I stumbled in late to the staff meeting, my face flushed and sweaty, deep creases worn into both cheeks from the Oculus Rift headset. I had planned to spend 30 or 40 minutes testing out AirMech: Command, one of the launch titles for Facebook’s virtual reality headset. Three hours later I awoke from a VR coma to find the workday had mostly slipped away. A co-worker thoughtfully cataloged my progress, a dad alone in the dark. Never has the phrase "real-time strategy" seemed more ironic.
When people talk about the magic of virtual reality they inevitably talk about being transported to a new universe, that feeling of being present in an alternate world. A lot of VR games are built to take advantage of this immersive quality by placing you in a first-person perspective. AirMech is not one of these ambitious stabs at a new medium. I’ll let developer James Green describe the company’s approach to evolving AirMech for VR. "We took advantage of the gameplay experience in VR, just because you’re in VR. It sounds simple. People are like, ‘What’s different about it?’ ... Being immersed in an environment is so powerful. Until you put on a headset it’s hard to explain. Just look at the world around you. It’s actually pretty cool."
Toy soldiers come to life
Green’s quote sounds like a stoned college student, sure, but he’s not wrong. Nothing about the way you see or control the game is fundamentally very different from the PC or console versions that preceded the Oculus edition. And yet, as my colleagues gently coaxed me back to the land of the living so they could use the headset in a video shoot, I had to admit that the total immersion of VR made a rather ordinary gaming experience much easier to get completely lost in. It’s one thing to control a tiny army on a two-dimensional screen. It’s another to feel like your toy soldiers have come to life, and you’re right in the mix with them.
AirMech’s gameplay should be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of strategy games like Starcraft or MOBAs like League of Legend. The game puts you in control of an ultra-powerful mech that can transform between land and air forms. From any base you own, you can spawn additional units to assist in taking control of other bases, with the ultimate goal of destroying your opponent's main fortress. There are some minor variations on this theme, but nothing too fancy. The complexity lies in building, defending, and attacking across multiple bases all at once.
Situational awareness is much harder in VR
The big hurdle for VR is that this kind of game requires an enormous amount of tactical awareness. On a two-dimensional screen you can only see a portion of the battlefield at any given time, but you also have a simple top-down minimap that shows the entire field of play. Pro players toggle effortlessly between different zones with blistering speed. In VR, the edges of the battlefield rise up as a sort of circular wall, a grid of black tiles that define the limits of your view. The general direction of your opponent’s home base is projected as a giant robot off in the distance. You can see faraway units as colored shapes moving along the wall, but it is much harder to get a clear sense of what is happening in all directions.
To mix immersion and awareness, the game has added the ability to zoom in and out. Zoomed all the way in, the use of a heavy, somewhat sweaty virtual reality headset feels justified. I was the mighty mech, wading through enemy forces, cutting them down like chafe. Zooming out put me back in god mode, observing the warfare from on high. The ability to shift perspective (something not offered by earlier versions), was my favorite feature.
No no, go this way!
Unfortunately real-time strategy games don’t really lend themselves to this kind of immersion.You need to command dozens, even hundreds of units, spread out across multiple bases. You can carry and place them as you please, and many units can take basic orders: hold position, attack, guard, capture. But the units aren’t very intelligent. I would often order a capture on a nearby base, only to have my units head off in the wrong direction, intent on capturing a totally different enemy compound. There were brief moments when I felt like an omniscient general, sure, but more often I was an overworked sheepdog, running in circles to try and keep my flock of tanks form bumbling into an ambush.
One thing worth noting is that AirMech is probably a lot more fun when you have a teammate or two to help you handle the complexity of a large map. The Oculus edition offers multiplayer options, both cooperative and competitive. Unfortunately, with hardware this new, there just aren’t many people hanging around to join. I tried initiating a multiplayer game a half dozen times with no luck. I watched the progress bar pinwheel in despair, while my mech did a little dance to pass the time.
Time is a... relative concept
Compared with a title like Space Pirate Trainer, which only works as a VR experience, I’m not convinced virtual reality added new wrinkles to this game, and it certainly made it more difficult than playing with a full map and a keyboard. That’s the criticism. The glass-half-full version is that it's pretty joyous to be inside that world and away from the real one, feel like a kid whose toy soldiers have come to life on the tabletop. Inside the Oculus, away from distracting realities like clocks, staff meetings, or email, six and a half hours passed in the blink of an eye. Well, at least I hope I blinked in there. Who knows.