Preview: Land’s End on Gear VR

The videogame development team at Ustwo Games is one small part of a much larger studio. Enter its London offices and you’ll quickly work that out as you’re greeted with an open space much larger than you’d assume the developers of Monument Valley – 2014’s successful but undeniably modest mobile puzzler – need occupy. You’ll see several more environments like this as you’re lead up a series of stairs and through office spaces in a journey that almost starts to resemble one of the twisted challenges from last year’s hit. Eventually, you’ll make your way to a small space at the back of a set of rooms with 3 cluttered desks and a group of developers busying themselves inside monitors. That’s more like it.

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It’s here that the team opens up a portal to escape the busy London streets and its own dwarfing surroundings, heading into the world of Land’s End, its new title for the Gear VR virtual reality (VR) head-mounted display (HMD). You can’t help but suspect that the studio’s environment played a role in the creation of this tranquil, promising adventure; as members of other Ustwo teams head in from lunch and the space starts to bustle once more, retreating into this videogame’s striking scenery and soothing traversal becomes all the more appealing.

Land’s End feels light. That’s not meant in physical terms – although the untethered nature of the Gear VR certainly helps – but instead in metaphorical ones. It’s a first-person experience that’s remarkably at ease with (and confident in) its pacing, visuals and challenges.

Players explore a series of islands, each one taking up a chapter, solving puzzles without any need for a gamepad or tapping the Gear VR’s on-board touchpad. Movement isn’t free; you hop along a line by fixing your gaze on white dots that inventively carve a path across the landscape. The leaps you’ll take from A to B recall watching an astronaut bound across the surface of the Moon; slowly, comfortably ushering you along the environment instead of instantly teleporting and risking disorientation. As you take those giant, plodding steps you’ll have plenty of chances to take in the scenery.

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And what scenery it is. Land’s End starts off within a cave, the simple textures and minimalist design causing concern that you’re in for an unsightly experience. But those worries are soon lifted as you emerge from the gloomy surroundings and out onto a beach, with 1 of the first island’s 2 rocky ascents sprawling out in front of you. You can almost breathe in the sea air as your hear the waves gently brush onto the shores and the art style comes into its own. Through a combination of that art and design Ustwo Games delivers sights you may not have thought possible on current Gear VR hardware.

Some of the hilltop views are simply stunning, providing a full picture of a remote, forgotten island with the enormous ocean around it instilling a sobering sense of isolation. Granted we’re yet to sit down with the full experience and see what effect this has on the HMD’s overheating issues, but they didn’t crop up in the first 2 chapters.

Puzzles are where the title feels most closely connected to its predecessor. Land’s End’s challenges aren’t the exact same physics-defying tasks that are seen in Monument Valley, but Ustwo Games has clearly taken the same approach in making them inventive and yet relatively easy to solve. Again, they rely entirely on gaze-based interaction; one mechanic sees players connect a series of holes in walls and blocks using a line that can’t overlap and only reaches so far between points. It takes seconds to get to grips with, as does the other system in which players pick up certain blocks by looking at a marking on them and then dragging them around.

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That second concept calls back to the empowering, superhero-esque sense first realised in Coatsink Software’s Esper, though isn’t developed as thoroughly, again speaking to the desire to keep things simple and not tax a brain that’s already dealing with the mixed messages of being in a virtual environment.  Those looking for a genuine head-scratcher might be left disappointed, but this ultimately contributes to the title’s approachable, breezy tone. Land’s End isn’t meant to be Portal or a Rubik’s Cube; it wants to keep a consistent sense of wonder and intrigue that isn’t exhausted by multi-layered challenges.

That said, it does sometimes play on your relaxation, especially towards the beginning. Those gentle leaps mentioned earlier can be deceitful; setting you down next to a sheer drop that was obscured from the previous position. It causes a momentary shock that’s at odds with the rest of the experience, though something that the team notes it won’t be taking too far in the full title. Crucially, it quickly dissociates itself with that initial thrill, serving more as a showcase of the power of VR in giving you that shock rather than making risky jumps a theme of an otherwise wholly peaceful experience.

Ustwo Games also notes that it’s aiming for a similar length to Monument Valley for Land’s End, which seems appropriate given the hardware. The team has created a deeper longevity, however, in realising a world that you may well want to return to simply to experience it all over again. Its undemanding, thoughtfully-paced adventure also gives it the potential to be a great introduction to VR. With the Oculus Touch and the HTC Vive setting new bars for VR immersion, you could understand the desire to not show an uneducated audience the comparatively limited Gear VR experience, but Land’s End makes a great argument against that.

In fact, Land’s End feels like the antithesis of those high-end experiences in all the right ways. While walking around, tethered to a PC, experiencing new graphical benchmarks as you reach out and grab objects is undoubtedly enthralling, it can also be intensive and exhausting. Land’s End promises to capture a powerful sense of wonder and immersion without the need for all of that. Perhaps it would be less impressive on an Oculus Rift, but by capitalising on the Gear VR Ustwo Games could well be onto its next great adventure here.

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