Everyone’s got their own ideas on how to solve locomotion in VR. Climax Studios’ is to tie a bunch of balloons to a chair and give you a virtual joystick to control yourself as you float through the air. They’ve also given you a gun so that you can shoot down other player’s balloons and cause them to hurtle to their deaths. It’s like Up, only instead of tying balloons to your house and seeing the world, you fix them to your seat and go on a rampage.
That sounds alright, doesn’t it?
Balloon Chair Death Match is better than alright, though. Based on a few early rounds of this new first-person shooter, it’s one of the most fun and frantic multiplayer games coming to VR headsets right now and totally unlike any other FPS yet seen.
Though Climax has already worked on four VR games, this is its first to land on the HTC Vive, as well as the Oculus Rift. It’s also only releasing on Steam for now and not on the Oculus Store, where all its previous releases have hit. As such, there’s a sense of the developer taking off its VR training wheels and going at it alone here, which is exciting territory for a team that also handles ports and spin-offs for publishers like Sony and Ubisoft, such as with Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China.
Not too surprisingly, Balloon Chair Death Match was born from a joke. “We were looking for VR ideas based around a moving character, but with emphasis on user comfort and reducing motion sickness,” Designer Russ Earwaker tells me. “In one of these sessions, we had a few really nice ideas and the discussion was going well. At the end of the session I threw in Balloon Chair Death Match as a bit of a joke to try and get the guys laughing.”
As you can tell, the joke went down pretty well. Six months on from completing a tech demo, Balloon Chair Death Match is ready for release in Early Access. It features a cityscape map that up to four players can dart around in. The aim is to rack up kills by causing other players to crash into floors, bridges, or oncoming vehicles. Instead of aiming at other players, you’ll instead shoot their balloons. Each pop brings them closer to the ground below, though they’ll also be able to refuel with a gas meter that can be topped up with pick ups.
Balloon Chair Death Match is a brilliantly vertical shooter. While being closer to the floor means increased risk of death, you might also find it easier to sneak up on opponents from below. To that end, you can even shoot your own balloons to manipulate your height. Having fewer balloons also makes you harder to hit.
In fact, aiming is one of the game’s biggest challenges. While it’s easy to get the first few hits in on a player with lots of balloons, the less targets you have the harder you’ll find it to hit them. This is especially true when moving, as you’ll often find that looking down your sights with your target in view isn’t as effective as anticipating where your target will be next. It takes a lot of getting used to, but it ends up making direct hits much more rewarding and Earwaker says they find players quickly improve.
These combined elements make Balloon Chair Death Match a very different beast from anything that’s come before. Though matches might start off quiet as you skim the skies for enemies, the building tension literally bursts a few seconds in as one player spots another. It can be tricky to locate where you’re being attacked from, but that’s because Balloon Chair Death Match is one of the first VR games where you really could come under fire at any angle. You’ll twist your head around in desperation, and then hopelessly return fire as you begin to descend.
Over time you’ll learn to become more aware of your surroundings and hone in on sounds that might give away the enemy’s position. You’ll know when to go into fight mode and when to go into flight mode, making a quick escape so that you can get some breathing room and come back for more. More often than not you’ll either be grinning as you gun one player down, or biting your lip as you struggle to survive.
All of this is possible from the comfort of a seat, not using room-scale. Earwaker points out that this means more people will be able to play the game, rather stripping down the already small VR install base to just those with big enough play areas for a chair.
Besides, Balloon Chair Death Match is more about going up and down than it is walking around a room. “We want the verticality of the map to make a notable difference to gameplay and strategy,” Earwaker says. “When you’re down to your last balloon and the enemy is raining bullets down on you, you want to be able to escape. A city level naturally has more cover low down, so players in a disadvantaged position will have a chance to dodge and weave, to flee and prepare a counter-attack.”
Players with more balloons will also travel slower, giving those on their last legs a real advantage over others. Get low, and you’ll be able to duck and weave through the city to make a hasty retreat.
Another way to get some practice in is with the single-player challenge mode, which lets you take on time and score-based trials. It’s a neat extension to the base multiplayer gameplay, though Climax is potentially considering other types of single-player content at the moment.
Going forward, Climax plans to add more maps, modes, and weapons to the game, with a full release aiming for around mid-2017. Earwaker expectedly tells me that the team would like to bring the game to PS VR, though it’s focused on the PC version for now.
There are plenty of multiplayer VR shooters available, especially with the arrival of Touch last week. Based on what I’ve played so far, Balloon Chair Death Match is still one that deserves your attention, especially if it’s to grow into the game Climax wants to to be. I, for one, hope it gets that chance.
Balloon Chair Death Match is currently available on Steam with official support for the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift at a discounted price of $14.99/£11.39. The standard price from December 20th is $24.99/£18.99. Tracked motion controllers are required to play.