A first-person magic dueling game. A third-person, Altered Beast-style brawler. An Antarctic horror adventure. The developers at Insomniac Games, one of the most reliable console studios of the past decade, plan to release a trio of virtual reality games this year, all published by Oculus Rift and exclusive to the PC platform. "We're very much VR true believers," Insomniac's Chad Dezern told Kotaku last week during a run-down of the VR games. He was helping to explain the new frontiers the veteran, independent studio behind Ratchet & Clank, Resistance and Sunset Overdrive is now exploring. "We're kind of all-in in working out a lot of mechanics and bringing everything we know about making games to VR. We're trying to marry the depth of games we've been making for years [and go] beyond the novelty factor."
Dezern is the creative director on The Unspoken, one of Insomniac's surprise VR games being unveiled today. It's a "holiday" 2016 first-person action game featuring player vs player spell-casting magician duels. The game is set in Chicago and sees the player battling their way through an urban magic fight club. The game will use the Oculus Rift VR headset and the forthcoming Oculus Touch controllers to allow players to use their hands to cast more than two dozen unlockable spells. A trailer shows the player throwing fireballs and magic javelins and drawing shields:
The battles happen online in real-time. You'll move your hands around to cast spells as you duel. The player you're battling will do the same. The enemy character you see in VR is puppeteered by them. As you learn the hand movements to cast spells, you'll be able to recognise which spell your opponent is conjuring with their hands. That will help you prepare a counter spell, say a shield to use against a projectile attack. Dezern said that spells will be more potent if you time them well.
Already announced last year is Edge of Nowhere, which will be Insomniac's first VR release when it comes out on June 6. It's another Oculus Rift exclusive but, unlike The Unspoken, it is controlled with a standard game controller. We tried a few minutes of this one back at E3 last year and it played like an Antarctic virtual reality take on a Tomb Raider or Uncharted game, with lots of climbing and some combat in a dramatic natural environment.
Insomniac is also calling this game "Lovecraftian", since it has a healthy helping of horror. Our hero, Victor Howard, is tracking down his fiancee's lost expedition but also finds monsters and begins to go mad. The game is played from a third-person perspective, with the virtual reality wrap-around graphics being used to emphasise the sheer drops down cliffsides.
The studio's other VR game is Feral Rites, a spring 2016 brawler also designed for a controller. You play as Kai, a man or woman (player's choice) who can transform into a beast and who has returned to their remote jungle island home to avenge the murder of their father, the island's former chief. Lead designer Cameron Christian said the game will focus on melee combat but will also involve exploration and backtracking.
Feral Rites is played from a third-person perspective with the camera pinned to specific spots in each of the game's areas, similar to the camera in the original Resident Evil or the one used in the Rift launch game Chronos. Christian said the VR camerawork is also being used to enhance the effect of special finishing moves.
Possibly the best news about the game is that it's a mini-reunion of developers from the studio's terrific Xbox One exclusive Sunset Overdrive, with Christian coming over from having worked on the traversal system for that game and Sunset's creative director Marcus Smith helming the project.
Insomniac has taken an odd path since spending a decade just making games for PlayStation. In 2014 they put out an Xbox One exclusive. Last year they even released some mobile games. They have a game coming this winter that will be published by GameStop. And now they're making a big commitment to VR. This trio of games is a big bet by Insomniac that virtual reality gaming can be satisfying for developers and players. The Oculus publishing support, backed with Facebook money, can't hurt, either.
Insomniac's involvement in VR should give the young platform a better shot at being more than a fad. Many of the released or announced games for the Rift and its current rival, the Valve-backed Vive, are skimpy or rough-edged. They mostly come from small indies. The idea that people who have made full-scale, fun, technically impressive PS2, PS3, PS4 and Xbox One games are now making games in VR should be encouraging.
Even Sony's showcases for its late-2016 VR headset for PS4 have been dominated by games from small indies. The likes of EA, Activision, Take Two and Bethesda have yet to announce any VR titles, with only Ubisoft among the big Western publishers showing VR games in development.
This could all change come E3 in June, but for now, Oculus having a trio of games from Insomniac is a significant get. A studio of Insomniac's calibre making VR games improves the odds that VR gaming can prove to be more than a gimmick and be worth a gamer's money and time.