Shooting zombies; it’s what gamers have been doing since the 90’s. Wave after wave they arrive to be met by the ingame blast of a shotgun or grenade, and likewise the zombie shooter genre itself feels as though it’s been delivering a relentless onslaught of titles for the past 20 years. Even if you’re not a fan, it’s difficult to deny that this subgenre has been a successful formula; ever mutating to match the style of the time, but always dropping the player in that futile struggle against the undead. Whether highlighting the harrowing reality of the scenario, taking a darkly comedic look at the crisis, or simply focusing on guilt-free carnage, gamers still seem to find this well-worn path appealing.
One of the first games I looked for when road testing my Vive was a zombie shooter. A short VR experience about two years ago had been with a rail shooter and I was impressed then with how effectively the motion tracking managed to sustain the illusion of wielding weapons.
Enter “Arizona Sunshine” which seems to be the leading VR zombie shooter on the Steam Store and (for those of you who can’t be bothered to read to the end) it delivers a competent VR FPS zombie shooting experience… which might not sound like wildly extravagant praise, but is a pretty good achievement nonetheless.
… If I may digress for a moment here…
Accessible home VR systems are still relatively new. The PSVR arrived at the party early and the Gear VR has been attempting to provide Samsung owners with a cheap route in. The arrival of the Vive and the Occulus for PC came later and are still in their infancy. Once you get past how immersive the environments are you quickly become aware that this is a platform on which developers are still finding their way.
Early CD games (I’m thinking Mega CD era here) had similar problems. Developers were given a huge increase in storage capability and didn’t quite know what to do with it. The FMV games of the time are a prime example of a gamestyle that quickly disappeared with only a few standout titles; an evolutionary dead-end. Even the genres that survived these transitions of technology had a rough ride; the move of the platformer from 2D to 3D arguably signalled the demise of our favourite blue hedgehog for example.
VR is currently at a similar moment. It is clearly powerful; but existing genres are trying to find their place in these new immersive environments and new genres are beginning to emerge. The VR store is full of short “experiences” that utilise the technology well, but few could really be termed full length games. The domination in the charts of the arcade style rhythm game “Beat Sabre” just highlights how the platform is lacking full length single player experiences (I’m not saying Beat Sabre is a bad game, it’s just unusual to see this type of game sitting at the top of a PC game chart list).
… anywho, back to Arizona Sunshine…
Arizona Sunshine is the first “Full Length” Vive gaming experience I have jumped into providing several hours of single player campaign, a couple of different difficulties, game modes, and a wave based horde mode just in case you hadn’t had your fill of zombie blasting already. It’s not long by single player standards, but just about manages to finish before the whole thing gets monotonous. The player steps in to the eyeballs of a wisecracking, nameless (I assume…), survivor who has apparently been getting along pretty well in the zombie apocalypse under the hot Arizona Sunshine (namedrop). Upon discovering a garbled radio signal from a band of survivors the player sets off to find some remaining humans hampered by the presence of Fred (our vehicle’s affectionate term for the zombie menace). Following the setup it is a linear trek through some standard zombie hangouts: vehicle strewn bridge, underground tunnels, railyard, overrun industrial area, and abandoned settlement. The Arizona backdrop was undoubtedly not selected by accident; its simple rocky landscapes are both visually open and spectacular in places whilst not adding the processing strain of excessive greenery which might have caused uncomfortable frame drops or juddering. Enroute the player encounters zombies, both in loitering and mob forms, whom they must dispatch with a variety of weapons. This is a game without any surprises, aside from the odd zombie that creeps out of the shadows and you suddenly discover gnawing on the back of your head, and seems content to be exactly what it is expected to be.
The novelty comes from the VR user environment. Weapons are mostly single handed (although there is a two-handed weapon option, and they feature in the horde mode) feeling both responsive and satisfying through the Vive controls. Reloading requires the player to eject the old magazine and tap the empty gun to their floating ammo belt; likewise picking up ammo requires the player to ‘grab’ each clip and take it to their belt. These actions, along with opening doors, throwing grenades (advice: use the wrist straps), and switching weapons in and out of your … leg holsters?… makes the whole activity suitably tactile and immersive.
Moving through the levels is undoubtedly a little less immersive. “Local” movement within the room scale environment works well, but actually progressing involves the standard point-to-point warping mechanic as default. There is an option to use walking movement in the settings which is driven from the controller touchpad, but it comes with a motion sickness warning and I couldn’t play with it for more than a few minutes for fear of falling over. The biggest problem with warping is that it’s often possible to just avoid zombies by warping around the place and so any sense of threat tends to be diluted.
My only real complaint is that many of the items appear as though they should be usable but aren’t. The most noticeable of these are the green first aid kits conspicuously lying around the abandoned settlements that do nothing. Health is gained from eating cooked burgers that can be found on tables and stashed in filing cabinets… I guess for sneaky office eating. I assume that the interactive features were cut back during development, but the inclusion of these items ingame only highlights this pruning of features and why burgers are health and not first aid kits is a little baffling.
To counteract this, there are some pretty neat moments. Looking down the scope of a sniper rife is pretty cool in VR even if it only takes place in a few selected set pieces. Likewise, exploring dark areas using a flashlight and handgun is suitably tense. More generally however Arizona Sunshine did supply me with that cheap thrill of emptying round after round into a horde of approaching monsters that I’d been looking for. It’s firmly in guilty pleasure territory, but picking off zombies using precision aiming with a pistol followed by levelling your other hand to spray an Uzi whilst you reload, or grabbing a colt from your holster to finish off those last couple of runners is somehow satisfying. Arizona Sunshine promises nothing more than this, and delivers. So whilst it’s not a ground-breaking concept, or artistic tour-de-force, it does fill a niche and show that developers are translating established game types to the VR environment.