GDC 2017: Augmented Empire Mixes X-COM With Mass Effect

by Jamie Feltham • February 28th, 2017

Strategy gamers have to keep on their toes. You need a keen tactical mind to prevail in RPGs like XCOM and the original Fallouts, thinking two steps ahead of the enemy at all times, or suffering the consequences. That’s why it’s important to play lots of them, to keep your mind sharp and your wits about you. If you’ve been playing VR for the past year, then, your brain might need a little warming up.

Fortunately, Augmented Empire is just what the doctor ordered.

 

This is the latest VR effort from Esper developer Coatsink, and an Oculus Studios title that’s exclusive to Gear VR. The team has been busy porting their past titles and Boneloaf’s Gang Beasts [Review: 7/10] to the Oculus Rift recently, but teased to us last year that it’s working on bigger and better things. I went to visit the Sunderland-based studio earlier this month and, based on what I saw, bigger and better is the right terminology.

In more ways than one, Augmented Empire is a vision of the future. In terms of story, the game’s set in a seedy, neo-noir city named New Savanna, located on a man-made island in the North Atlantic. Its streets are divided into three tiers, and where you live depends on how valuable its government rates you. High class citizens live life up in the fancy districts, while the lower class scrambles around in grimy alleyways and rainy sidewalks. Coatsink CEO Tom Beardsmore describes it as “Hunger Games-esque”, or like an episode of Black Mirror, and the links between 1984 and other Orwellian media aren’t hard to spot either.

You’re not just playing as one character here, but two. Your first protagonist is a mysterious figure that enjoys a cozy office space. But here’s the really interesting bit; Augmented Empire lives up to its name by simulating futuristic mixed reality within VR. The second character, a female protagonist, appears in an augmented diorama, which is where you’ll embrace the game’s strategy elements. It’s sort of like pulling a HoloLens from the future over your eyes.

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My demo of the game — on display at GDC this week — focuses on the tactical side of things. I play an early mission that introduces me to the basics, but anyone that’s played the most recent two XCOM games will find this like slipping on a pair of comfy slippers, with the caveat that the slippers might break your ankle if you make even the slightest foot wrong.

A group of militant-like enemies has picked a fight with me, and the first order of business is a golden rule to any SPRG: find cover. The map’s split into tiles that are highlighted in blue, looking very XCOM-ish. Moving around is as simple as looking at a tile that’s within my movement limit and tapping on the Gear VR’s touchpad to move there (gamepad support will be integrated too). Once I’m firmly rooted behind some barriers, I look at an enemy and tap to attack, but I don’t see the usual percentage meter above him, telling me how likely I am to hit. Curious.

Instead of that tried and true system, Empire is going with something a little riskier. As I select attack, a slider comes up and rapidly makes its way from left to right on a meter. To successfully land my shots, I have to tap once when the slider is over a dark blue section of the meter. If it tap in a smaller light blue section next to it, I’ll score a critical hit. If I tap either side those sections, I’ll miss.

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Just how large those blue sections are depends on how good of an angle and distance you are from the enemy. It’s still essential to flank and find good vantage points, as it will give you a much bigger opportunity to land a successful attack. This same system is also used to give you the chance to dodge incoming fire.

I’m immensely interested to see how SRPG fans react to this tweak on the established formula. Beardsmore says it came about after talking with Oculus about finding ways to keep the player engaged in every second of the action and not just watching your attacks. Based on my time, I think it’s a good alternative, though I do wonder if players will be able to find their rhythm and game the system so to speak, making it too easy.

That might be the case, but the punishing side of the SRPG genre is still alive and well when it comes to stats. In a second battle, in which I recruit someone to help fight with me, I’m nearly wiped out with my back against the wall and the enemy pressing the attack. Each of their hits carves out chunks of my health, and its only thanks to the second character’s rifle that I’m able to hold them off.

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Coatsink says there will be six characters in your team, and you’ll be able to take three out on missions at a time. “Recruitment is a big aspect,” Beardsmore says, shifting towards the non-combat side of the game. While Empire’s battles may be influenced by XCOM, the developer likens its character interactions and side-missions to an RPG favorite: Mass Effect 2.

“The thing I loved about Mass Effect 2 was those missions where you were finding your team,” he says. “They were just glorious with how each one was different and displayed a different aspect of the game.” The team is taking that on board here. You’ll be able to choose your dialogue lines with characters, and your choices will affect the game’s ending, while missions can be tackled in an order of your choosing.

Coatsink also wants to replicate the presentation of Bioware’s epic here, with fully voiced characters that will have their own stories and varied missions. “How we’re going to load that onto Gear VR at the moment we’re not sure because it’s a big package,” Beardsmore explains, reassuring that the team is looking into ways to do it.

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In fact, it’s an ambitious game for mobile VR all round; wouldn’t the Oculus Rift have been a safer bet? “Gear VR is many people here’s favorite VR platform, because the limitations allow you to build real quality within them,” Beardsmore says, adding that he believes that Augmented Empire will be viewed as a great game regardless of platform, and says there aren’t any plans for a Rift port yet.

Overall Coatsink is aiming to offer around nine hours of gameplay here, and there’s a lot left to see. The first-person element will play a big role too, but Coatsink is keeping tight-lipped on what it might entail.

“We really want to keep pushing the boat out and keep trying new things while also appeasing our own creative desires to build these kind of games,” Beardsmore concludes. If you’ve been calling out for this type of content, then I suggest you keep an eye on Augmented Empire.

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