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Virtual reality is still trying to find its footing. For every game like Beat Saber, there are a thousand plain shooting galleries and pervy hentai games (I’m assuming for latter obviously). Insomniac Games, the studio behind Ratchet and Clank, the first Spyro trilogy, and the upcoming Spider-Man, has been attempting to break that mold through their string of VR games. Each has pushed that medium forward in some way, one step at a time. And Stormland, the latest entry in their VR pantheon, is not only a culmination of what the studio has learned, but also one seems like the most expansive virtual reality game I’ve played.
Stormland’s large landmass gives it the capability to feel more like an actual video game. It takes place in an open world separated into zones and little islands that you can freely move between. You play as a little android that moves between these islands looking for upgrades and fruit. Because not even mechanical beings can resist a juicy strawberry (or whatever the hell it was). Secrets and loot are littered about the islands and make it feel like an actual video game with actual objectives, unlike some more of the simple VR games in the past. Insomniac Chief Creative Officer Chad Dezern explained how that was the point of Stormland’s existence.
“We’re making the game that we want to play right now,” he summed up in one simple sentence.
Stormland Preview: Ratcheting Up the Action
But it goes beyond that. It’s not only looking at what games Insomniac wants to play, but also taking from what games Insomniac has already made. Dezern told me how the game evolved into a greatest hits of some of the studio’s most popular titles.
“It really is a culmination of a lot of game systems from our console heritage and also from our VR experimentation,” said Dezern. “We have weapons that are reminiscent of Ratchet and Clank. We have an open-world structure and traversal practices from Sunset Overdrive and Spider-Man. Plus, we have the gesture-based movement and combat from The Unspoken. It’s trying to bring all these things in one package that’s a lot of different things we’ve learned over the years.”
While I unfortunately have not played The Unspoken, Feral Rites, or Edge of Nowhere, I didn’t need to in order to appreciate how Stormland controlled. In the opening few minutes, the android gets the ability to glide, climb, and shoot, which you control by miming those actions with the Oculus Touch controllers. Chaining them all together is where the game steps well over the low bar set by other, smaller-scoped VR games.
Stormland Preview: Does Whatever an Android Can
Traversal unlocked in my brain in a series of steps. First, I got acclimated to climbing and then warmed up to gliding. Learning how to fling myself up while hanging was a game changer, as it not only made ascension more exhilarating (and slightly more nauseating) but it also gave me the necessary air time to glide around from island to island. Then it became an internal competition within myself to see how far I could slingshot myself and glide to other rocks. It was a perfect marriage between the intuitiveness of good VR and a branching web of gameplay systems with depth.
I used these methods to get the high ground during battles. Shootouts play out like other VR games but they utilize Insomniac’s Ratchet and Clank prowess to make gunplay more interesting. Environments are packed with the equivalent of bolts from the Ratchet series and different upgrades that change what your android can do. There are smaller upgrade chips, like more health but also more substantial ones.
For example, after I found a certain gadget, I was able to pull off my arm and replace my shield with a gun that shot electric balls, essentially swapping defensive play for offense. Like the climbing, its breadth of options gave it depth but combined with the climbing, it felt like I was creatively breaking the game. Dezern described how, even though the game will have smart enemies to keep you on your toes, the team wanted players to give players the opportunities to feel creative.
“We started with a premise of wanting to make this open world exploration with a ton of player agency in VR,” he explained. “And from there we prototyped things and hit on the mechanic of slipstreaming pretty early on. We got together and brainstormed and the team came up with a climbing mechanic that felt pretty good. Then that evolved into wanting to let players fling themselves up and from there we thought that the player will always drop back down, what if we turn that into a glide? It’s this whole layering process of figuring out what works, abusing it, figuring out another thing that works, and then figuring out how to string them fluidly together.”
Stormland Preview: These Are the Droids You Are Looking For
Even though gliding around and exploring was exhilarating by myself, the game will also support online connectivity in both expected and unexpected ways. There will be online multiplayer that I did not get to see, but the asynchronous parts are more interesting. Aside from community quests that give everyone a collective goal (and reward) and using scarcity across games to create a real resource economy, Insomniac will also be able to swap in levels every week using the storm-producing Tempest as a narrative justification. New worlds will bring more enemies and upgrades along with extra missions specifically designed for that version of the storm. It’s a way, as Dezern puts it, to keep the game compelling over a longer period of time.
“It’s a lot to figure out,” he admits. “But we’ve got systems that we’ve been working on for awhile that let us make this nice handcrafted content but then rearrange it and present new playgrounds of combat and traversal to the players that is unexpected. We want to surprise you and drive you to search for the next clue.”
The novelty of virtual reality caused a veteran developer like Insomniac to basically start from scratch from a game design perspective. Dezern likened it to figuring out how to make the original Spyro the Dragon on the PS1. Stormland, based on what I’ve played, looks to be a big step in Insomniac’s VR expertise. It marries the mechanical depth from the studio’s traditional game design playbook with the increasingly intuitive VR controls they’ve been learning for the past few years. It’s looking like their Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage (again) and that is promising.