When I first played Stormland at PAX West earlier this year, I had very little VR experience and was absolutely blown away by the freedom of mobility Insomniac Games had designed for their new Oculus Rift first-person shooter. It's no surprise, really, if anyone was going to figure out how to make moving around in VR fun, it was surely going to be the developers of Sunset Overdrive and Marvel's Spider-Man.
After spending 20+ hours with the game, I'm still having an absolute blast cloud surfing, wall flinging, and flying around in the game. While Stormland doesn't exactly break the chains of current day VR entirely, the game offers the absolute best experience moving and shooting in VR, complemented by more than a few innovative mechanics that encourage infinite replayability.
Conquering The Clouds
Stormland has a pretty steep learning curve. When I played it at PAX (again, as a VR noobie), I could barely move from point A to point B, dragged along by my developer co-op partner who told me almost no other player had managed to actually finish the demo within the time limit. While I think the control schemes are about as intuitive as they could be, the settings used to help reduce motion sickness like snap turning and vignetting made navigating really difficult for me.
Thankfully, you can turn all of that stuff off and use the sticks to move freely as you would in any other FPS game. After spending a couple dozen hours in the game, I'm now confidently soaring through the air, ambushing enemies, gunning them down, and hot-swapping my weapons. Getting into a flow state with mobility and combat is absolutely exhilarating, and even deep into the endgame, I'm still getting better.
On paper it doesn't sound terribly complicated: Grab surfaces to climb or fling yourself off of walls. While airborne, extend your arms straight out to glide. You can bring your arms in to slow down into a hover or point them down to descend. Pointing your arms back out will swoop, giving you more altitude at the cost of speed. The world is made of scattered islands separated by a sea of clouds. While on the clouds, you'll "surf" and you can press the grab button to boost. Eventually, you'll gain the ability to launch yourself off the clouds and fly at super speed, useful for clearing gaps in the cloud coverage and assaulting islands from higher vantage points.
Mixing all that mobility together with drawing and aiming weapons, projecting a shield, and firing abilities from your arm cannons is pretty overwhelming at first, but that high skill ceiling pays off immensely once you start to get the hang of it. The abilities and weapons upgrades you can unlock offer passive upgrades, but learning the ins and outs of mobility in combat is Stormland's true power fantasy.
Robo-Blastin' Never Gets Old
Mobility aside, the gunplay in Stormland is remarkably satisfying. Each of the six weapons can be duel-wielded or two-handed for additional stability and enhanced traits. The shotgun becomes a double barrel when two-handed and the grenade launcher turns into proximity mines, for example. The rifle and sniper rifle, my favorite weapons, gain a sight in the two-handed mode that allows you to precision aim.
One of my favorite infiltration techniques is to build up speed on the clouds and launch myself to the highest point on an island, then snipe enemies from a distance before crashing down with an AOE electricity attack and finishing them off with SMGs and shotguns. You have an incredible amount of freedom to approach fights in Stormland, and you can upgrade weapons to fit your play style.
Progression Is Innovative, But Somewhat Limited
The upgrade system is simple linear progression: Collect resources around the world to purchase schematics for each gun that upgrades it from Version 1 to Version 5. Each upgrade you buy increases the damage and ammo capacity for all guns of its type, even ones you take from enemies.
You'll also be collecting organic resources to upgrade your character with additional passive traits, like the ability to fling higher or create electric bursts when you land crits. This resource comes in two types, seeds that are rarely found in the world and created by collecting a certain number of fruit, and Growth, which is generated by scanning objects in the world, similar to Metroid Prime.
After you finish the eight-hour campaign, you'll enter the endgame format called cycles. In a cycle, you'll need to progress through each of the three zones and assault a compound. Cycles reset each week, at which time all of your schematics and upgrades will be converted to Growth allowing you to respec your character for the conditions of the new cycle. Any given week may have a modifier, such as increased electric damage. You can spec accordingly and fight your way through a brand new version of the world with replaced islands, new missions, and new lore to discover.
As a Destiny player, I really dig weekly resets and a reason to come back and play every week. While I think the weekly modifiers and experimenting with different builds is cool, the small weapon pool and lack of customization inhibits my desire to grind back up every week. You'll be upgrading the same six guns from V1 to v5 every week, and it would be cool if you could choose a weapon mod or upgrade path for the guns to add some variety.
Nearing VR's True Potential
Stormland makes mobility truly thrilling in VR, but it's far from a natural one-to-one experience. For instance, grab-magnetism helps to smooth over the disconnect that occurs when you interact with physical objects you can't actually touch and feel in real life, but the downside is that I find myself constantly grabbing grenades off my chest when I mean to disassemble my guns, or grabbing a gun out of my holster when I mean to pick one up off the ground. In the heat of battle, these miss-clicks can be pretty frustrating until you learn to exaggerate your reach and the positioning of your hands when you interact with things. I almost wish there were different grab buttons for different situations depending on what you're trying to grab.
I can't help but feel like Stormland is limited by the technology rather than maximizing it. Insomniac, to their credit, is helping push the medium forward and I know they'll be at the forefront as VR continues to grow. Stormland is so much fun to play that I wish there was a more advanced platform to play it on. Having said that, you won't find a shooter with better mobility than Stormland. If you've been waiting for a AAA FPS in VR, it's here.
An Oculus Rift review code for Stormland was provided to TheGamer for this review. Stormland is available now on the Oculus Rift.
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