I’m still relatively new to the whole Virtual Reality thing - I am a member of the 2nd wave of adopters that will someday be referred to as The Summer of Rift group. We are the ones that, through personal or spousal frugality, waited for the first significant price drop of the equipment. As such, I am still firmly in the stage of development where just about any VR game awes me with the visceral experience that comes of being so fully immersed in the experience that it causes unexpectedly extreme physical, mental, and more often than not, emotional reactions. Sure, the graphics are of a 20th century resolution, but it doesn’t take long to, if not necessarily cease to notice, at least get to a point where it isn’t as much of a distraction.
As a young and recent retiree, I have been told over and over that I will eventually become bored. Living in the very infancy of a technological breakthrough like consumer-level VR makes that very hard for me to believe. It’s already very good, and it will only get better from here. Should I ever, against all odds, decide that I need some measure of work to keep myself engaged, I believe that I will be able to find that in the virtual world. Even at this early stage, it is close to possible. Allow me to walk you through a day of work in this new “world,” courtesy of a game called Archangel.
In this world, I find myself riding a subway train to work, accompanied by my young and brilliant son. In this world, we are also allowed to choose what gender we want to be at the start of the game. True, that doesn’t seem to be all that big of a stretch from present day, but me being the traditionalist that I am, I stuck with ‘male.’
It seems to be “bring your kid to work day” today, but oddly enough, we are the only people on the train. Government propaganda messages are playing on the video screens, telling us the merits of a governmental system wherein we relinquished all of our freedoms in exchange for peace and prosperity, delivered by force from an all-powerful and unaccountable bureaucracy. Or something. It has gone every bit as badly as any student of history could have told us that it would. Too many of us refused to listen to the more cautious and willingly embraced the numbing relief from responsibility.
I refuse to listen to the government lies now; what’s done is done, or…. perhaps can be undone. For the present, though, my son was excited by a holographic game he had developed on his pad and wanted to show it to me. It was really quite amazing, but I soon realized that he was using that enthusiasm to hide some deep emotions. I was able to get him to tell me what was bothering him: he was nervous about the work I would be doing on this fine day.
To be honest, so was I. Today was the final test of our newest, biggest, and strongest Mech ever. Standing 65’ tall and boasting a new neural interface that would make the Mech as much a part of me as my own arms and legs, this was to be the centerpiece of our resistance efforts. A lot was riding on today’s test, and to be perfectly honest, I was quite nervous about the it, but I couldn’t let him see that. I told him again that I believe the safest possible place for me to be was in the cockpit of that machine.
These are the little, and sometimes big, lies we often need to use to placate our families. This was one of my more egregious untruths, but this was not a normal, routine test. This was the big one. A favorable result would immediately trigger production-level development of an army of these massive metallic beasts. The outcome of this test would rest almost entirely on my abilities. I’m a confident person by nature, which is a requisite for the job; any personal doubt about my abilities would surely end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy for failure. Still, the potential cost of failure was staggering enough to chip away at my normally granite-hard resolve.
We pulled into the station and were met by a uniformed security policeman. He was, of course, expecting us, and went to pains to treat my boy as a VIP which, in my opinion, he most certainly is. He left with the guard to go up to the control room that overlooks the massive Mech hangar, while I took a few seconds to gather my wits and courage. From where I was seated, I got my first glimpse of the towering, threatening machine that I was soon to bind my very soul with.
I shuddered. This was not going to be just another day on the job. Not at all.
I got into the lift that would take me up to the cockpit with butterflies in my stomach, but once I settled into the command chair and took a few seconds getting used to the idea of being 65 feet above the hangar floor, I was able to push aside my misgivings and get busy with familiarizing myself with the controls. All too soon it was time to interface with the M1KL device. Not surprisingly, this was the most frightening aspect of the whole thing. At an intellectual level, I knew full well that this neural interface was the only way that I could communicate quickly and efficiently with this awesomely powerful weapon, but knowing it to be a necessity is not the same thing as being comfortable with the idea of a computer being merged with my human brain. So, so many things that could go wrong….
Thoughts like that are dangerous in my lone of work. As I had been trained to do, I pushed those dangerous and distracting thoughts aside and paid rapt attention as M1KL worked with me (or within me? Our vocabulary doesn’t stretch to this new future) to test the basic motions of the Mech. I held a couple of pistol grip controllers in my hands to enable movement of my powerful robot arms at a more physical, and equally important, deliberate level. Having an autonomic response driving such incredibly powerful appendages would he hazardous to anything, or anyone, near me if I were to be startled or lose my temper. Better that there be some delay, even if minimal, in this case. My legs, on the other hand (so to speak), moved without conscious thought. Dividing conscious thought too many ways was risky too.
All of the basic movement and coordination tests went well, so we moved on to testing a couple of ancillary weapons that could be mounted to hard points on my (well, the Mech’s, but they feel like mine) wrists. The first was basically a machine gun, while the second was a rocket launcher. This too went well. We also tested the operation of the electrically-charged shields. These are arguably the most science-fictionish parts of the whole machine. They’re new tech, though, so still have some maturation to do. As it stands today, the duration of protection is limited to just a few seconds. Better than nothing, of course, but I knew right away that striking a balance defensive and aggressive responses was going to require a quick brain and adept fingers on the controllers.
It was at that point that a pretty good day at the office fell apart in the most spectacular way. The non-disclosure agreement that I had to sign in order to participate in this test strongly curtails my freedom to tell you precisely what happened, but suffice it to say that the testing of the prototype went well beyond simulated combat. I might be bending the spirit of the NDA if not the actual wording of it by telling you this, but my son was also put in great jeopardy. Or killed. At the time, I did not know which. I knew only that I was left with a burning rage, and a weapon capable of doing something about it. I also knew that I wanted to punch back at our government in any way possible. It was nice of them to shoot first - any ethical qualms I hay have harbored were quickly forgotten.
Luckily, I was not alone. Three of my best friends had access to anti-grav flying ships that could help me greatly in my fight. Together, we proceeded to shoot our way through the multitudinous forces arrayed against us. Progress was slow and dangerous, but we did manage to work our way out of a few scrapes that looked like they would be the end of us. I became more comfortable with M1KL and the Mech in general - I eventually found myself starting to believe that this cockpit actually was the safest place I could be.
That didn’t last long. We reached our first decisive battle, and that is where I found out just what we were up against. My Mech got shot out from under me. Totally destroyed. We had failed. The enemy was just too strong.
So, there you have it: just another day at work in VR. I truly was stuck in that boss battle. I died, died, died, only to start over at the most recent checkpoint, move forward through the same path, and... die again. I was left with a quandary: keep throwing myself back to the checkpoint only to inevitably fail again, or cast aside the time invested and start completely over on Easy mode rather than Regular. I chose the latter. The only difference was that this time around I decided to play as the female character. For the most part, there really was no difference between the two, other than the female sounded better in the parent role, and the male sounded better in the fighting role. In that second case, as much as I hate to say it, the female character sounded more shrill and naggy than emotionally wrought and angry.
Speaking about the game itself, the mechanics of the weapons and arms/hands worked very well with the Rift Touch controllers. The aiming in particular worked smoothly and naturally, although I did at times struggle to tell the left hand target reticle from the right hand. It also took awhile to get comfortable with quickly and accurately selecting the proper weapon and using the correct side for the shield to use so as to allow me to fire offensive weapons while also using the defensive shield. Each hand can only do one of those operations at a time. It was me finally getting the hang of balancing between the two that got us past that boss battle that had forced me to start over again. That, and the advent of yet another new offensive capability that allowed me to down dozens of aerial threats just by looking at them. Ain’t technology grand? It also helped that the folks in the lab didn’t just stop working - after each big battle, they had upgrades ready to go, although they did condition how much I could have based on my combat performance, which seemed odd.
Business is business, I guess. Even when it gets bloody.
At the end of the day, Archangel is a rail shooter that feels like so much more, purely because of the overwhelming virtual reality aspects of it. It feels so natural that you don’t even really notice that you aren’t controlling the forward pace. The storyline is compelling and the voice acting is top notch. The graphics are big and bold, which somewhat moots the normal complaints about poor resolution. The sounds are as pulse-pounding as the action. I would like to have been able to skip past all of the introductory stuff when starting over, but that’s just a minor quibble.
All in all, it was one very spectacular day at the office!
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.
My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.
While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.
My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.