My heart is hammering in my throat as I steal a quick look around the corner to make sure my robotic adversary had wandered away from the safe. He’s armed with a gun that can kill me in one shot, and all I have are my wits, my two hands, and the ability to teleport. From my safely hidden perch on top of a shelf I see something glimmer under a desk in the corner. Taking another look for the guard, I quickly warp to the desk and crouch down to scoop up the key. Standing back up I realize I forgot to check for the guard, who comes rounding the corner. I moved as quickly as I could but there was no time to warp back to the shelf. I have seconds before he takes his shot.
Spotting a window, I quickly fire a beacon through the opening. I mash the grip button on my Vive controller and in an instant I’ve teleported to my beacon and can finally let out the breath I was holding for the last 30 seconds. This is just one of many pulse-pounding moments I encountered while going hands-on with the demo of Neat Corporation‘s upcoming VR game Budget Cuts.
Have Portal Will Travel
Budget Cuts puts you in the cold metal skin of a robotic spy whose only mission is to infiltrate a corporate office after hours. The catch is that the corridors are under constant patrol by a militia of security robots and all of them are much better armed than you are.
Your sparse starting equipment consists of a bare hand for grabbing items, a portal-esque teleportation cannon and, eventually, a crossbow.
The items you pick up in the game, whether it’s a key, a crossbow, or the teleporting cannon itself, all conform to the Steam VR controller in an organic way. Rather than having the controller change into a portal gun, for example, the gun itself attaches to the end of your controller, which adds to immersion because the grip of the object never changes.
The teleporting cannon is what provides the core mechanic for this stealth-action title. By pulling the hand control’s trigger button, the cannon launches a small blue orb that flies at an arc and bounces until it finds an attachable surface. Once it lands it morphs into a portal that allows you to do one of two things. You can use that portal to look around corners or into rooms to check for guards, or you can press the controller’s grip button to instantly warp to where you placed the beacon.
Breaking The Box
The portal mechanic is flashy, fun, and useful for evading guards. But it is also a clever way for Neat Corporation to crack one of VR’s toughest puzzles: locomotion. Vive experiences put the player into a box as large as 15×15 feet, but playspaces are often smaller. That space can be explored by simply walking around, but how do you allow the player to explore a larger world?
Budget Cuts solves this problem by constraining players to a circular glowing play area that is smaller than the Vive’s max explorable distance. If you want to move across a hallway to grab a key, for example, you need to warp close enough until the item is within reach. It may sound frustrating or limiting but it feels very natural and exhilarating once you get used to it. By the end of my demo, I was reacting to threats by teleporting without even thinking about trying to run first.
This system offers the two-fold benefit of opening up a wider world of the game in a way that makes sense – and making sure the game can scale to almost any playspace a consumer might have.
Fun Times At Robot High
It took me between 25-30 minutes to beat the demo, and I certainly died my fair share of times. There are no lives in the game but death means a reset and having to backtrack through the same challenges over and over again.
This was reminiscent of old SNES games that require you to you grind through the same chunk of a level again and again just to get one more shot at the part that killed you. The game was challenging, but it never felt unfair. Every time I got caught I felt like it was because of something I did wrong.
The controls were solid as well. The only sticky part for me was trying to aim the first weapon you find in the game: a throwing knife. After missing a few times, and being gunned down for my mistake, I finally realized that because the controls were so accurately tracked, and because I was blind to the outside world, it became hard to judge my release point – making knife tosses in the relatively accurate physics system as or more difficult than they are in real life. Budget Cuts is a stealth game before anything else and it never lets you forget it.
A Heart-Racing Good Time
Budget Cuts is one of the most exciting titles I’ve personally experienced in VR. The feeling of creeping just close enough to a guard to move forward but not close enough to be seen had me feeling like a real life Solid Snake. The challenges of the game could be frustrating, but they made me want to keep trying. And the eventual payoff in the final stage had me raising my arms in elated victory.
Budget Cuts is currently in a pre-alpha build and has been nominated for Best Game at the upcoming Vision VR/AR Awards. The only release information so far is that the game will be out “soon.”
The HTC Vive is projected to launch in April with pre-orders on Feb. 29.