When people say VR is still in the PlayStation-era, they usually mean it figuratively; developers are still working out the language of this new medium one game at a time. Bevan McKechnie has taken that analogy quite literally, though, and in the process discovered one of VR’s most concise shooters.
Compound’s trick is to breathe new life into the basics. It recaptures the revelatory 3D thrills of sneaking around Castle Wolfenstein, hugging a pixelated wall and quickly poking around a corner for a few pot shots at unsuspecting enemies, opening a door and leaping in fright at the sight of an armed goon opening fire, or the relief that comes with discovering a cache of health. But there’s renewed enthusiasm in unearthing the core of the first-person shooter that takes Compound far further than a faithful love letter.
Its simplicity is key. In this roguelike adventure, you enter the Compound and storm its many levels of randomized enemies, clearing out each floor before progressing to the next. Each time you die you’re sent back to the start with a new layout to tackle. There’s just four weapons to pick up right now, and only two can be taken with you at a time, but McKechnie has wisely strayed away from the tiresome dual-wielding lunacy that’s informed far too many VR shooters over the past few years in favor of reigning it back to one gun at a time.
Bombastic wave-shooting is replaced with decidedly more methodical combat, then, and it feels like exactly what VR needs. Compound doesn’t want you to aimlessly wave your hands out in front and exercise your trigger finger. It instead sets a slower pace; every bullet fired by an enemy is a large glowing orb that travels at a fraction of the speed of real lead. Light on realism, yes, but incoming attacks carry more threat to them than anything thrown at you in Robo Recall. The game gives you space to breathe and, more importantly, process a firefight rather than rush to overwhelm your senses in an attempt to disguise shallow design.
Weapons take a similar approach. Each gun has its own reloading system: while the standard laser pistol has a cooldown meter, the shotgun, machine gun and railgun all require you to manually load in a clip and then press a button to ready your next round. It helps set a deliberate pace to the shootouts, and at times forces you to switch between weapons as you push your back against the wall in hopes that enemies run out before your ammo does. In these moments, Compound summons much more of that blockbuster adrenaline than many of its contemporaries can muster.
Health plays a large part in that, too. Instead of a rebounding meter, Compound gives you hit points that can be replenished by eating burgers, which can be checked on a wrist-mounted UI. Protecting yourself and the past 10 minutes of progress is always on your mind and makes your moves more considered. Rushing in to blast baddies simply isn’t an option here; instead I found myself much more aware of my space in the environment. I’d clear rooms by inching inside, back pressed to a wall and attentively scanning every inch for signs of danger. When enemies return fire, I’d zip back behind a wall and wait for the right moment to strike, rather than brazenly opening fire. There’s an immediacy and sense of threat here that brings the action to life.
And all this is from a game created by a single developer and remains in Early Access. Compound is light on content right now, with just six levels to clear, but McKechnie is promising to at least triple the size of the game over the course of pre-release. Even in these six floors though, which can be played on different difficulties, I’ve found more to appreciate here than in entire campaigns. This is a VR shooter with a rejuvenating sense of direction and an understanding of how to keep players rooted in the action. Compound may be a nostalgia-fueled love letter, but it’s got a lot to learn from.
Compound is available now in Early Access on the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive for $19.99.