The indie revolution that has dominated this console generation has paved the way for a welcome return of couch-based multiplayer, a feature that was drowned out by the influx of online-only games 10 years ago. But doesn’t VR, a technology that obscures your vision of a room and anyone in it, pose an even bigger threat to face-to-face gaming? Let’s put that to the test with what’s arguably the definitive local multiplayer game of the past few years: Gang Beasts.
For those that don’t know, Gang Beasts is multiplayer brawler played from an isometric view. Each player controls a stubby character that they’ll lead into battle, attempting to pick up opponents and throw them off of the sides of trucks and into meat grinders, and the last man standing wins. It’s like across between Super Smash Bros and River City Rampage. Esper developer Coatsink is helping Boneloaf port it to both the Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR. For now, that translates to a ‘diorama mode’ that keeps the same overhead camera position.
So why would you want to take part of that experience away and put on a VR headset? Well, for one thing, you still won’t be alone; the inclusion of VR support has practically demanded the integration of online play, a long-requested feature. “Without online in VR, it’s a very lonely game to play,” Boneloaf’s James Brown tells me. “So everyone put together that we would have to do that anyway.”
Online support wasn’t announced until after the VR version’s reveal at last year’s Oculus Connect, which led to an awkward period as the team’s Matt Thomas describes: “The whole time people were asking us about online we were like ‘Yeah, maybe. Maybe it will come’.” That mode has finally arrived and fans have VR to thank for it.
The online functionality was simulated in a way at this year’s EGX Rezzed in London. Four players sat together over a local connection, but when you strap on the Oculus Rift you might as well be by yourself. You can imagine the laughs and cries of panic that surround you instead being shouted down the built-in microphone when online, and the isolation that VR provides doesn’t drown them out in any way. It’s still a somewhat disturbing joy to latch your arm onto an enemy, lift them high and drag them over a barrier as they kick and squirm, then mercilessly let go and watch them fall.
I can’t help grinning like an idiot as I barge into one player and send him stumbling into the jaws of death in the meat factory level. I hear a anguished “No!” as the red player sinks into a pair of rotating meat grinders and I laugh. Moments later, I’m getting a taste of my own medicine as I’m hastily picked up and carelessly tossed off of the map, and I exchange the same cry of failure while another laugh picks up. Simply put, the isolation of VR isn’t affecting any of the sheer fun we’re having.
Here, though, you can lean into the action and frame a shot how you want it. VR is your own personal camera. That also brings some new dynamics to the experience, as you can check for incoming danger. A mad scramble on train tracks becomes even more desperate when you’re hurriedly looking back and forth for signs of a train. A punch-up on moving trucks used to be decided at random as signs appeared from nowhere to knock you away, but now you can look to the right to give yourself ample warning and move aside.
VR is changing Gang Beasts in unanticipated ways, then, but Boneloaf wants to keep the experience consistent. “We’re just trying to work through that process and trying to merge the various different builds and projects for the game together so that we end up with a very consistent experience between online and local,” Brown tells me. The developer wants to keep things fair, which means that modes like local multiplayer in which only one player uses the Rift/PSVR might not make it in, though they are being experimented with.
That’s not to say the developer isn’t testing deeper waters. Brown and Thomas talk of experiments with letting unskilled players join in by altering the environment. What you probably won’t see, though, is a first-person mode. In fact, Boneloaf tested such an experience in which one player stepped into the shoes of their fighter, but came away comparing the experience to Saving Private Ryan. As anyone that’s beaten up #SelfieTennis’ deformed tennis men will know, maybe that’s not something you want to experience.
Importantly, Brown doesn’t want VR support to dominate Gang Beasts with its release, which is likely to reach the Early Access version before Oculus Home. The developer rightly notes that there are going to be times players just don’t want to put the headset on, and it’s crucial that they’re getting the same experience when they don’t.
Perhaps that’s what’s key to Gang Beasts’ VR support: it’s additive. Playing in VR doesn’t rob you of the joys of local multiplayer as much as you might suspect, but that original option is still always going to be there. What this means is that, when you don’t have a group of friends around for an evening of punches, ear pulls and head-butts, you’ll finally have the option to go online, find your friends over the Oculus ecosystem, Steam or PlayStation Network, and do it all over the internet instead.
But let’s close with a suggestion. Both Coatsink and Boneloaf are still testing out what they can go with Gang Beasts VR. Wouldn’t it be great to get a virtual theatre mode in which four friends, represented as avatars, and meet up and play it on a giant screen? We have seen this in other applications like BigScreen, for example, but it would be nice to see supported more broadly – especially for use cases like this one.