When I catch the rocket in my hands and throw it back at the spider robot floating below the ceiling of the train station, I can sense that the Bullet Train VR demo is almost over.
What else could Epic Games and Oculus possibly show me that was any cooler than using my hands in a VR simulation to actually grab a rocket out of thin air, and toss it back at the robot with the gall to fire it at me, a super soldier who’s been teleporting around the train station and killing dozens of people with ease for the last five minutes?
Epic Games, developer of the Unreal and Gears of War franchises, is a poster child for the triple-A video game industry. And if you want to demonstrate that your new hardware or software platform is capable of providing a satisfying, core-gaming experience, you ask Epic to put together a game for you.
For the Oculus Touch—the hand-input devices designed by Oculus specifically for use with the Rift—that game is Bullet Train, developed by Epic Games and announced on Thursday at the Oculus Connect 2 conference in Los Angeles.
The first time I have a pair of Touch controllers in my hands I am shocked at how good they feel, immediately. They’re not cheap, plastic peripherals. They have heft to them, just the right amount of weight, settling into my palms with enough pressure to slightly curl my fingers around the grips and positioning my fingers over the triggers, like I’d been using Touch controllers as long as I’d been using game pads.
Which is the point. The analog sticks feel like old friends as I slide my thumbs over them. The buttons have just the right level of resistance. These are proper controllers.
When Bullet Train begins I’m aboard a tidy, silver, empty subway car. The short tutorial teaches me how to hold down a button on the Touch, slow down time, point at a rift in space—an undulating sphere floating in front of me—and teleport to that position.
No one’s figured out how to handle walking in the virtual space in anything other than very small areas, and that’s not going to work for FPS fans who are used to traversing wide maps, flanking enemies, and rushing them with berzerker assaults. So Epic Games got around the problem with the teleport mechanic.
Figuring out movement is one of the toughest challenges in making a good VR shooter, because the idea of all VR simulations is to make users lose themselves in the virtual space, to make them feel like they are occupying the simulation, and not just watching it.
This is why the Touch exists, to project the user’s hands into VR, and provide perfect, low latency, one-to-one tracking between the real world, and the virtual one.
When I hold the Touch controllers up to my face, in the virtual world of Bullet Train I see a pair of ghostly hands floating in front of me. If I squeeze the triggers of the Touch controllers, my fingers in the game world grip. If I point my index fingers in the real world, I point them in the game.
The next time I teleport to another train car, there’s a pistol waiting for me on a seat. I reach out, pick up the gun, and squeeze my fingers to grab it. A few times I forget to maintain my grip, and the pistol clatters to the ground.
My decades of first-person shooter training are failing me. I’m used to the gun just floating at the bottom of the screen while I have it equipped. In Bullet Train, I have to actually hold the weapon. The virtual space is mimicking some of the rules of the real world, which is precisely what the best VR simulations do.
I manage to keep the gun in my hands long enough to be ready when the next set of train doors open, and I’m facing an armored soldier, who points a rifle at me. Here is where my FPS training does turn into a transferable skill, because my reaction is instant.
I miss with every shot. I don’t care, because firing the guns feels so good.
I lift up my hand, pull the trigger, and miss terribly. My shots go flying over the soldier’s left shoulder. I can see the dust of the bullet. I shift my body to the right, move the gun in front of my face so I can aim down the barrel, and bury the rest of the magazine into the soldier’s chest.
It’s a good thing I made the adjustment quickly, because the train is pulling into the station, and I’m about to step into a firefight.
I’ve teleported halfway across the train station the second my subway car pulls to a halt and the doors open wide enough for me to slow down time, aim at a rift, and make the jump.
There’s a pair of pistols waiting for me, lying on a counter to my right. Four soldiers rush onto the platform in front of me, barking orders. I lift the guns up and go John Woo on them. I miss with every shot. I don’t care, because firing the guns feels so good.
I also don’t care because time does not only slow down when I’m selecting a rift to jump to. I can snap into bullet time whenever I please, like when the four soldiers, who I failed to hit with a single shot, open fire. I literally pluck their bullets out of the air as they slowly crawl toward me and throw the bullets right back at the soldiers.
I’ve turned into Neo from The Matrix.
When I pause time to find a rift to jump to, there’s a label over the rift telling me what type of gun is waiting for me after I make the jump. I pop over to a position where a shotgun is resting on top of a garbage can. I pick up the shotgun and fire it, one-handed. I manage to hit one of the soldiers. He flies backward while I switch to another target and pull the trigger.
Nothing. I have to actually grab the choke with my other hand and pump it to chamber another round. I’m teleporting around the train station faster than the soldiers can track me, grabbing every shotgun I can find and emptying it in the soldiers’ general directions.
Another fusillade of bullets head my way. I slow down time again, but now I just grab the bullets from out of the air and toss them at my feet. And when the soldiers get close, I chop at them with my hands, and they disintegrate in front of me. I am untouchable.
I’m no better with an AK-47 than I was with any of the other guns, and I only have time to empty two of them before the aforementioned robot crashes through the ceiling—a heart-shaped machine from which 10 arms unfurl like spiderlegs. And when the robot’s claws point, that’s when it starts shooting rockets at me.
Bullets uselessly bounce off its armor, and I realize that I have no choice but to grab the rockets being launched at me and throw them back. After a few hits the robot pauses, starts to shake, light erupts from inside its chassis, and the thing explodes.
I play the Bullet Train demo horribly, and it stings. I can do better than that. I ask for another try. It’s time for the next person’s demo.
For the first time since I started playing Oculus games three years ago, I wonder if I’m going to have to pick up a Rift, because I know it’s only a matter of time before Epic Games releases a full-length, standing VR shooter.
I’m going to want to play it until my eyes bleed, because I just got to be a super soldier teleporting, shooting, and slashing my way through a photorealistic firefight in VR. And so will every other gamer.
Screengrab via Unreal Engine/YouTube