At some point, when playing Farpoint on PlayStation VR, you’ll experience the moment.
It could be the first time an alien spider-thing flings itself at your face, or when you’re cowering behind rocks while hostile flying robots fire missiles at you, or simply when you emerge from a dusty tunnel into a graveyard of rusted star cruisers.
But one way or another, it’ll definitely happen: you’ll forget you’re standing in your living room and truly believe, for a second, that you’re on an alien world surrounded by things that want to kill you.
That’s how powerful VR can be, and it’s how good Farpoint can be at times. It’s just a shame that there’s not more to it.
AIM TO PLEASE
There are two reasons why Farpoint is so immersive. One is obviously that it’s in VR. The other is that you can play it using the new Sony Aim Controller.
The difference the latter makes can’t be overestimated. It’s not cheap, adding another R550 on to the game price (the package price is a mildly staggering R1,400), but it is nigh-on essential.
Although it doesn’t look particularly gun-like in reality, once you’re holding it in the game it feels remarkably authentic. Not that we’ve ever held an actual assault rifle, of course. You get all of the usual PS4 controls – two thumbsticks etc – but most importantly you get a proper trigger and a two-handed grip that means the VR representations of your hands and arms are mapped to where your actual hands and arms are.
You can hold it up to eye level and aim through the holographic sight, you can swing it around one-handed to blast a nasty alien thing just behind you, you can hold it by your side as you sprint through collapsing space debris… in short, you use it exactly as you would do in reality, and this helps keep you grounded in your virtual world, rather than reminding you that you’re not actually there.
Indeed, we tried playing with the standard PS4 Dual Shock controller for a while, and although it works perfectly well, the disconnect between what we were seeing and what our hands were doing was enough to constantly remind us that we were ‘just’ playing an FPS game.
Whichever method you use, be prepared for a bit of VR-induced nausea though. You’ll want to use the left stick to move and the right stick to turn just as in any other FPS, but the fact you can also turn your body whichever way you like can lead to odd situations where you move one way while turning the other and end up feeling like you’re on a boat in a class-5 hurricane.
Yes, you can turn off the right stick and just turn physically, but if you do that you’ll likely end up getting tangled in the VR headset’s wires. So just be prepared to take a break every half hour or so until you’re used to the experience.
IT’S FULL OF STARS…
The other element that helps you suspend your disbelief is the environment around you. Farpoint looks fantastic. No, PSVR isn’t as high-def as Vive or Oculus, but developer Impulse Gear has done a great job of making the levels look realistic, insomuch as an alien planet filled with the hulks of starships and inhabited by deadly spiders can ever be realistic.
There are neat touches to the surroundings, such as the way bioluminescent plants emit spores as you traipse through caverns, or water ripples as some unknown danger moves underneath. You can easily spend a few minutes just gazing around at your surroundings and looking up at the stars.
Sound is fantastic, too. With your headphones in you get proper 360-audio, so that scuttling sound you hear behind you is probably a reason to turn around and that thud in the distance is almost certainly a reason to ready your weapon.
A STORY AS OLD AS TIME
Outside of the way in which you control it, there’s nothing remotely original about Farpoint. This is a space-based first-person-shooter that’s seemingly been crafted from bits of other space-based FPS games and sci-fi movies to make an all-too-familiar whole.
Without giving too much away, there’s a wormhole, there’s a crash landing and there’s a need to find a way off the alien planet upon which you now find yourself marooned. And – guess what – you’re not the only lifeform around.
While not breaking any boundaries, Farpoint‘s story does the two things you need it to do pretty well. Firstly, it gives the game a bit of structure and pacing, so you’re not just wandering around shooting anything that moves. There are regular cutscenes which move the action on neatly and give you at least some explanation for your predicament, and there are also little segments in which you use your gun to scan the area, bringing holograms of your shipmates to life for further detail.
Secondly, the story gives you at least some reason to care about the characters involved. No, we’re not in The Martian territory, but it’s a darn sight more nuanced than Destiny.
KILL OR BE KILLED
We’ve played dozens, maybe even hundreds, of FPS games over the years, but there were times when Farpoint genuinely felt like something completely new.
By placing you in the centre of the action, and allowing you to look around in full 360-degree immersion, and aim your gun wherever the hell you please, you just get so much more flexibility in the way you play it. Take switching weapons, for instance: you swing your gun up over your shoulder and bring it down again. It’s quick, simple, and feels natural.
There’s no cover system as such, because that would only work in a normal game environment – but you can hide behind big rocks and lean round the corner one-handed to take out the bad guys. And if you want to shoot something above you, well you look up, aim up and fire.
It’s quite a hard game, in places, but because you’re fully in control of your own fate it never feels unfair. There’s no blaming the game mechanics, or the accuracy of the aiming system, if you die – it’s your own fault for not getting behind that boulder quickly enough and aiming at your feet rather than the mecha-droid thing.
NO SAVING GRACE
What you get is essentially a linear FPS which will last for between 5-10 hours depending on how good you are. The aliens are limited in number, with only five spider-type forms, two robotic and two humanoid. Their attacks are also on the basic side – mostly you either get baddies shooting at you from afar or rushing at you. And your own weapons are limited to five types, one of which you only get right near the end.
Of these, the assault rifle is your mainstay, mostly because it has unlimited ammo, although it does overheat to prevent you from just firing continuously. The shotgun is powerful but has very limited ammo, and the precision rifle – basically a sniper rifle – the same but even more so. The plasma rifle and rail gun are best avoided altogether.
Ammo is extremely limited throughout, and you can’t stockpile it, meaning that you’ll mostly just end up using the assault rifle. And because there’s no real variety in the level design – no puzzles or secret areas – the gameplay does end up being rather samey. You basically just emerge from a tunnel into an open area filled with rocks, hide behind them while you shoot things, then move on to the next one.
Saving is another big problem. The game is checkpoint-based, but there’s no real indication of where those checkpoints are. We regularly found that we cleared a wave of aliens then moved on to the next one, only to die and get reset to before the first encounter. That’s fine in theory, but if there’s nothing telling you that hey, you’ve not yet reached a checkpoint, how are you supposed to know that you ought to be a bit more careful round this corner?
Worse still is the fact that there seems to be two types of checkpoint: one occurs within a level, and one between them. But because there’s no way to tell which is which, it’s really easy to quit the game after an hour or so and find it reloading the next day a full 30 minutes back, rather than where you might think it would, halfway through the level.
Other than the main story, there’s a mildly diverting challenge mode which has you mowing down waves of baddies against the clock in order to top a leaderboard, and there’s a full co-op mode.
The latter is pretty good, pitching you and a partner into action in one of four arenas, but there were so few people available to play it while I was reviewing the game that matchmaking took for ages. We’ll have to see if that gets better as more people start playing.
If it wasn’t in VR, it’d be a distinctly average space-based FPS. And if it was in VR, but without the Aim Controller, it’d merely be another decent VR demo masquerading as a full game. But the combination lifts it above the pack and makes it a must-play not just for VR fans but also for FPS addicts.
Sure, it’s flawed, but not fatally so. And yes, it’s expensive, but no more so than a Premier League football game or a big night out.
Viewed on those terms, as an experience that’ll take you out of the mundane for a few hours, it’s well worth your time and money.