Wherein I gush about Farpoint

I was hesitant to buy Farpoint on its release last week. More precisely, I was hesitant to buy Farpoint and the Aim controller on their release last week. I’m okay to spend $50 on a game and I’m okay to spend $30 on a new controller, but when they come bundled together I feel like I’m spending $80 on a game. If the game sucked and I spent $80 on it then I’m going to have a hard time with that situation. Fortunately, upon buying the bundle, what I got was the exact opposite of suck; Farpoint is the best virtual reality experience I’ve had to date.

The game itself is a throwback of sorts. It’s a first-person shooter that has you walking across an alien planet and shooting everything that moves. It’s very linear. The aliens get progressively bigger as you go and there are various stages of mini-bosses, too. The whole thing culminates in a fight with a big boss. If it weren’t first-person shooter then it would compare to all sorts of side-scrolling classic arcade games, like Contra and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, with its format. Once I realized that everything comes in waves and each wave ends with a biggish fight I felt right at home. Before I learned that lesson I crept around really slowly, expecting things to pop out of nowhere and I was a little spooked at times. That’s a fun feeling, even if I’m something of a sissy for it.

The layout of the game might feel like an old school game, but the first-person shooter aspect allows it to break that comparison. Everything is seen first-person. There is no moving the camera outside of your body. Whatever is charging at you is charging at your face. Whatever is fired at you is fired at your face. Room-scale VR would be nice right here – allowing you to duck, side-step, and dodge – but instead you need to use the joystick on the Aim controller to keep mobile and keep your face away from peril. I was delighted to be able to raise the gun over my head or hold it at arm’s length to my side and fire on targets that were behind cover. One of the joys that I experienced within the game is being able to explore the world around me with the turn of my neck. This isn’t a game that requires exploration – you mostly just travel forward – but there are scenes upon which you’ll want to fix your gaze. I would stand on cliffs, body facing forward in case of an attack, and turn my head and crane my neck to look over edges. Ditto when I was examining cargo drops or radioactive mirages or the volcano plume. There are places when the path is joined from behind by another path and quick glances over my shoulder would allow me to see down those paths without committing to a full body turn. There has been demand for first-person shooters in VR and Farpoint makes a compelling case for more.

I started the game by standing in front of the PSVR camera. Farpoint begins with some video exposition to watch that gets you into the story. The early levels are spent learning how to maneuver and control your avatar. By the time the action began I was already wishing for a chair. Depending upon how you look at it the good news is that the game can be played while seated. As I just stated, I would use head turns to look behind me rather than turning my whole body. After a few gun fights I realized that I really wasn’t moving my feet so I pulled up a chair. I can also see that playing seated is a negative because it means that game design doesn’t take full advantage of the 360° space around the avatar. I’m sure there are people who desire having enemies come from all sides. Farpoint isn’t that game. Kind of like how the Space Invaders always come from above, so the aliens in Farpoint always come from in front. I found that one of the pros of sitting, at least in my case, was to help with motion sickness. Since I wasn’t turning my whole body I was relying upon a joystick to pivot my avatar. Even with the rotation setting set to something optimal, I got a bit dizzy while I was standing. Once I was seated I found the locomotion to be ideal. I was able to play for hours without any sickness. I put in 2 ½ straight hours on Saturday and 2 straight hours on Sunday and both with no ill effects. If I had a problem with joystick locomotion it was in the heat of some gunfights that I’d forget which thumb moved me and which thumb pivoted me.

Photo courtesy of Road to VR

There’s a podcast called “Voices of VR”. In a November episode, number 476, host Kent Bye discusses two German words for experience: “erfahrung” and “erlebnis”. These two words both translate into English as meaning “experience” but they have nuanced differences in German that are omitted from most translations. Copied and pasted from the Voices of VR website, “the process of other people telling a story and curating a VR experience could be thought of an ‘erfahrung,’ but yet having a direct sensory experience of it could be thought of as having an ‘erlebnis’ type of experience. Or is it really possible to have a ‘lived experience’ erlebnis experience within VR? Does it require a new term to describe this blend between the two? And is it possible to have an ‘erlebnis’ type of lived experience in VR if you have high enough levels of fidelity of emotional, social, embodied, and active presence?” I would say that Farpoint provided me with my first real “erlebnis” experience. PSVR only offers so much immersion into virtual reality, but I was so invested in what I was seeing and doing and the experience lasted for so long that there’s a part of my brain that feels like I spent time on that planet. I’ve played MMOs off and on for nearly two decades. I can draw maps from memory of some of those worlds. I can envision their locales from a first person perspective to this day. Farpoint gave me that in a much shorter amount of time than it would take an MMO. I gawked at some of the vistas and I was concerned that the rocks above were going to fall on me. While I know that I wasn’t there I feel like I was there. I was that deep into it. I love me some VR and I’ve tried a lot of it, but nothing has really pulled me in like Farpoint has. I have some memories of working in the Job Simulator convenience store and of flying over Paris as an eagle, but nothing I’ve done has imprinted like Farpoint has. I’m actually really excited to think that this is an early stepping stone towards other, more immersive, first-person shooters because if this is the starting point then what comes later will be that much better.

So here I’ve raved about this game for a thousand words and I’ve glossed over what makes it so special. This game is very well crafted. Kudos to the story team, the sound team, the visual team, the locomotion team, and whoever else worked to make it look and feel and sound so good. I don’t want to oversell this here because its graphics are still capped by PSVR specs, and the avatar’s arms can do some weird things, and when you’re holding the gun with one hand but your avatar is holding it with two your brain loses presence, but there is some seriously good work here. The game doesn’t need much story – go forth and kill – but they’ve added in some that works to create pauses between levels and to help understand why I’m on this rock and blasting away. The spatial sound is probably the key to the game. It allowed me to track enemies even when I couldn’t see them. When I heard a shriek off to my left, I lowered my gun while pivoting and blasted away. They’ve also done this thing with the music where they use it to cue encounters. When I heard the music, I lowered my gun and prepared to blast away. It set a mood and got my blood stirring just when it was needed. I’ve previously mentioned the scenic views. There are plenty of places where I paused just to appreciate what I saw. The aliens are cool, but the giant sets of crashed wreckage are gorgeous. There’s dust and wind and shimmering heat and things near and far to create a comprehensive experience that kept me jumpy and kept me enjoying. The aliens are also really fun. Most of the things I’ve read about the game refer to them as spiders or spider-like. Yeah, I guess that’s fair. In my head I refer to the low level ones as face-huggers though. I much prefer to blast something that’s obviously alien or spider-like than something more animal or human, so even here I think the design team did right. I can think of a couple of cons, but they’re really interface related: I’d like to know the waypoints for forward progress and I’d like a menu to skip to those waypoints as I cross them thus allowing me to let a friend play starting in the middle.

Knowing that everything on PSVR is expensive and keeping in mind that I paid $80 for Farpoint and the Aim controller I would say that this is worth the money. I got at least five hours of play out of the game (assuming that where I paused is the final boss) and I have the controller to use with other titles. I’ll certainly put $30 of mileage on the gun. Farpoint far exceeded my expectations and has me eager to spend even more time playing shoot ’em ups under the goggles.