Platforms: PC (reviewed)
Seeking Dawn is a breath-taking virtual reality survival shooter that’s undeniably a great addition to the VR roster this year, but that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be.
That said, Seeking Dawn is still an incredibly enjoyable VR experience that feels like it’s carefully catered to VR as a platform, but that experience is bogged down by a few mechanics that players aren’t properly introduced to or that fail to function as expected. The result is a game that sometimes makes you feel like you have to actively push to find content, and that occasionally may lead you on an exciting adventure, in the wrong direction from your objectives.
Smelling the space roses
Of course, the adventures themselves are definitely worth going on. Seeking Dawn is one of the most beautifully rendered open world sci-fi games we’ve seen come to VR so far. The alien planet you’ll explore as a space marine/colonist looks and feels like a living breathing world with all kinds of ambient life from small plants and animals to the various forms of ferals and pieces of alien technology you stumble along on the way.
There are a massive number of “wow” moments where if you stop your quest for colonization long enough to smell the space roses that you’ll be rewarded with a gorgeous view of some far-off alien creatures grazing in a cosmic landscape. With the magic of VR bringing it closer to life than any other technology it fed the part of me that’s been reading sci-fi novels and dreaming of exploring unknown frontiers for decades.
It’s impossible to look out at the world in Seeking Dawn and not feel like the future of gaming is finally here. The immersion level of the basic gameplay is sky high, with rendered hands going up to the shoulder, a basic helmet UI that gives you feedback about health, hunger, thirst, and your active shields. Combined with what feels like a massive explorable world, Seeking Dawn feels like the kind of game you can get lost in.
Granted, this isn’t the kind of game where you can go anywhere you can see, and the explorable area is a lot smaller than the horizon. That said, Seeking Dawn has a lot of levels and unique areas with their own environmental quirks that makes it feel like you’re actively moving a great deal of distance across the planet. Some of these are as mundane as caves full of generic enemies, others are their own memorable environments like forests full of trees that are doing their best impersonation of the whomping willow.
Movement in particular is a big part of what makes this sense of exploration work so well. You have a substantial number of options from teleportation to traditional locomotion to choose from that can all be changed to fit your personal comfort level in the options.
Even the default scheme for moving with the touchpad feels comfortable for long term gaming sessions, and although I’ve never been a huge fan of swinging my arms to run, Seeking Dawn uses it as a mechanics for sprinting by default which feels fun and hectic in a way that teleporting doesn’t. Even how you turn your perspective in game has a variety of settings and I found the grab and slide to turn method to be much more responsive and immersive than what I’ve seen in other games.
Your mileage may vary depending on your specific comfort level with VR locomotion, but even then, there should be a setting that works well for everyone.
As a result, exploration and fighting feel comfortable and natural in practice, even if some of the crafting and gathering mechanics slow things down and occasionally add a confusing layer of complication to the opening hours of the title.
A part of this confusion is just how much Seeking Dawn is trying to do in a single game. Although the basic gameplay revolves around VR shooting mechanics, which are largely well done if simplistic single-handed affairs, it’s also packing small mechanics for everything from survival games to tower defense titles, while trying to tell a narrative story and integrating cooperative and multiplayer elements in the same breath.
Player progression revolves around crafting and harvesting resources, then carting those back to your base to build new weapons and armor so that you can continue to progress and harvest better resources. It’s a circular cycle that sometimes feels a little artificial and clunky in practice.
It would be different if you could actively build a base wherever and whenever you wanted, or if you could find crafting stations out in the larger world, but instead you’re usually confined to going back to a basic set piece outpost where you can place your crafting stations and create your gear. It just lacks an element of customization that you expect from survival games these days and feels odd considering the tower defense element of placing different kinds of turrets outside your base itself. The need to constantly return to your base to craft ammo and new gear whenever you find the next pile of resources just interrupts the flow of the action.
Additionally, in the early game we couldn’t quite tell if we should save our resources for building turrets to defend our base, build weapons for ourselves, focus on creating food and drinkable water, pushing the story, or just hoarding resources before moving out, and it took us several hours of exploring and pushing the story before things started to really come together.
It ultimately feels like Seeking Dawn is having a small crisis of identity. It’s trying to do a lot at once, and therefore not giving each gameplay element the amount of polish it needs to be successful. These elements are perfectly functional, but difficult to grasp at times and don’t always work to build the game into a more engaging experience.
A bit lost
This lack of identity is largely because Seeking Dawn has a lot of gameplay elements working together that are all interesting, but because of a lack of a refined tutorial to guide players through the experience, undeniably gets in the way of actually playing the game.
A lot of these issues can be easily fixed, and the more you play the better you get a grasp on the world you’ve stepped into and how it works, but at the beginning things are tough. You’re walking into a world that has everything from survival elements to a single player story and a mishmash of base defense and crafting options right off the bat, but the tutorials you need to get a handle on things are either present but can be skipped through accidentally or can be obscured by performing objectives or tasks out of order.
For example, right off the bat you’re given two tools to help you gather wood and ore, but when I first approached the main base no one explained that I was given a separate tool for each task, and when I approached the table with the tools I only noticed the one added to my inventory.
I then spent the next fifteen minutes trying to figure out what I was doing wrong with no hints from the game except that I wasn’t getting the materials I needed to complete the objective. Even the objective marker telling me what resource I was supposed to collect disappeared before I got close enough to figure out what it wanted.
Once I figured out I needed to use the other tool in my inventory, I completed the crafting objective and moved on to the next. The game basically told me I had two options: build a set of turrets to defend the base or go off and investigate the bodies of a group of enemy soldiers. Because I wasn’t sure what priority I should rank my materials at that point I sprinted off in search of the bodies, following what I thought was a secondary objective marker.
Within about three level transitions I realized that at one point the objective marker had disappeared and enemies were getting way too tough for my little standard issue pistol. Low on ammo I had to make the call to just run all the way back to my base and complete the other objective.
Seeking Dawn never hinted that I was going off the rails or the wrong direction, and never stopped me from progressing, which is good in some ways but frustrating in others. The only guide I had was when all objective markers disappeared and I started duking it out with creatures that could kill me in two hits and that took a pile of ammo to kill.
None of it was thoroughly explained and throughout this experience I found myself feeling lost and confused about what I was supposed to do, which until I figured things out made me feel incredibly bored and frustrated in equal measures.
It was an odd feeling, and although after that point my playthrough went much smoother I still occasionally struggled to track down objectives and found myself often waiting, twiddling my thumbs while my tools worked through their lengthy animations to harvest resources. Everything felt like it needed to be sped up a hair, while tutorials and objectives needed more detailed markers and indicators relating to what exactly players should focus on doing.
Of course, a lot of these issues will likely be easy fixes, and hopefully we’ll see them improve in post launch patches. It kind of has a similar feel to Minecraft and other survival games in the sense that you’re thrown into a hostile environment with very little information on how to survive, which forces you to learn, die, learn again, and then repeat until you understand the nuances of the way the game wants you to play, but I’m not sure if that’s exactly what the developers over at Multiverse intended.
A new dawn
As a result, if you’re expecting a VR game that’s going to hold your hand you should look elsewhere, but if you press through the opening confusion (which we hope will get patched in the near future with better tutorials) your perseverance is undoubtedly rewarded. Once you get the hang of using the UI, crafting, gathering resources in bulk, and how to move using your preferred method of locomotion things start to really expand into an interesting adventure.
The story itself isn’t anything ridiculously nuanced, but the space colonist against major military conglomerate is interesting enough when paired with the alien world to hold your attention and manages to carry you well into each new level.
It took us about 14 hours to push through the main story, and in the early hours things feel incredibly hectic and overwhelming, even as objectives and resource gathering progresses at a snail’s pace, but after that there’s quite a bit of engaging gameplay to be found as you figure out the best methods to harvest resources in bulk.
This often gives you the very real feeling of being a colonist stranded alone on a hostile world where you’re forced to survive by your wits and your willingness to prepare for any given situation. As you would expect this adapts incredibly well to VR’s inherent flexibility and as you learn to use your tools and weapons more effectively Seeking Dawn starts to feel more polished and enjoyable. It’s never perfect, but it works well enough to be a fun experience.
Things do lose some of their spice in the late game when you get your hands on some of the more powerful weapons, but the feeling of fighting on a knife edge against creatures that can rip you limb from limb is incredibly exciting and gets your heart pumping and your blood flowing in a way that only VR really can.