Gunheart looks like Borderlands for virtual reality

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In the early days of virtual reality shooters, adding another human to the experience turns out to be an easy win. Games like Raw Data, Farpoint, and the upcoming Killing Floor: Incursion are all best with two people. But Gunheart, the first game from studio Drifter Entertainment, is the only one that also lets you blow balloons with your friends between rounds.

Gunheart is launching on all major high-end VR platforms: Oculus Rift and HTC Vive this summer, then PlayStation VR later in the year. It’s designed as a full-length game for three players, with a focus on cool weapons, fast-moving combat, and cooperation. Imagine an even more frenetic version of Borderlands in VR, with greater immersion but — so far — a lot less character.

Although Gunheart comes from a new studio, the game’s core team is made up of experienced developers. Ray Davis was general manager at Epic Games, where he worked on the Gears of War series and on Robo Recall, one of the most polished VR shooters ever made. Kenneth Scott is a longtime art director who previously worked at id Software and Oculus. And Brian Murphy is a former designer and creative director at Microsoft.

Unfortunately, like a lot of VR games, Gunheart looks generic on the surface. Its name sounds like something from a Rob Liefeld superhero generator, and its central conflict — killing bug-like monsters in a rocky alien landscape — is the premise of Farpoint as well. Cooperative play is a great element to add, but it’s also a shortcut that lets developers avoid having to create characters or compelling narratives. VR games have to be developed on an aggressive timeline to keep up with the fast-changing industry, and Gunheart looks like one of the more substantive efforts. But it doesn’t feel distinctive in the way we expect from good non-VR games, even ones enjoyed mostly for their gameplay.

In Gunheart’s favor, the gameplay is shaping up to be a lot of fun, based on my run through an early build of one level. It pulls together an armory based on items people already love using with motion controls, including conventional weapons, a crossbow, and a disc-throwing gun reminiscent of the science fiction frisbees in sports games RipCoil and Sparc. Players can wield one in each hand, or combine them into a unique super-weapon by holding their hands together. You could probably go it alone, but you wouldn’t be able to surround enemies with other people, or have one person lay down fire with a long-range weapon while another gets up close with a shotgun.

Gunheart’s teleportation system makes it possible to reach places you’d never get with standard video game running or jumping. You can pop instantly around areas to find cover spots and vantage points, or rush an enemy and then blink back to revive a fallen partner. “A lot of VR developers early on looked at teleport as sort of a handicap” that caused less motion sickness than running, says Davis. “We really embraced it as a first-class citizen, and realized it feels like a superpower.” It’s also apparently easier to get players to notice things above their heads in VR. “It unlocks vertical spaces in a way that we always wanted to do in shooters,” Murphy says.

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And although the game badly needs a fresher aesthetic, it does have one clever feature I haven’t found anywhere else: the standard multiplayer “lobby” is a literal lobby, or at least a spacious lounge. Instead of holding guns, players use a device in their hands to blow balloons, draw voxels in midair, or produce a giant foam hand to give high-fives. Will most people spend much time here? It’s hard to say. And when players start games with random strangers instead of acquaintances, Drifter will also need a robust anti-harassment system, if it wants to avoid the problems other VR games have faced. But the lobby still offers a non-violent playfulness that’s rare in shooters.

Gunheart still feels very much like a first-wave VR game, but it’s riding the tail end of that wave, learning from the early successes and failures of VR shooters. I just hope I can find enough friends with headsets to play it.

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