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Is Sony’s new gun controller the future of VR shooters?

It starts with Farpoint

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales

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Sony thinks it has the solution for first-person shooters in virtual reality — and it looks like a white plastic tube with a glowing ball on the end. Today the company is releasing its long-in-development Aim Controller, a gun accessory for PlayStation VR, which launches alongside showpiece sci-fi VR shooter Farpoint. In tandem, the two are meant to prove that one of gaming’s most popular genres can be every bit as good in VR as it is with a standard display.

For Seth Luisi, co-founder of Farpoint developer Impulse Games, the Aim Controller is a dream that’s been in the works for some time. Seven years ago, he served as Sony’s director of product development, where he worked on a PS3 accessory called the Sharp Shooter. It was essentially a gun-like case for the motion-enabled PlayStation Move controller that allowed players to aim by pointing at the screen.

During playtesting, Luisi noticed a large gulf between what players expected from the accessory, and what was actually possible on a 2D screen. People wanted a one-to-one interaction; to turn the gun over in their hands in the real world, and see their virtual avatar do the same. “It worked really well and it was really fun to use,” Luisi says of the Sharp Shooter, “but it almost felt like you were controlling a puppet in another world.”

Years later he co-founded Impulse Gear, a new studio focused entirely on the burgeoning field of VR games. It was then that Luisi realized he could finally achieve the sense of immersion that Sharp Shooter testers had wanted. “When VR came along it opened up that opportunity,” he says. “That’s when everything started falling into place.” Along with developing a new game, which would go on to become Farpoint, the team started experimenting with creating a gun peripheral, hacking together Sharp Shooters to work with VR. Eventually they brought the idea to Sony, and the final product is billed as a joint effort between Impulse and Sony’s hardware design team in Tokyo.

The Aim Controller is a sleeker, more solid refinement of the Sharp Shooter. Its tube-like structure is comfortable to hold, while the plentiful buttons — which offer all the same inputs as a standard PS4 controller — are placed within reach of your fingers. The hardware was also tailored specifically for VR. For instance, the buttons and triggers on the Aim Controller needed to be easy to find, because in VR you can’t look down to see where a button is.

The Aim Controller also didn’t need to look like a gun because you don’t actually see the accessory while you’re playing. “We can make it look like whatever we want it to look like,” says Luisi. In fact, the abstract tube style was actually designed in part so that the controller would look good when you weren’t in VR. “The focus was to make it look like the PSVR,” explains Luisi, “to make it look like it belonged with that family.”

“We can make it look like whatever we want it to look like.”

In the case of Farpoint, the Aim Controller transforms into a series of detailed sci-fi weapons, the kind you’d expect to see in games like Halo or Destiny. The game takes place in the far future, when a science team is pulled through a space anomaly and crash-lands on an unknown alien world. You play as a lone member of the team searching for your comrades — all while blowing away the plentiful giant alien bugs you’ll encounter. It’s not an especially original premise, but it provides plenty of opportunity for shooting.

Farpoint plays something like a cross between a typical blockbuster console shooter — complete with lengthy cutscenes, audio logs, and online co-op — and peripheral-focused arcade shooters like House of the Dead. The planet consists of a series of straightforward corridors, and you’ll spend lots of time hiding behind cover, shooting waves of dangerous aliens. But Farpoint’s somewhat generic setting and structure are elevated by the immersion that comes from VR — and by the Aim Controller in particular.

There’s something exciting about seeing a complex rifle in front of you, and being able to turn it over in your hands as if it was really there. And Farpoint utilizes a number of gestures and design flourishes to make the virtual weapon feel even more realistic. There’s the way you actually need to hold the gun up to your face to peer through the scope and shoot faraway enemies, or the way you swap weapons by lifting the gun to your shoulder, as if there was another firearm strapped to your back. After a few minutes it’s easy to forget that you’re really holding a white plastic tube.

The gunplay is incredibly intuitive, but Farpoint still falters somewhat when it comes to locomotion. While many VR FPS games are on rails, or use techniques like warping to minimize movement, Farpoint gives you direct control. You move using an analog stick to guide your avatar, freeing up your hands and vision for aiming. This means that the movement will be more familiar if you’ve played lots of traditional shooters, but it also feels too artificial and floaty compared to standard FPS games. And like most VR shooters, movement takes getting used to — at times it feels like pushing an avatar through levels, as opposed to walking through them.

There are also elements of the experience that differ from standard shooters, thanks to the addition of the Aim Controller. For one thing, the team had to make the game harder. Most first-person shooters feature some degree of aim assist, making it easier for players to hit their targets. But during testing the team found that these kinds of aids weren’t necessary because of the greater level of accuracy offered by the Aim Controller. “We don’t need any of it,” Luisi says. Instead, they needed to make the enemies slightly tougher, faster, and more agile to provide players with an adequate challenge. The harsh world of Farpoint features skittering spiders that will crawl up walls and jump directly at your face, and giant crab creatures that charge forward with reckless abandon. Even with the Aim Controller they can be tough to kill.

At the same time, Farpoint is also much more approachable than typical console shooters. You don’t need much experience with the genre to understand how the Aim Controller works. “People who wouldn’t normally play these kinds of games can get right in, and they’re really good at it,” Luisi says. “Because there’s not this controller getting in the way of their experience.”

Given that they were developed alongside each other, it’s not surprising that Farpoint and the Aim Controller work well together. But the future of the peripheral also hinges on it being more than just an add-on for a decent VR shooter. There are a handful of other PSVR titles with Aim Controller support in the works — including futuristic action game ROM: Extraction, and monster shooter The Brookhaven Experiment — but it’s impossible to say whether the $49.99 accessory will have much life beyond that.

Farpoint is the showcase for the Aim Controller, and its aim is not just to sell people on a new piece of hardware, but to show that there’s more to virtual reality than quirky toys and tech demos. Compared to the PS4’s biggest hits, the best PSVR games to date have largely been smaller, less full-featured experiencesFarpoint doesn’t completely change this paradigm. It’s not as robust as the best console shooters, but it shows the potential for what a VR-exclusive blockbuster game could look like. It’s big, beautiful, and intense — and it’s all the better when you’re holding a strange molded piece of plastic.