
While the audio and visual design is solid, the game does have an indie vibe to it (animation and enemy pathing aren’t spectacular, and the 3D models are fairly basic). Superhot VR is an amazing foundation for a truly unique VR game with exceptionally interesting core gameplay, and I would love to see what it looks like with another step up in production value.
Aside from a single moment that purposefully disregards the usual VR safety recommendations, Superhot VR was entirely comfortable from a VR best practices standpoint through my time playing. The game effectively keeps you facing forward toward the cameras to ensure you don’t lose tracking. Fight scenes don’t require artificial locomotion, and you’re automatically teleported to the next scene once you complete the first one.
You’re going to want the largest possible Guardian setup you can fit in your available space. The need to dodge is going to take you a step or two in either direction, and you’ll be stretching your arms out in desperate reach of weapons flying through the air and you won’t want to feel limited by the physical space around you.
Superhot VR uses a shader which adds a grid-like grain, presumably for aesthetic purposes. Since VR headsets already induce their own grain thanks to things like mura and the screen door effect, the shader is an unwelcome choice in VR. It isn’t particularly bothersome, but the game would probably appear a little bit more crisp in VR without it.
One persistent issue the game has is with centering. It would be nice to have a marker on the floor to show you where to return to after having dodged 50 bullets and shuffled to the side to grab a gun, but not such marking exists. When the ‘next’ button appears, it’ll often appear inside of your or outside of the field of view because you aren’t centered where the game is expecting. It doesn’t hamper gameplay fortunately, but can be a little annoying between scenes.
That ‘next’ button comes in the form of a pyramid which asks you to “grab” it, and then breaks when you do. Minor point… don’t ask me to “grab” something and then have it break into pieces, it’s just an odd and unsatisfying way to make an interface. If you want me to break it, ask me to punch it! Only if you want me to hold it, should you ask for it to be grabbed.
We partnered with AVA Direct to create the Exemplar 2 Ultimate, our high-end VR hardware reference point against which we perform our tests and reviews. Exemplar 2 is designed to push virtual reality experiences above and beyond what’s possible with systems built to lesser recommended VR specifications.