Every mission in Gunjack starts with the exact same sequence. The camera fades in, giving you a full view of the turret pod that you control as it’s sent up into the unknown depths of space. Your character routinely sets up for combat, pulling levers and making checks as you’re given the briefest of briefings over a radio. It’s the kind of intro that, on a standard screen, you’d quickly skip past in order to get to the task at hand; blowing up baddies. Such is the power of Gunjack‘s virtual reality (VR), however, that watching this introduction unfold never tires. It takes something simple and enhances it with VR. That’s what Gunjack does best and it’s carried right the way through CCP Games’ VR debut.
Currently only available on the consumer and S6 Innovator Edition of Gear VR – a Note 4 release is unsurprisingly absent given the graphical fidelity – Gunjack is set in its developer’s iconic EVE universe. Scores of fans will have already dived down this sci-fi rabbit hole through EVE Online and DUST 514 while VR enthusiasts are eagerly anticipating EVE: Valkyrie, a poster child for the Oculus Rift that will arrive free with pre-orders. For now, however, Gunjack offers a taste of the EVE VR experience on mobile VR, and it’s nothing to scoff at.
This is a gallery shooter in which players will defend a mining vessel from enemy ships. That basic concept has been seen on Gear VR in plenty of other forms: nDreams’ Gunner invites a direct comparison while Climax Studios’ Bandit Six series trades space for World War 2. It’s obvious why the genre is so popular as a seated experience with minimal interaction circumvents many of the hurdles VR currently faces. There’s no locomotion to worry about, head-tracking doubles as aiming, and there are no actions that require a position-tracked controller or other elaborate input method. You don’t even need a gamepad, instead tapping Gear VR’s touch pad to fire. It’s the perfect showcase for mobile VR.
And Gunjack performs admirably as that showcase. As the first mobile VR title to utilise Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4, this is easily one of the best looking titles on Gear VR. The mining vessel and turret that players operate are incredibly detailed, looking like they really have been pieced together with different parts and mechanics, while it can be easy to become hypnotised by the darkness of space that stretches out in front. The presentation is certainly the lure of the early missions, in which you’re gently introduced to the central mechanics of shooting enemies, building multiplyers and collecting power-ups. You’ll easily rack up top scores with little hassle, causing concern as to if there’s much actual game design involved here.
But Gunjack is a game of two halves, and those early worries of easier missions are abruptly swept away as your reach the tenth of twenty missions. It’s here the videogame becomes a fiendish challenging affair; enemies arrive in waves and often in formations that require precise aiming and quick reflexes as they dart across the map. Take too long to hit some ships and they’ll return fire, setting your multiplyer back, while other types will unleash payloads of missiles that must be shot down quickly. CCP Games has made sure to throw plenty of variety in, as later levels see enemies disorientate you with teleportation, EMP attacks and even temporarily disabling your vital on-board aiming reticule.
Crucially, you can’t just fire blindly in these situations. features a reload system that demands careful timing, as the sluggish procedure can often mean missing enemies and coming under fire. In truth reloading is perhaps a little too slow, as there are breaks in the action that are clearly intended to give you space, but if you reload at any other point you’re practically guaranteed to suffer a penalty. It also doesn’t help that the backwards swipe action to activate the move isn’t always successfully picked up. It can be hugely frustrating to run out of ammo just as a suicide bomber sets course for your cockpit and you’re forced to simply watch, resetting a multiplyer.
Those multiplyers are essential, too, as progression through Gunjack is based on the amount of medals you earn, which are granted through racking up points. It perhaps would have been a better decision to allow players to see the full videogame without worrying about high performance, but the bar isn’t set so high as to make the last level too much of a struggle to reach.
With points taking centre stage, death isn’t a hugely influential factor. You have a health bar and it can be depleted, but each level allows you three continues for which it will dock your overall score. This feels like a decision that favours that showcase factor over gameplay and robs Gunjack of some of its urgency. Still, many competitive players will be heading straight for the restart option the moment they get even a scratch, so it’s quite possible to impose your own limits on the experience to heighten the difficulty.
Commendably, though, the instances of Gunjack sacrificing its gameplay for accessibility are very rare. As great as an introduction this is to the VR medium, it’s just as viable as a full videogame that tests your skills and pushes you to shoot for better results. The fact that CCP Games hasn’t forgotten what makes a videogame just that in this first generation of VR is something to cherish and makes Gunjack one of the essential purchases for Gear VR.