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Preview: Sublevel Zero

Right now there’s no better place for virtual reality (VR) experiences than the cockpit. As the likes of EVE: Valkyrie, Darkfield and more prove, it’s far easier for developers to maintain immersion when piloting an aircraft, as it cuts back on many of the human interactions that hardware manufacturers are struggling to realistically replicate. But that doesn’t mean that the best VR experiences are limited to flight sims; it’s absolutely possible to take the cockpit experience and construct a tight, claustrophobic and engaging shooter around it.

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Take Sublevel Zero, for example. Sigtrap Games is helping bring about something of a revival for six degrees of freedom shooters; videogames that allow players to pilot a ship without being constantly propelled forwards. A procedurally-generated experience, Sublevel Zero trades open battlefields for tight, intimidating corridors. Dogfights don’t consist of trying to lock on the enemies on the other side of the map but instead elegantly weaving around attacks in close quarters. It’s an entirely different style of videogame to other flight-based action titles, and the genre is given a new lease of life with VR.

Sublevel Zero actually started life as a Ludum Dare jam prototype that has since grown into a full, promising videogame with support for the Oculus Rift head-mounted display (HMD). Players are tasked with travelling to a vast underground facility where they must gather technology needed to ensure their clan’s survival. It’s a simple set up that allows players to get right to the task at hand; bravely adventuring into technological caverns, never knowing what they’ll find around the next corner.

One might think that having full control over a vehicle, carrying out corkscrews and loops as you desperately try to avoid gunfire, would be a recipe for simulator sickness in a VR HMD. Surprisingly, this isn’t the case; Sigtrap Games has paid close attention to VR comfort, learning the do’s and don’ts from other videogames. The result is more liberating than nauseating; using a flight stick to speed through Sublevel Zero’s retro-styled environments is an empowering experience, even if it can take more than a few lives before you truly come to terms with the controls.

Those first few lives are a cautious affair; players start out in an empty room that affords them some space to acclimatise to the title’s control scheme, something that’s especially tricky with an HMD obscuring your vision. Once you build the confidence to progress a little further, a corridor snakes its way down to another room, where an enemy can be found. It’s tempting to charge forward with guns blazing, but doing so will come at a cost to your own health meter. Instead, Sublevel Zero invites a far more evasive style of play, demanding that players conserve as much health as possible for the challenges ahead.

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You may well find yourself promptly slamming on the brakes and backing up to where you came from as you charge from room to room. Enemies can be lethally accurate and often the best tactic is to divide and conquer; hope that a careless few will follow you back down the corridor for you to more easily pick them off before returning to finish the job. It’s not always a viable tactic; some stationary opponents ensure that you’ll be diving head-first into perilous situations from time to time, but success in Sublevel Zero depends on winning each battle as efficiently as possible in order to prepare for situations such as these.

A short time with Sublevel Zero provides a great rush. How Sigtrap Games will keep that initial excitement fresh remains to be seen; crafting systems are being put in place that could lead to an addictive upgrades system and the procedural, permadeath approach promises that no two play throughs will be the same.

Sublevel Zero now also has to differentiate itself from one of the very series it was inspired by, Descent. Somewhat astonishingly, a Kickstarter campaign for the return of this defining six degrees of freedom series was launched just weeks after the reveal of Sigtrap Games’ tribute and has gone on to raise the necessary funds. With both titles set to support VR, fans of the genre are suddenly spoilt for choice. Helpfully, Sublevel Zero should be out long before its new rival, with release scheduled for summer 2015. Either way, it’s an exciting time to be a fan of this long-forgotten style of play.