Think of a Call of Duty game that was released in the past decade and not only have one of the two dozen or so developers at First Contact, probably worked on it, but they also probably have the box art framed on one of the walls in their Santa Monica, CA studio.
In addition to Activision’s flagship franchise and working at both Infinity Ward and Treyarch over the years, senior leadership at the company have backgrounds with companies like Blizzard and Starbreeze as well. It doesn’t get a whole lot more AAA than World of Warcraft and COD. When we first broke the news about First Contact’s initial investment, Hess Barber, Co-Founder and President of the company, told us that they wanted to create more “expansive” VR content by taking “proven mechanics and added some new ones to create a very unique and enjoyable gameplay combo.”
After going hands-on with their debut game, ROM: Extraction, I can confirm that they’ve done exactly that.
“We built the original prototype for ROM: Extraction in just a week,” says Barber during my visit. “It’s been polished a ton since then obviously, but the core of it’s functionally is the same. We came up with this really addictive combination of mechanics in the first week and just ran with it.” Barber was joined by First Contact’s Vice President, Josh Ochoa, and Director of Community Management, Jessica Ward, during our interview and tour of the studio.
Whereas a lot of developers may workshop a world first, then build a game to fit into that setting, the team at First Contact opted for the reverse. With how visceral and immersive VR can be, they decided to hone in and perfect a particular gameplay loop from the outset, then build a concept around that core mechanic. In doing so, everything in the experience feeds into itself to enhance the gameplay.
It’s simple, but incredibly engaging. From the outset, you choose a dominant shooting hand — right hand for me — and are given a pistol that shoots quick laser bullets with a satisfying ‘pew’ sound. In my left hand is where the real magic happens. With the press of a button, I can spawn a bright, glowing orb. If I throw the orb, it bounces around walls like a supercharged pinball and if I shoot it out of the air it emits a massive burst of energy as it explodes. But the real catch here is that, not only can I throw and shoot orbs, but I can slow down time as well. Simple to pick up, not too complex, but addicting and fun like a classic arcade shooter. In ROM: Extraction, this is the secret sauce.
“That’s the heart of the game mechanic: spawn, throw, slow, shoot,” says Barber. “You get into a rhythm with it eventually and it has a very distinct look when you’re just watching someone play the game inside the headset. That’s the magic. We found out it was fun as hell and wanted to build something around that specifically.”
“The premise of the universe is that in the next several years humans are on the moon digging for diamonds and other resources,” explains Barber. “They unearth these chambers that look like a nesting ground almost, kind of like where a turtle would lay its eggs, and they find these orbs around the size of baseballs. They discovered that if these things were dropped, or hit, they started to ignite internally, bounce around, and explode. Naturally, us humans decide to weaponize them.”
In ROM: Extraction, everything takes place several decades in the future from the initial mining and humans have established an entire industry around the orbs. Earth’s moon is eventually depleted, so we venture out to other moons to continue scavenging. That is, until the aliens have had enough of us capturing and destroying their eggs.
In the feature image at the top of this article you can get a glimpse of what the aliens might look like in ROM: Extraction. I say might because that isn’t an alien actually — it’s a robot they’ve built. Just like humans create cyborgs and robots that look like other humans, the aliens have created these robots in their likeness as well. So while we don’t get to see the aliens yet, we have a pretty good idea of what they may look like. They deploy these robots to try and stave off our harvest, a sign you’d think would be enough to turn us away.
For my demo, it was a simple level that’s reminiscent of games I’ve already played before, but the orbs add a bombastic twist that’s hard to explain without experiencing. I’m standing in the center of a sci-fi console platform within a circular room as a timer ticks down. I can’t move around the environment at all, but I can maneuver around my physical room space. Enemies start to emerge, opening fire on me from all around. It’s a multi-tier level as some enemies sulk on the ground floor, peeking out from behind cover, and others take aim from the safety of windows above me. My instincts kick in.
Drawing my right arm up, I open fire and rapidly blast robots with my pistol, only to notice it takes a dozen or more shots to defeat even a single one. As I should have expected, the standard pistol isn’t very effective. So I pull my left arm back, throw an orb, slow time, and blast it just as it nears the head of one of my adversaries — then my jaw falls open. The huge explosion rendered in sl0-mo sends the robot cartwheeling across the environment using glorious rag doll animations. A smile creeps onto my face as it clicks for me; never mind the fact that I’m exploding alien fetuses to defeat an army of hostile robots, these explosion are incredible.
Some robots are crouching down behind pillars, but no worries, I throw an orb, wait for it to pass the pillar and — BOOM! — dead. Power-ups start to appear around me — some make the orbs stick, some make them split off into other orbs, and some result in deadly streaks behind them as they bounce. Before I know it I feel like a mixture between Gambit from X-Men throwing orbs instead of cards and Deadpool, bending and dodging bullets as I mow down my enemies. After the three minutes are up, my platform descends downward towards what I can only assume is the next phase of the mission: actually extracting orbs.
What I played was a brief and exciting glimpse into the world that First Contact is building. There are plans for an exciting asynchronous cooperative multiplayer experience, various maps, new enemy types, more weapons, unique power-ups, and more. So while what I played was just the beginning, it could grow and expand exponentially from here.
First Contact is planning to release the first phase of ROM: Extraction later this year onto Steam, with regular content updates planned every one or two months into next year. It’s a good business model that has been working for other VR studios, as long as the updates are meaningful. While I came away impressed with the polish and quality of the experience I saw, it’s far from the “expansive VR play that mixes real gaming and narrative content” that they originally alluded to when their investment was announced. But Barber assures me they’re working on expanding ROM: Extraction and debuting other, larger projects as well. Unfortunately, First Contct was not ready to show gameplay footage of ROM: Extraction the game at this time, but a teaser trailer is slated to release in the coming weeks.
ROM: Extraction is scheduled to release later this year for HTC Vive and Oculus Rift with regular updates throughout the next several months. They’re interested in bringing the experience to PS VR as well, as long as they can preserve the 360-gameplay with the limited tracking of Sony’s headset.