Preview: Back to Dinosaur Island

Visually stunning. It’s a trite description of a videogame in an industry where for more than a decade the most serious of gamers have been trying to push away from the appeal of the graphical clout of AAA blockbusters. But there’s no denying that it’s hard not to love a pretty face, and in the case of Back to Dinosaur Island, it’s most certainly that.

GDC 2015 - Back To Dinosaur Island

Back to Dinosaur Island is Crytek’s virtual reality (VR) exclusive demo revealed at this week’s Game Developers Conference (GDC), San Francisco. It’s the second such demonstration that Crytek has offered following a VR debut at Gamescom last year, but this time around it’s more than just a case of ‘see what we can do’. Back to Dinosaur Island is the evolution of Crytek’s X-isle: Dinosaur Island demo, used to promote the nVidia GeForce3 back in 2001, and is an interactive experience that has the player cast as a baby T-Rex.

The demonstration begins with the player being given four instructions: look at small dinosaurs, dodge the dragonfly, don’t be afraid of the big T-Rex and headbutt the eggs. An unusual assortment of instructions for sure, but as the evidence suggests Back to Dinosaur Island is no ordinary videogame experience.

The opening scene has the player sitting in the shade at the edge of a clearing, surrounded by trees and rocks, distanced from the beautiful yet chaotic Jurassic scene that stretches out in front of them. A moment to look around reveals the first use of those instructions: headbutting eggs. As a baby T-Rex yourself, it appears you have been the first of your litter to hatch and around you lie the eggs of your siblings. Leaning towards them with a headbutt-like motion will cause them to move – only slightly, but perfectly weighted as a simple example of how this is more than just a pre-baked sequence you happen to be standing in.

Moments after you begin a smaller dinosaur will come into view. A herbivore, it scouts around obviously looking for something tasty to eat only a few feet from where you sit. In the moment it spots you, it freezes. Keeping your gaze away you can see its subtle internal dialogue as it tries to decide upon a course of action, but as soon as your eyes lie upon it instinct dictates that it must dart away, fleeing as fast as it can from potential danger.

Next up is the aforementioned dragonfly. A simple and largely annoying addition showing off the Oculus Rift Crescent Bay head-related transfer function (HRTF) audio, the dragonfly buzzes around your head and will attempt to attack you at times. A swift dodge is enough to avoid it – paying careful attention to the direction it’s coming from thanks to the accuracy of the audio – but when hit a sudden thump will impair your vision. Somehow, Crytek have managed to convey impact and a sudden change in visuals without inducing simulator sickness; though this of course may not be the case for everyone.

The final part of the demonstration saw the player getting up-close-and-personal with a fully grown T-Rex. And not just any T-Rex, but your mother. She’s angry, as it’s easy to imagine T-Rexes would be, and she expresses this by roaring directly in your face. After this however, an affectionate moment is available for those who have taken on board the four instructions at the top of the presentation.

Once your mother leaves the demo soon comes to an end. A simple fade to black, but the keenest of participants will notice a faint cracking noise; looking around you’ll notice that your siblings’ eggs are beginning to shake.

Back to Dinosaur Island is an extremely impressive technical demonstration of Crytek’s ability to deliver VR. There is no better looking demo currently available on any format, and given that Back to Dinosaur Island sits somewhere between videogame and 360 degree video, the real-time lighting and gloss sheen on surfaces was even more remarkable. Used a as an example of what’s to come from Crytek, Back to Dinosaur Island is a wonderful boast; used as an example of what developers will be able to do on CryENGINE, it’s astonishing.

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