Epic Games has managed to become a key player in virtual reality (VR) without ever talking about a commercial product. ‘Unreal Engine 4’ many of you might be thinking, but it’s not just about middleware; it’s also about the growing catalogue of VR experiences coming from the studio. The latest of these, Bullet Train, offers the most compelling argument for VR as a videogames medium yet offered on the Oculus Rift.
Last year’s Oculus Connect reveal, Showdown, wowed audiences with its use of positional tracking on the then newly revealed Crescent Bay prototype head-mounted display (HMD). Since then we’ve not only seen the reveal of the final consumer version of the Oculus Rift but also Oculus VR’s intended input solution: the ‘half-moon’ motion-controllers known as Oculus Touch. Bullet Train uses both of these assets to offer a VR experience that pushes way beyond anything that has been seen before, making Showdown feel uncomfortably dated in just one year.
Beginning aboard a moving train, Bullet Train quickly teaches the player about its teleportation mechanic. This is a first-person shooter (FPS) in the most traditional sense, but in order to comfortably accommodate all comers without worrying about issues such as simulator sickness the player isn’t forced to walk in the shoes of their virtual persona. There is some room for movement – a small side-step left or right will be accurately portrayed within the virtual environment – but moving metres up a train carriage is performed by holding a button on the left Oculus Touch controller, aiming at the designated teleportation orb and releasing.
The train sequence also teaches the player about the handling of weaponry. A pistol, often seen as the entry level firearm by the videogames industry, is found simply lying on a seat on the train. Using your middle finger to pull a trigger on either Oculus Touch controller will grab the weapon and your index finger pulls the trigger. Immediate and accessible, the player is now equipped with everything they need to make their way through Bullet Train. However, this is not the full extent of the gameplay opportunities that Epic Games has built into this new experience.
Each pull of the trigger is satisfying enough, but arming yourself with two pistols makes the upcoming target range even more enjoyable. Next Bullet Train throws a pump-action shotgun at you; a two-handed weapon that requires manual case ejecting after each powerful round has been expelled. Assault rifles and grenades also feature in the experience, both of which are perfectly disposable as Bullet Train simply respawns all of its weaponry almost as soon as you’ve picked it up. This is not a realistic videogame: Bullet Train is a pure flight of fantasy.
This could not be any clearer once the title begins to throw enemies at you. The train door opens and 4 identikit red-and-black bad guys stand in front of you, ready to blast you into oblivion. However, for a fighter of your conditioning these are nothing more than fodder, and taking out all four only lasts a second. Even less so if you make use of the time dilation mechanic.
When holding the teleportation button time slows and the player is able to use this to their advantage. Even if you don’t wish to teleport, holding the button will allow you to reload without being under pressure, find a new weapon or even grab bullets fired towards you out of the air and throw them back at enemies. Release the button and time returns to normal, allowing you to witness all the chaos you have unleashed in just a moment of real-time.
It’s an experience that has been made to make the player feel like, in no uncertain terms, a badass. There is no chance of failure, there is a very lenient auto-aim system in place and the player can teleport around the area freely. Jumping from position-to-position will not only offer a tactical advantage but also a different gun rests at each teleportation orb. Want the shotgun? Teleport across to another platform at the train station before grabbing it and jumping immediately back to your favourite vantage point. All of the action takes place in a centralised location, and each teleportation will start and end with the player facing towards that point.
Bullet Train really comes into its own when you start thinking about it as light-hearted entertainment, however. Given that guns are disposalable you’ll simply release them and grab a new one when the clip is empty. But why not throw them instead? That grenade will cause some damage if you roll it at the enemy’s feet, but hitting on the head would be much more fun. Bullet Train encourages antics such as this by making the experience one which requires very little thought. You know what your hands do and in-game they perform in the same way. Guns are mostly located at waist height so you don’t need to bend down for them, but should you find one that isn’t it will glow yellow when it can be collected just as with every other object in the world including the bullets which can be plucked out of the air. The potential for emergent comedy is rife in Bullet Train simply because everything works exactly as you’d want it to for a 6 minute VR action sequence.
Bullet Train is not only fun, but it also looks fantastic. Running at a smooth 90 frames-per-second and with remarkably impressive visual design (including a number of grin-inducing easter eggs and a small amount of destructible scenery) Epic Games has raised the bar for expectations of what a VR videogame could be. Will Bullet Train itself ever become that videogame? The studio states it has no plans for a commercial release at present, but given the excitement about VR running through the development team one can only hope this avenue is pursued sooner rather than later.