Hover Junkers for HTC Vive: One of VR's first killer games is like being in a real gunfight

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With the consumer HTC Vive set to ship in a few weeks, we're now getting a clearer picture of the marquee games that will be launching alongside the VR headset on SteamVR. At the very top of that list may be StressLevelZero's Hover Junkers, a ridiculously fun multiplayer first-person shooter that reminds us that gunplay in VR goes places your typical Halo or Call of Duty could never dream of going.

The HTC Vive includes two (rather excellent) motion controllers in its box, but the Vive's real controller is your body. When your head and both hands are being tracked and you have the freedom to move around a space as big as a room, the controllers cease to be the main attraction. They're merely a gateway to the freedom of a fully physical, full-body VR experience.

Hover Junkers is the perfect showcase for that – and it also may be the best argument yet for investing US$799 in the Vive.

Ten minutes or so into my Hover Junkers demo, at StressLevelZero's Los Angeles headquarters, I'm lying flat on my belly, peeking through a crack in my ship's wall, trying to line up a shot on the scavenger firing at me from the opposing hovercraft. Damn, another miss. I raise my arm to fire blindly using the shotgun in my left hand, a low-risk move with an equally low chance of success. Should have known: didn't even glaze him. After making sure I'm loaded up on ammo, I take my chances and creep up into a crouching position to line up a better shot with the revolver in my right hand. I'm using the cover as much as possible, but still risking greater exposure by popping my head up. My enemy is in my sights, and I in his ...

BLAM!!

Whether I hit my target that time or just got my own head blown off doesn't really matter. What's important is that I was inside something that felt like much more than a video game. My entire body was in the experience, reacting viscerally and intuitively as if I was really in a gunfight. As StressLevelZero co-founder Alex Knoll says, "Hover Junkers is more like paintball or laser tag than it is a first-person shooter."

... only you can't play paintball or laser tag in your living room. And, while their gunplay is similar, they can't transport you to post-apocalyptic wastelands, let you pilot your own hovercraft or play against people on the other side of the world. This is something entirely new, courtesy of the magic of VR.

Hover Junkers started after Knoll and fellow co-founder Brandon Laatsch paid a visit to Valve's early room-scale VR demos, even before the Vive was announced as a consumer product. They were so eager to make something for it that they were disheartened on hearing about Valve's original consumer launch estimate for its room-sized setup: 2017 or 2018. Not long after that, though, HTC came onboard and development accelerated.

Knoll's response: "When can we go?"

"The second that we found out about the Vive, we had the core concept of this game figured out in about 20 minutes. We just knew [...] all players are gonna have rooms that they're gonna play this in. Let's turn their rooms into vehicles. Let's give them guns, let's let them shoot at each other. The core concept of the game: done."

Turning your room into a vehicle is part of the genius behind Hover Junkers. The Vive will give VR early adopters more physical freedom than any other platform at launch, but even a playing space that size is still extremely confined compared to the freedom of movement you have in most traditional action games. Think of how much ground a player covers in the latest Batman, Halo or Call of Duty title, and suddenly a 15 x 15 ft. space doesn't sound quite so mobile.

Putting you on a hovercraft solves that, and several other problems. You now have both real-world physical mobility (walking around your room/the ship's deck) and larger virtual world mobility (piloting your room/the craft around Hover Junker's wastelands). And since the craft is hovering on a level plane, you don't get the slopes and bumps that you'd get from standard vehicles – those things could make players sick. It also employs the cockpit effect, a VR mechanic that uses stationary nearby objects (in this case, the deck and walls of the hovercraft) to stabilize you from the effects of environmental motion, preventing motion sickness.

I experienced nothing close to nausea in my demo. On the contrary, moving the hovercraft felt comfortable and exhilarating.

At launch, the game will consist of 10 multiplayer maps where you'll pilot your hovercraft, searching for parts to build up your ship's defenses (the walls you take cover behind) and, once you run into enemy hovercrafts (the other players in your match), try to take them out. You can do drive-bys, hoping to land a lucky shot as you zip your hovercraft past theirs (I failed miserably every time I tried this) or bring your craft to a halt and let the shells fly from both sides.

Since matches include eight players, though, another enemy ship can sneak up on you from another direction while you're busy having a wild west style shootout with your first enemy. So you need to keep some awareness of your surroundings, or, even better, communicate with your shipmate to make sure all the ship's angles are covered. It's ultimately a social experience.

Just describing it, that gameplay may not sound radically different from hundreds of other first-person shooters from the last decade. But, again, we can't overstate how far away this is from moving an analog stick or mouse, or mashing buttons on a gamepad or keyboard. When you take cover, you're really crouching, if not lying down. When you emerge from cover to fire, you're popping up your own body, extending your own arm and squeezing the trigger on the Vive controller. And when you're aiming, you apply the same principles from real-world firearms: you have to try to hold your hand steady, line up the sights and squeeze.

If you're thinking "this sounds like an intense workout," you're right. After playing three or four matches, I was a little out of breath.

"You're gonna burn some calories," Knoll told us. "You're gonna be exercising. But then there's also, on the opposite side, a lot of people who aren't as physically fit and are worried about playing it. And we just want to make it pretty clear you don't have to."

"We have found that it is possible to play seated. There's a certain charm to playing seated: it sort of slows you down and it forces you to relax and take your time."

It's hard to imagine Hover Junkers being anywhere near as much fun if you played sitting down, but the option is there. Knoll says there also isn't necessarily a strategic advantage for those playing like me, as if they were a five-year-old playing army with toy guns in the backyard. "You can win easily sitting down vs. someone who's jumping up and down and scrambling, because somebody who's jumping up and down, their aim is gonna be a little bit more erratic and more scrambled. It can be played at pretty much any energy level that you want."

The game also adapts to different sizes of playing spaces. There are smaller and larger hovercrafts, and, even if you don't want to play sitting down, you can still choose between making your playing space as big as an entire room or as small as just enough space to swing your arms around. In this way, it's the ideal showcase piece for the Vive: room-scale is there if you want it – and that probably will be where you have the most fun – but you don't have to devote a huge space to it.

In addition to the multiplayer shootout, there's also going to be a single-player campaign coming via free software update (launching as soon as several weeks after the game launches) that borrows from, of all places, educational classic The Oregon Trail. "The idea behind single player is that it is essentially a little bit of a break from the intense multiplayer. So there is no real-time combat in single-player, other than if you count hunting. Just like in Oregon Trail, we're gonna have a hunting module where you're gonna hunt animals for food."

The single player campaign will follow the Oregon Trail formula almost to a T, tasking you with keeping your family members alive, rationing supplies and dealing with broken parts on your ship. Little Suzie will get dysentery and, if you can't nurse her back to health in time, other players will see her burial site as they hover past on their own journeys.

We didn't get the chance to play the single-player campaign, but it sounds like an interesting yin to the multiplayer's yang. One is fast, furious and (if you want it to be) physical; the other a throwback to a game you played on an Apple II on days when your high school history teacher called in sick.

We'll run a full review after the game officially launches, but based on our first jaunt into Hover Junker's wastelands, it looks like it should be at the top of the list of anyone who's buying the Vive. I can't wait to jump back into these gunfights and burn more calories than I ever did on that Wii Fit that sat in my closet for years, collecting dust.

Hover Junkers will launch when the HTC Vive ships in early April. Knoll says the company aims to support as many platforms and headsets as possible, including (hopefully) the Oculus Rift at some point down the road, but right now the focus is strictly on the Vive/SteamVR.

If you're buying the Vive, you'll be able to get Hover Junkers on Steam for $35 as soon as you get the headset. The video below, with split-screen real and virtual footage, gives you a pretty good sense of what the game is like.

Product page: StressLevelZero

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