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Be a VR dino-killing action hero in Island 359

From the creators of The Brookhaven Experiment

I’m not really sure what’s happening in Island 359, and that’s all right.

On a basic level, Island 359 is a virtual reality game about dinosaurs. It’s the first title from CloudGate Studio, founded by the creators of VR survival horror hit The Brookhaven Experiment. Although the CloudGate founders left before Brookhaven was complete, Island 359 is in some ways a similar project. Using an HTC Vive, players appear in a location and shoot enemies with a semi-realistic pistol, getting periodic rewards for surviving. In Brookhaven, those enemies were extradimensional monsters. In Island 359, they’re Jurassic Park-style dinosaurs: the hopping compy, deadly allosaurus, and cunning velociraptor, which will bay for its companions and then hunt you down in a pack.

But unlike Brookhaven, Island 359 — or at least the version that launches on Steam Early Access today — is not survival horror. For one thing, you can teleport freely around a level, instead of feeling the stress and powerlessness of being stuck in one place. For another, you’re not a random person stranded on the island, you’re a hired gun who’s flown in and given an arsenal of weaponry to meet some kind of dino-killing quota before heading back to your chopper. Why are there dinosaurs on this island? I have no idea. Why are mercenaries being sent in to shoot them? See answer above. What are the other 358 islands in this game, and what is happening on them? Again, no clue. I’m sure there’s going to be a logical explanation — maybe the dinosaurs are a bioweapon run amok, or a failed amusement park attraction, or a metaphor for scientific hubris. Practically, it's a great excuse to explore a potentially huge, sometimes beautiful location. But for now, I find the game’s straightforward Doom-style absurdity strangely compelling. Dinosaurs appeared on an island, and you have to fight them. Just go with it, okay?

Island 359 is a more ambitious project than The Brookhaven Experiment, and not just because of its comparatively sophisticated enemies and larger levels. While The Brookhaven Experiment’s horror setting provided an automatic jolt of adrenalin, Island 359 is moving away from pure fear and into action territory. It has to establish a more complex and less primal kind of connection with players, at least until they start getting into the game’s more intense situations. When you’re dropped on the island, for example, the compy dinosaurs you encounter first are more comical than dangerous, even when they’re attacking you. It takes a few minutes and a lot of nasty bites for their squawks to feel properly threatening. The velociraptors might be intimidating, but in broad daylight, there’s not the same sense of panic that Brookhaven’s darkness automatically created.

For now, Island 359 is very much an Early Access game. There’s no story mode in the $19.99 title yet, just the "mercenary" missions that have you run around the island racking up dinosaur kills. Its visuals are on the simple side, and its artificial intelligence — while much improved from a prototype I played in June — varies in quality. Sometimes the dinosaurs seem frighteningly canny, circling you and waiting until there’s a small group assembled to all strike at once. At other times, it’s just a matter of waiting patiently for them to appear and run straight toward you.

Still, the game’s fresh theme and smart design choices shine through. In my first preview, players could teleport between specific, preselected points, which became increasingly difficult to navigate when dinosaurs started swarming them. Now, you just have to look at any spot within reasonable distance and hit the trackpad. Your character will run there almost instantly, but their stamina will drain with each successive move, until you have to stay in one place for a few seconds to recover. The level design is matched well to your range of movement — each leap can put you into a new area with its own little collection of dinosaurs and bullets or bandages. Ammo scarcity isn’t a major mechanic so far, but gameplay is still a lot more measured and strategic than a wild arcade shooter like Space Pirate Trainer, and the small, agile enemies provide a greater challenge than Brookhaven’s shambling monsters.

It’s hard to say how well any Vive Early Access game will turn out, in part because teams like CloudGate are so tiny that going from prototype to finished product is a major uphill battle. Island 359’s quality will depend on elements that are imperfect now, like the dinosaurs’ behavior, and it’s not as immediately gripping as the horror of Brookhaven. But the game harnesses ‘90s touchstones like Jurassic Park in a way that still feels original, and it’s building on one of the most solid Vive genres. It’s a significant risk — but, unlike some VR prototypes, not a project that feels inherently too big to succeed.