Dinosaurs have been an intimate obsession of pop culture for quite some time now. When I was younger, I had figurines of various different dinosaurs that I’d use to reenact scenes from the iconic Jurassic Park films, various cartoons, and other media. In the decades since, dinosaurs have fallen out of the collective conscience for most people and are nowhere near as scary as they used to be. The latest entry in the long-running movie franchise, Jurassic World, was surprisingly fantastic, but was more of an action movie and left behind the pseudo-horror film tone of its predecessors.
Island 359 (pronounced 3-5-9) is the latest attempt at reminding us that these cold-blooded killers may be extinct, but they can still be terrifying. You’ll begin your adventure by getting dropped off in a jungle via helicopter. The opening moments of gazing out the door as you zoom past a tropical canopy of trees is exhilarating and helps get the adrenaline pumping for what’s about to follow. But if it’s too much movement and is making you sick in VR, you can look down and grab the conveniently placed chuck bucket to skip the travel sequence.
On the surface, if you were to walk by and see someone playing Island 359, or passively glance at a gameplay video, you’d feel like you’ve seen it all before. Creepy monstrous enemies, guns, the whole nine yards for what appears to be the “Let’s make a VR game!” starter kit. But if you look a bit deeper, you’ll actually find something quite impressive.
For starters, Island 359 is a downright ambitious project. The team at CloudGate Studios built an absolutely enormous six-square-mile island that feels every bit as alive as any locale featured in big budget AAA game projects like Far Cry and Just Cause.
In the movement department you can do pure teleportation, node-based sprint movement, or fully free smooth locomotion. Rotations can be either smooth or snap-turned as well with adjustable degrees and turn speed. Naturally, it’s got the full range of comfort options.
Perhaps Island 359’s strongest aspect is that it offers a bevvy of ways to enjoy its massive six-square mile world. And to be clear: that isn’t an exaggeration. The jungle landscape is dense and massive with tons of variety spread out across the environment. It’s so large, in fact, that I’d wager it will take you a very, very long time to really see it all — if you ever do. Multiply that across each of its four game modes and you’re certain to have a nuanced and varied experience every time.
If you’re brand new to the world of Island 359 then I’d absolutely recommend starting with Mercenary Mode first once you’re done with the tutorial mission. In this mode you’re dropped down into the jungle or on the beach and you’re goal is to kill dinosaurs (dinos) and pick up loot crates that drop with new items and better gear. The longer you last and the deeper you go, the better your rewards at the end, but the only way to bank any of your credits and complete the mission is to get back to the chopper alive. This creates a great sense of risk vs. reward.
However, the great thing about all of the game modes in Island 359 is that they’re interconnected. The premise of the game is that you’re playing as the same mercenary throughout it all so the credits you accrue, gear you find or purchase, and progression you make is all consistent. So that means you can take all of the stuff you got in Mercenary with you into the more casual wave-based Arcade mode. There’s a Big Hunt mode too, that focuses on taking out really big dinos — with a special focus on a high-powered bow.
Finally, there’s an elaborate Survival Mode that’s brand new for the 1.0 release today — it’s the focus of the Launch Trailer embedded near the top of this review. In this mode you’ve got to manage resources that contribute to not only your health and hunger, but you’ve got a tent attached to your backpack as well for sleeping. And you can eat dinosaurs.
This is the most “hardcore” mode on offer and should only be attempted after you’ve amassed a good amount of gear and credits from the other modes. It’d be pretty gnarly to dive straight into Survival without getting your feet wet first.
Despite all of these games modes offering a solid chunk of content, it still feels like it’s missing “something” and I think that a real, structured narrative would have gone a long way. The survivor notes that all have recorded voice over by talented actors (such as are a great touch, but I was craving a real story. Who hired me to come to this island? Why am I hunting the dinosaurs? What is my goal? What is the end point to this journey? Even if it was just a handful of hours a “Campaign” would have been great to play.
Luckily, those concerns were fleeting because of how smooth it all plays when you’re actually in the moment. Every gun feels great, but different, and really simulate the power of a firearm outside of true haptic force feedback. Crouching in bushes, trying not to get spotted, and sneaking up behind giant behemoth dinosaurs gave me a rush unlike anything else I’ve seen in VR to date.
Visually the team at CloudGate has outdone themselves because the draw distance on this island when you’re up on a mountaintop is incredible. Some of the animations still feel a bit wonky and lacking, but it’s easy to look past the occasionally distracting tree in order to appreciate the depth and brilliance of the overall forest. I mean that both figuratively and literally in this case.
Before Island 359 I couldn’t have told you the last time I played a dinosaur game I actually enjoyed other than Ark: Survival Evolved and Robinson: The Journey — and I mean that for both VR and otherwise. Growing up they seemed like such an iconic part of the 90s, but they’ve just lost a lot of their luster recently. Island 359 absolutely brings that back. I’ve never stood at the foot of a t-rex before in real life, but thanks to this game I feel like I have.
The last bit of “coolness” the game packs is in the way of a really impressive virtual avatar system. Not only does it have full-body IK for all players, but there’s even a spectator cam you can enable to record your avatar and if you have Vive trackers you can get accurate full-body tracking — including kicks.
But despite being in early access for so long it doesn’t really feel all that different, it’s just better and more polished with more of the same or similar things to do. That’s fine and probably for the best because otherwise it’d be drifting too far away from its core vision. Island 359 is a game that sets out to let you murder a bunch of dinosaurs and it does just that very, very well.
Almost two years removed from the launch window of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, Island 359 — a game that’s been in Early Access for almost just as long — has evolved from its humble beginnings into a shining example of not only quality VR gaming, but how to improve a project while in Early Access. They iterated on what worked and expanded in areas that were lacking until Island 359 became just as polished as it was ambitious. It’s still not for everyone, but fans of tense action games, shooters, and hardcore survival games owe it to themselves to get lost in the lush jungles of Island 359.