In Arizona Sunshine, VR breathes new life into the undead
We've seen zombie apocalypse fiction in nearly every form of storytelling, from TV and movies to comics and video games. With virtual reality opening up a new media frontier, it's inevitable the undead will creep into your favorite VR headset. Arizona Sunshine, a game as imperfect as the genre is overused, still manages to put you inside the zombie Armageddon like never before.
Out of all forms of virtual reality, room-scale VR, where you're free to physically move about a room-sized space, is the most immersive. It's the mode developer Vertigo Games chose for Arizona Sunshine for the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.
Like many room-scale games, it not only lets you explore your immediate surroundings by walking around your real room, but also to teleport for locomotion around the larger world. While the teleporting makes no logical sense within the story (the protagonist is no wizard), it manages to get you around without making you feel like you're going to hurl. Consider it a mental shortcut for walking and running.
There's a lot to lure you in: the sensations of physically reaching into a car's backseat to loot left-behind ammo, raising your real arms to fire a pistol and shotgun at attacking walkers, or simply strolling around (with your real feet) within a sun-drenched and zombie-infected southwestern U.S.
That deep level of immersion also helps to mask – or at least more easily forgive – some of the game's imperfections:
For example, the same zombie character models are repeated far too often. The developer could have tripled or quadrupled the available undead character types, so we didn't feel like we were having the same battle ten times in a row.
Most encounters involve getting cornered by a swarm of undead while shooting like mad to fend them off: The points where the game mixes up strategy (like helming a sniper rifle or discovering a box of grenades) lend a refreshing unpredictably that we'd liked to have seen more of.
If you leave behind the wrong weapon, you may have to backtrack through confusing corridors to reacquire the only firearm the game has given you enough ammo for at that stage.
There were points where, at first, I thought the game was expecting me to take out impossible hordes of zombies that had rushed around me. But after doggedly looking for a better route, there was inevitably a nook hiding some grenades, a nearby cave where I could more easily isolate attackers, or a hidden ammo stash. In that sense, the game has an old-school feel: If you're stumped (you likely will be more than once), the problem is probably your strategy rather than the game's design.
There appears to be a strong The Last of Us influence. The actor voicing the protagonist sounds like he's cut from the same cloth as Troy Baker's Joel from the 2013 PlayStation title. There are similar puzzles, like looting abandoned hideouts for bullets and health, or searching for spare parts to fire up generators. At least one of the zombie character models even has fungus growing around its head, a model frequently seen in the 2013 console classic.
Story could be stronger and clearer: I was often confused about exactly who the protagonist was searching for. But with first-person VR experiences like this, it's easy to find yourself engrossed in the experience regardless. Trying to make it to the next milepost is all you care about – even if you forget what McGuffin the game has contrived for you as motivation. You care because it's you and you're there.
If you can accept the flaws, you'll be hard-pressed to find a more hypnotic virtual reality gaming world. The environments in the single-player campaign have unique backdrops to spark your interest in this post-human world (including the token abandoned-cars-on-a-highway scene, and an old mine entrance that conjures visions of what the place must have looked like before the outbreak). The visuals, while a hair cartoonish, looked convincing and attractive enough with our GTX 1070 setup.
I find this style of VR game to be incredibly engrossing. Room-scale movement, combined with teleporting through a larger virtual world, puts you inside a work of fiction like no other medium. In a few years we'll look back on early titles like this and laugh at how primitive they looked, but today it's a mesmerizing sneak preview of what our immersive gaming future could look like.
While we tested Arizona Sunshine on the HTC Vive, it's also available for the Oculus Rift (though with less reliable room-scale). It rings up for $40 on Steam or $33.49 on the Oculus Store. Despite its foibles, the (roughly) four-hour journey is our current top recommendation for the Vive.
Developer page: Vertigo Games