Vox Machinae remains a hefty, convincing mech combat experience now with an appreciated if glacially-paced single-player campaign. Read on for our Vox Machinae review.
We often talk about how game releases are no longer the finish line for many titles. This is certainly true of some of VR’s biggest apps, like Pistol Whip and Population: One. But, even then, I don’t think I’ve seen a more impressive leap than the one just made in Space Bullet’s Vox Machinae.
Cast your minds back to 2018 and you’ll recall this was already an impressive multiplayer mech battler. You jump into different classes of war machines and pilot them across alien planets with a truly immersive cockpit experience including tiny dashboard details, paint peeling off of control panels, and a smorgasbord of buttons, switches, and levers to tinker with. Admittedly this week’s release is a transition from early access on PC to a full launch alongside an Oculus Quest 2 port, but the studio’s had its welding mask fixed on for a good three years, bolting a full single-player campaign onto the side of an already enjoyable online romp.
Though it’s on the rusty side — both intentionally and otherwise — the complete package remains authentic. Or at least as authentic as your expectations of mech combat in the far-flung future can be.
When it comes to multiplayer, Vox Machinae was always a deceptively deep game with great controls that take time to master. Your two main modes of movement are a gear stick-like lever to walk your mech forwards and backward, or a jet-powered jump that lets you quickly clear big distances or get the drop on the enemy from above.
Though these options don’t take full advantage of the immaculately-detailed cockpits Space Bullet has painstakingly crafted — there’s only three levers between them — they get you up and running in no time whilst you continue to absorb their nuances. Simply walking is responsive thanks to a stick system that shows you the exact speed setting you’re locked to, but rotating around with a lever on the right is purposefully clunky. If you’re to have any hope of avoiding attacks, though, you’ll need to master the art of jumping.
Though a great means of fast evasion, hammer on the jet movement for even a second too long and you’ll send yourself hurtling off from your intended landing zone. Balancing the unwieldy heft of a thousand-ton death machine with the reflexes and control needed to avoid frustration is a difficult task and certainly not for the impatient, but Vox Machinae often captures the sensation of stomping through warzones and unleashing a payload of missiles whilst keeping you in command.
Predictably, this isn’t always the case. The interactive cockpit is, broadly speaking, very well mapped out, but there are times — particularly in the heat of battle — that you’ll grab the wrong dial or yank the wrong handle, which is largely owed to the fact you’re not getting any tactile feedback about where your hand is currently hovering.
Combat is a similarly considered affair, equal parts sensory assault and tricky to grasp. Weapons are prone to overheating, too much of which will leave you immobile in vital moments, whilst classes will see you find the right balance of firepower and endurance. This isn’t the ammunition-emptying, heavy metal nausea of something like Hawken or Titanfall but instead something much more deliberate and attritional, which extends to a dismemberment system that lets you target specific machine parts like weapons and legs before taking out an opponent in full.
Vox Machinae isn’t a game of instant gratification, then. Early on, encounters can feel like two overly-enthusiastic kangaroos trying to pelt each other with water balloons as they learn how to hop for the first time. But as you come to learn its intricacies you’ll grow a level of familiarity that grounds you inside your vehicle and makes you feel one with it.
Moreover, it’s the extra touches that make Vox Machinae a particularly rustic delight. The game has wonderful stagecraft, from the sight of enormous cranes lumbering their way round to meet you when you return to your bunker, or being dwarfed by the shadow of your vehicle as you travel up and down the elevator between missions. Trucks busy themselves like ants around you and practically every model in the game has some tiny detail to admire if you spend long enough looking at them.
Vox Machinae is incredibly good at capturing the scale of its star players in relation to your own size, much in the way the behemoth mechs of the Evangelion series stand head-and-shoulders above the cityscapes they protect. It goes some way to offsetting the otherwise understandably barren landscapes, especially on Quest where mushy textures offer a sea of blur until you’re up close.
This carries through to the game’s single-player campaign, which has had a huge amount of attention paid to it, often in ways you might not expect.
Story, for example, is a huge emphasis in Vox Machinae’s campaign. Not only do you have fully-voiced squadmates to build a bond with, but between missions you’ll head back to your ship to talk with members of the crew and complete smaller side-objectives alongside interacting with your AI, Blue. On the one hand, it’s great to see an indie developer tackle such a direct means of narrative in VR, and not relegate the plot to cinematics in virtual windows or loading screen text dumps.
But the game’s eye for patchy visuals filters through to the story, often in less favorable ways. The character animations, for example, are stiff, with NPCs moving more like twisted tubes of toothpaste. They’re prone to placing their hands inside their torsos when speaking, or twisting around so far that cosmetic details clip into other models. But each of the crew’s designs and voice work is distinctive and diverse, and they have their own personalities that make up for their buggy movements. Well, they would do if it wasn’t for the teeth. My god the teeth; sickly-straight arrays of tiny gnashers. They’ll give my nightmares nightmares.
Delivery of the narrative itself zig-zags between some interesting ideas and unnecessary padding to an extreme degree. A side plot involving Blue struggling to find her place in this new crew is a curious little distraction, for example, backed up by humorous dialogue dryly delivered by auto speech (“I’ve entered my rebellious stage”). But there are times when the often 15+ minute ship sections get in the way of what you’ve really come here to see.
You regularly have to speak to every crew member before you’re allowed to progress to the next mission, meaning you have to sit and do nothing but listen to them. It doesn’t matter how fleshed out your characters are nor how interesting your story is; sitting in VR and watching other people talk for anything more than a few seconds without some level of interaction is just never an enaging process. Sometimes even that doesn’t reveal exactly what you’re meant to be doing next.
Combined with the slow-pacing of some of the game’s actual missions, the campaign can be sluggish. If you already know how to play the game, you’re likely to struggle with the opening few levels that don’t show you the ropes so much as drip feed them to you. Worse still, even later levels feature large chunks of trudging between checkpoints, waiting for your fuel meter to ever so slowly fill up and provide you with another boost.
One boss battle, in particular, proves unforgivably monotonous as it has long sections between exposing weak points and a one-hit kill move that’ll send you straight back to not just the start of the encounter, but the minutes-long setup before it even gets going again. The entire campaign needs another pass to sharpen up checkpoint placing.
But, while missions do often boil down to tackling bots in the same arenas you play online in, Space Bullet does implement some welcome variety in the form of defensive objectives or moments that see you try and keep pace with enemy mechs. Though AI on both sides can often get caught in the scenery, the campaign provides a welcome challenge that will really put your skills to the test. The combination of those missions and story do elevate the campaign beyond glorified tutorial status, I just wish the game was quicker at getting to the point.
I’m often not one for calling out bugs/issues that are likely to be fixed within the first few weeks of a game going live, but I do have to make special mention of the single-player’s bizarre reliance on the multiplayer structure. Specifically, the game will ‘disconnect’ if you take your headset off during the campaign without pausing it first. As in it will abort the mission and take you back to the campaign to start over. Again, I fully expect Space Bullet to address this, but it’s incredibly irritating to forget to pause, take the headset off to grab a drink and return to find yourself back in the menu, especially since the game never makes clear when it’s saving and some difficulty spikes with long checkpoints leave you wanting to catch your breath between attempts.
Vox Machinae Review: Final Impressions
Vox Machinae’s single-player campaign is an appreciated if flawed addition to an already-fun multiplayer mech combat title. Plodding pacing and padded story elements slow your progress to a crawl, but it still retains the game’s deliberate and considered combat, which successfully blends a purposeful amount of rustic clumsiness and lumbering heft. Even if you don’t care for the single-player’s offerings, the frantic class-based multiplayer proved it was worth the price of entry years ago and, though there are other mech combat games available, few capture the sense of scale and power on display here. Like its own monolithic war machines, Vox Machinae is a scrappy underdog, but one that’s very much worth rooting for.
For more on how we arrived at this rating, read our review guidelines. What did you make of our Vox Machinae review? Let us know in the comments below!