I had a funny case of deja vu last week. Firstly, I played and reviewed Henry The Hamster Handler, a game that caught me off guard with its quality seeing as I had never heard of developer Pocket Money Games before. Then I stumbled upon the trailer for Dimension Hunters (demo here), a new first-person shooter which again surprised me with just how good it looked. This time, though, I had heard of the developer.
You guessed it, it was Pocket Money Games.
Henry captured my attention with its solid mechanics and the value it offered players. Dimension Hunter, meanwhile, practically demanded our coverage with its stylish trailer that seemed to go a step above the polish we see in a lot of Vive shooters. Visually it reminded me of Platinum Games’ fondly-remembered, ultra-violent beat ’em up, MadWorld, while on-rails progression hinted at a game with more to offer than wave-based combat. Naturally, I was eager to get in contact, try out the game and talk to the developer, and that’s pretty much how I spent my weekend.
Pocket Money Games holds yet more surprises, though. Given what I’d seen from the developer so far I was expecting it to be formed of UK games industry veterans that had broken off from respected studios to try their hands at VR, a story we hear almost weekly in this scene. Instead, it’s headed up by Frankie Cavanagh, a lecturer at Northumbria University, who uses the studio as a vehicle to develop his student’s ideas with them.
“I wanted to create a studio that allowed any student to work on a real product and get their name on a real game,” Cavanagh tells me over Skype. “The idea was I’d start the studio and we’d build games with these very talented students that struggle to get into the industry. The idea was to have an open door policy.”
The team has been active for about six months and is based in the same building as developers like Hammerhead VR, Wolf & Wood Interactive and Oculus’ own UK office. Dimension Hunter is its first stab at a shooter. As the name suggests, it casts you as a dimension-hopping warrior that visits 10 different worlds, each with its own theme and connected by a strange facility that you hop to and fro throughout the campaign. Each dimension you visit will sport wave-based gameplay. The facility, meanwhile, uses the on-rails mechanics seen in the trailer to transport you between portals.
A lot of ideas are flowing through the studio. In fact, Cavanagh tells me Dimension Hunter was actually going to be shelved at one point, though one student’s persistence saved it. He also builds on my MadWorld comparison, noting that a lot of inspiration — and an underlying hint of humor — comes from British comic books like 2000 AD. The developer’s location is a “huge part” of why it looks this way, he says.
“I’m friends with Hammerhead and things like that,” Cavangah explains. “I’m one artist, Hammerhead are a team of artists and animators. So we have to be clever, we have to be stylistic, we have to change things.”
Indeed, playing through a short sci-fi orientated section of the game feels like rooting myself in an early Judge Dredd story, with a touch of the cartoon zaniness of Epic Games’ upcoming Robo Recall. It is complete with powerful weapons that I can change with a click of the Vive’s touchpads. Almost as if I was Dredd himself, my dual-wielded guns morph from standard pistols to more powerful bullets with a smaller clip size to chargeable shots with a big impact. You can mix and match which types to use, too.
Right now the standard pistol feels the most useful, perhaps due to ease of use, but you’ll be able to upgrade weapons so that others really start to shine too. It will be interesting to see just how in-depth that system goes; reload times, magazine sizes and damage dealt all feel very methodical, and balancing it out on your own could make for a great customization system.
I’ve only seen an on-rails section of the game, which Cavanagh compares to Time Crisis, but I almost feel as if that’s doing it somewhat of a disservice. Yes, you move along a set path, dodging big bright bullets, and using the Vive wands compares to the feel of a G-Con gun, but there’s true FPS satisfaction to having to duck behind cover and pop in and out using positional-tracking. As fun as they are, light gun games started to age just as soon as Halo hit the console scene, and Dimension Hunter is anything but dated.
On-rails movement is slow and refined so as to avoid simulator sickness, and sections are tightly designed so that there’s always cover to take advantage of, and enemies can appear from unexpected places. There will be a mode with recharging health, but the demo is designed to be challenging, and hugging a wall as you’re flanked by two sets of soldiers proves it. This isn’t a VR shooter you can simply blast through, and that’s refreshing to see.
Plus, Pocket Money is allowing you to choose how you move in these sections, with automatic and manual settings, the latter described as a “push-rail system” that allows you to move back and forth. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel”, Cavanagh says, instead suggesting Dimension Hunters is more of a fresh, solid take on something you’ve played before. Based on what I’ve played so far, that’s fine by me.
But I’m eager to see more. The other dimensions will range from Atlantis to post-apocalyptic themes with different enemy types that go beyond the standard crash test dummy humanoids and drones I fought in the on-rails section. Each dimension will end with a boss encounter, where the studio will also introduce dash mechanics for dodging (or teleportation, if you’d prefer).
As mentioned, Pocket Money Games launched a demo for Dimension Hunters today, with plans for a full release at some point this quarter. From there, the studio will bring the game to the Rift and PlayStation VR respectively.
Oh and PS VR owners don’t worry; I could tell in the demo that this was a game designed to avoid occlusion and other issues, and Cavanagh confirms this was done with Sony and, to a lesser extent, Oculus’ headsets in mind.
Just like Henry before it, Dimension Hunter might not be the most ambitious VR game, but it looks to be polished and varied, and it is most certainly something I’ll want to play when it launches soon.