When Italian indie developer MixedBag pledged support towards virtual reality (VR) technology, there was reason to be excited. This was, after all, the team behind Futuridium EP Deluxe, a tight, wholly addictive arcade-style shooter that arrived earlier in the year. Add the promising upcoming forma.8 into the mix, and you have a creative studio that seems to fit right in with the young, enthusiastic development community that is currently supporting the unproven hardware. When news surfaced that the team was in fact bringing the Futuridium franchise itself to VR, however, there was instead reason to be a little more concerned.
Futuridium EP Deluxe is a bright, breezy flight combat title in which players essentially speed back and forth, taking on attack runs of a central platform. The vibrant visuals and stylish music make it Starfox by way of Amplitude. Levels task players with destroying blue cubes while avoiding enemy fire and making sure not to crash into any obstacles. It’s a well-orchestrated experience that emphasises speed over style, with a health meter constantly dropping and only slightly refilled with each obliterated cube.
The trouble is that, as any developer will tell you, VR experiences should be designed from the ground up to accommodate all of the pros and cons the technology presents. Futuridium VR, as it’s called, isn’t a straight port of the original (though an update will also add VR support to that), but uses the exact same concept and design. It’s hard to think about the title’s constant 180 degree turns on a HMD without feeling your stomach sink. Reservations were high, then, but actually playing Futuridium VR on Project Morpheus for PlayStation 4 quickly puts these fears to rest.
MixedBag has made some smart choices here to make this version of the title much more comfortable and surprisingly more engaging. The first and most obvious of these changes is the switch to a first-person mode, putting players in the cockpit of their craft. It’s at first a little jarring to sit inside this blocky spaceship and not be able to see your body, but it’s soon forgotten when heading out into battle. It’s here that the VR support really proves its worth, both on a mechanical level as well as on an immersive one.
Crucially, the animation for the 180 degree turn has been removed in favour of an instant cut to directly behind the player. It’s not the most ideal solution as it momentarily breaks presence, but finishing one run and then preparing yourself for the transition as you press square proves much more comfortable than the alternative. With that potential problem dealt with, it’s much easier to dive into Futuridium VR with the kind of confidence that seasoned players of the original will possess.
One of the great benefits to VR support is realised mid-run as you begin to use Project Morpheus’ head-tracking technology to scan the area for missed cubes that have been obscured by walls and enemies. The title invites you to study the world outside of your cockpit instead of simply looking directly forward at all times, a trap that’s all too easy to fall into in VR. That said, it’s a little jarring to not be able to direct your ship’s fire, especially after some time with titles such as EVE: Valkyrie that utilise head-tracking as a means of aiming. On the other hand, being able to fire in any direction would drastically impact the title’s design, making this a difficult balancing act that MixedBag will have to address.
Head-tracking brings some fresh twists and turns to the Futuridium experience, then, but it’s the 3D visuals that really help bring the experience to life. One of the many movie scenes that thousands will have dreamed about actually experiencing for themselves is the climactic Death Star trench run from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. That claustrophobic, skin-of-your-teeth feeling is well realised here, as some levels include labyrinthine courses that players must weave around in order to find stray cubes. Quick reactions are key in these environments, and VR incites a much more physically response from the player.
Scraping alongside a wall remarkably causes you to naturally lean slightly away from it, while narrowly dodging a pillar or missile triggers involuntary head-ducking and throwing yourself from side-to-side. It’s VR in its purest sense; believing that this danger really is right in front of you and having a very human reaction to avoiding that threat.
Futuridium VR’s instantaneous action and unmistakeable style look set to scratch a very specific kind of itch when Project Morpheus launches next year, then. MixedBag is to be commended for successfully bringing an establihsed idea into VR with so few comfort issues, though its work is far from complete.