Hands-on: With Sprint Vector, the masters of VR teleporting try a new kind of locomotion
Southern California's Survios have emerged as titans in the early days of VR gaming. Battling through the harsh financial realities of slow consumer adoption of VR and the challenge of developing on the cutting edge of gaming tech, the company has grown from its roots in the University of Southern California into one of the biggest names in VR development, spurred on by millions of dollars of investment funding from MGM and others.
Survios is best known for their smash hit Raw Data, a game in which players shoot, slash, and otherwise destroy robots in a collection of sci-fi arena spaces. Though it's still technically in Early Access on Steam, the title is one of the very best and most complete VR experiences available, and was the first VR game to make one million dollars in a month. Survios claimed last year that at least 20% of HTC Vive headset owners have purchased Raw Data, which isn't hard to believe given how advanced the title is compared to many of the other VR games available.
A big part of what makes Raw Data such a great game is the way it handles movement. Surivos was one of the first VR games to fully embrace teleportation as its core movement mechanic, with a method the studio calls "tele-shifting." As we discussed in detail with the game's Design Director Mike McTyre last year, Raw Data's tele-shifting accomplishes things that were believed to be impossible by many in the VR world, providing fast-paced movement, hit reaction effects, and movement-based abilities without triggering motion sickness in most VR gamers.
So with the challenge of VR teleporting mastered, what is Survios doing as an encore? They're making Sprint Vector, a new game that doesn't use teleporting at all.
Race with your arms
Sprint Vector is a first-person racing game that requires players to swing their arms in order to run, jump, fly, and overcome obstacles on the game's stylized cartoon courses. Players will battle for the best time either alone or head-to-head with an opponent, and success in the game will come down to mastering Sprint Vector's unique control scheme.
The basic movement mechanic in Sprint Vector is "skating," and is accomplished by pulling the trigger on a controller while your hand is in front of you, then sweeping your arm down and releasing the trigger as it passes your hips. You alternate this motion with both arms to pick up speed, and you end up looking a bit like someone who once heard that it's important to swing your arms when you run but wasn't informed that leg movement is also part of the equation.
You change direction by turning your body in the real world, aiming your speeding form as you avoid walls, breakable obstacles, and patches of rough terrain that can slow you down. I found aiming myself to be the most challenging part of Sprint Vector during my demo, as my natural instinct was to adjust the angle of my arm swings, rather than which way my head was facing, but it's something that doesn't seem like it will be too tough to get used to after a few rounds of play.
Aside from skating forward, you'll also need to learn jumping, climbing, and gliding to win a Sprint Vector race. Jumping involves holding the trackpad on the Vive controller and releasing after a downward swiping motion, and properly timed jumps (and double jumps) off of ramps allow you to avoid obstacles and reach higher platforms.
Climbing comes into play when you encounter one of Sprint Vector's walls, which are studded with glowing green points you can grab on to. You can climb up the walls using the trigger button, using either a slow and steady method that feels a lot like a real-world rock climbing wall or a much more effective flinging method, in which the player grabs a handhold and uses it to launch themselves high into the air with one swing of their powerful arms.
The final type of forward movement you have at your disposal is a dramatic Superman flight, activated by thrusting your arms out in front of you while you're in the air. Flying like this is exhilarating and was the highlight of my demo experience, and it's already clear that perfecting your path through a track with the right combination of skating, jumping, and soaring will be entertaining—especially if you're the kind of competitive person who will enjoy leaving your opponent in the dust.
This competitive aspect also does a good job of driving you forward when you arms start to get tired, which is definitely something that will happen after a few races. Swinging your arms nonstop takes energy, and lots of gamers out there will use the motivation of an opponent to drive them past the point where fatigue would normally set in. Expect sweat and sore arms if you play a lot of Sprint Vector, and add it to the VR workout list along with Knockout League and Audioshield.
Gotta go fast (without motion sickness)
The reason so many VR games use a form of teleportation for movement is that it's an effective way to allow players to cover a lot of group quickly without nausea. In my experience, any control scheme that relies on something like a traditional controller to move the player through space or adjust the player's view is a recipe for instant, often extreme discomfort. I'm not the only one who feels this way, so we're seeing fewer and fewer VR titles try to get by with pre-VR control schemes as the technology becomes more popular and better solutions are developed.
So how does Sprint Vector's wacky control scheme work in practice? For my demo at least, it was free of discomfort or motion sickness of any kind. That's surprising, given how rapid and wild your movement can be in the game, but it feels like Surivos are making some key choices to accomplish this comfort level (and displaying much of the same design skill they used in Raw Data's tele-shifting).
Sprint Vector is a game about forward momentum. Courses are long and straight, and when curves or turns do appear they're gradual arcs, rather than sharp adjustments. There's also no strafing of any kind in the game, which is one of the most surefire VR nausea triggers I've yet discovered.
Additionally, you control your direction in Sprint Vector by rotating your body in physical space. You will always be moving in the direction your head is facing. When I was mistakenly trying to move around obstacles by angling my arms, rather than turning my head, I was trying to do something that the game purposely doesn't allow. Though turning your real-life body to make movement adjustments feels a little cumbersome at first, it may be key to a VR experience that delivers a sense of speed without motion sickness.
According to Designer Andrew Abedian (previously a Level Designer on Raw Data before taking a lead role with this new title), Sprint Vector has been the focus of a few months of development after initially being constructed as one of Survios' numerous R&D prototypes. And though the demo at GDC was running on the Vive, Abedian said that the company's general philosophy is to make games which are "HMD agnostic," which means there's no reason to assume the title will be Vive exclusive (and much of the testing of the game in company offices is taking place on the Oculus).
After playing dozens of VR games which claim to offer control schemes which "revolutionize VR movement" and being left disappointed (and sick) time and again, I've learned to be skeptical of strange forms of virtual reality locomotion. My experience with Sprint Vector was limited to a single race, so it's too early to tell if it can actually deliver a fast-paced VR experience without teleporting or motion sickness over longer periods of play-time. But if anyone can pull something like this off, it will probably be Survios.
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