Hands-On: Apex Construct Is Exciting Proof That Full VR-Only Games Are Nearly Here
I had a hunch about Apex Construct the moment I laid eyes on it. In its reveal trailer, the debut title from Stockholm-based Fast Travel Games didn’t necessarily look like the earth-shattering VR experience that would get untold scores of gamers to rush out and buy a headset, but it did seem to signify something. To me, at least, it suggested that the true second wave of VR content that consists of actual games with full campaigns instead of recycled wave shooters is nearing.
Now that I’ve played it, I’m even more convinced that’s the case.
Apex Construct takes one of VR’s more tried and true mechanics — firing a bow and arrow — and builds an entire game around it. This isn’t a shooting gallery in which you scale leaderboards, but instead a full world that you’re going to traverse over several diverse levels with an engaging story to uncover as you go. While it might not match the AAA production values of, say, a Battlefield game (a series which members of Fast Travel have worked on), there’s a tangible sense that you’re playing something by people who understand what makes a great single-player campaign.
The game’s plot is somewhat shrouded in mystery; you awaken in a distant future in the middle of the kind of lush, green post-apocalyptic setting seen in games like The Last of Us and Enslaved. As your surroundings fade into view you’re greeted by the sultry voice of Fathr, an AI construct that serves as your guide through this brave new world. It’s not immediately obvious why the world is the way it is (nor why your right hand has been replaced with a mechanical supplement) but one thing is clear from the start: you’re not alone.
Apex Construct’s world is infested with robotic creepy crawlies, initially resembling giant spiders but later morphing into other forms like exploding dogs. They pose a significant threat, firing energy blasts that will take you down in just a few hits, and you’ll need to master your archery skills in order to dispatch them as quickly as possible.
Combat, then, is one of Apex Construct’s defining features, and it feels refined, energetic and, most importantly, very cool. You might have become an expert with your bow and arrow in Skyrim VR, but the mechanics are a little more complicated here. The game has an upgrade system, accessed by collecting experience points from dead enemies and finding secret areas, that you can use to increase the force of your bow. At its basic level, though, you’ll find an arrow’s trajectory arches considerably, and you’ll have to compensate for that while juggling dodges and positioning. I found my first few encounters to be deceptively tricky; what might seem like a perfect shot turns to wasted effort as the arrow slides under a robot’s legs, or my enemy shifts back at the last second.
Apex Construct isn’t going to hand you easy victories (I died four times in the space of an hour); you’re going to need to get used to your tools on a human level if you’re coming to come out on top.
Part of what makes the action feel so smooth and keeps it from getting frustrating are the control options afforded to the player. Apex Construct supports seamless teleportation and, announced for the first time today, smooth locomotion, but it integrates both in a very natural way. On each VR controller, you’ll be able to use both types of movement. On Vive, for example, you hold the upper half of the left touchpad to bring up the teleportation indicator, while the bottom half has you smoothly moving in the direction your controller is pointing.
This makes the game’s movement a little more versatile than I’m used to in VR, and gives smooth locomotion players quick access to a handy reset teleportation when they find themselves inevitably stuck on terrain or searching for the next path to take.
When you’re not battling baddies, though, Apex Construct still has plenty to offer. Its world, for example, is a joy to explore in VR, with scenes that will make you stop and marvel. Early on I find a traffic light leaning down into my path, still ticking expectantly as if it was waiting for morning commuters to show up at any minute. A few seconds later and I’m treated to a twisted vista in which collapsed buildings make way for picturesque waterfalls. It’s highly interactive, too; you’ll find notes left behind from the world as we know it that you can pick up, draws and cupboards can be opened in hopes of finding more supplies and even the pine cones that litter the floor can be seized and thrown.
The story, meanwhile, isn’t what it first seems; Fathr may be helping you, but audio diaries found on computers suggest he’s not what he first appears, as does his Ultron-like gravely voice which hides hurt and anger within it.
Fast Travel finds inventive uses for the bow and arrow beyond combat, too. In the second level, I uncover shock arrows that can be used to activate switches from afar as well as momentarily stun enemies. As you might imagine, that makes way for some light puzzling but also provides you options in battle; do you take your enemies head-on, or could you maybe find a switch that will deal with them all in one move? These arrows recharge, while your standard supply is infinite, so there’s no need to worry about firing too fast.
Finally, as the icing on the cake, Apex Construct isn’t strictly a linear game. While levels do have a pre-defined path, you’ll find branching junctions that reward you with more experience and story hints. After each level you’ll travel back to a safe house where you can not only upgrade your gear but also head back to old areas to unlock previously inaccessible doors. You might not need to do this to reach the credits but, if you want to get the most out of the game’s story, it’s the best way to go.
It’s the sum of all these parts that has me convinced Apex Construct is going to be a notable release for VR. If this were a standard video game you’d think it was well made, satisfyingly entertaining and ultimately worth the five or so hours Fast Travel says it will take to beat it. That might sound like damning it with faint praise but consider this: do we really even have that yet in VR? If you take away the ports and optional content, is there really an action game out there that feels worthy of the standard of traditional development today?
Of course, this being a VR game, you’re getting more than those welcome impressions. You’re getting the feeling of really living in this world: a logical strand of panic when a four-legged robot kamikazes towards you, a dropped jaw when an enormous mechanical head is hoisted from below to meet you and a spark of magic when you realize the virtual keyboards and cupboards can all be used like you would in the real world.
More than anything, Apex Construct looks to be rock solid proof. Proof that VR games, when done right, can measure up to the high-quality set by flatscreen games and then exceed it. Proof you can have full, made for VR games with progression, story, refined mechanics and an engrossing atmosphere. Most importantly, though, it’s proof that VR gamers have a lot to look forward to in the years to come.
Apex Construct is releasing on PlayStation VR on February 20th for €29.99/$29.99, with a Rift, Vive and Windows MR release following on March 20th. EU PS Plus members can get a 20% discount by pre-ordering today.
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