As much as I love virtual reality, you can count the number of “proper” VR games on two hands. There’s plenty of fantastic experiences, but not many of which offer the same sort of rounded gameplay as you’d get sitting in front of your TV or monitor.
Ubisoft’s Eagle Flight offers a glimpse into the future of VR gaming. It’s is one of the most well thought out virtual reality games that I’ve played. The developers have chosen a simple concept, one that suits VR more than it would as a traditional game, and it works.
VR is a different sort of gaming platform,a fact that many developers fail to appreciate. What works on a monitor may not work in VR. Similarly, what works very well in VR could be considered dull playing in front of the TV. I always think of the chilling PC VR game A Chair on a Room: Greenwater; where you are just standing in a room. It would be boring as hell on your monitor, but when you are actually standing there, in the VR room, as if it were real, it’s a whole different experience.
I tested Eagle Flight on both a vanilla PlayStation 4 and a PlayStation 4 Pro, with the PlayStation VR kit, of course. The game was very playable on the PS4, but I felt it was a little smoother on the Pro. The difference is barely discernible, to the point that any performance difference may just be my sub-conscious trying to justify the AU$550 I dropped to buy the PS4 Pro!
Back to Eagle Flight. You are an eagle, able to soar through the skies and duck through the long-abandoned buildings of an overgrown, people-less Paris. The game is set some 50 year after humanity has disappeared. Nature has started to reclaim the French capital, which is rendered in a simplistic, almost cartoon, but very beautiful, way.
The stylised graphics are probably more to do with hardware performance limitations than an aesthetic choice. I would be at all surprised if the choice of a Parisian setting doesn’t have something to do with Ubisoft having already modeled the city for Assassin’s Creed Unity.
The city still looks amazingly detailed, with loads of nooks and crannies asking to be explored. There’s also animals roaming the overgrown boulevards. Elephants, likely descendants from escaped zoo animals forage between the buildings, joined by bears, deer and zebras.
The controls are simple enough- you tilt your head to turn, look up or down to fly high or low. The left trigger slows you and the right lets you dive at speed.
Ubisoft have considered players that may still be finding their VR legs by incorporating a couple of nausea-proofing techniques. Your view of the world is bordered by a feathery area representing your “eagle-face”. This gives you a cockpit-style view rather than feeling like feeling like a stomach-churning disembodied head floating around the sky.
As you turn, ascend and descend, your peripheral vision reduces, another technique that is supposed to counter VR sickness. Whether this works for you depends or your constitution. I had no problems, but I only feel rough in VR games that have you walking about on the ground.
The game features a short tutorial, before resting you in your nest atop one of Paris’s many church towers. From here you can access the menu by looking at and icon and pressing X. Eagle Flight can be played one of three ways: Story mode, free flight and online multiplayer.
The story mode is a series of narrated episodes, with a wildlife TV show sort-of vibe, telling the story of your eagle’s struggle for survival in a hostile world. Gameplay-wise, it’s really a set of checkpoint races and obstacle courses that’ll have you flying above, between and below the ruined city. There are also other activities, such as catching jumping fish, collecting feathers and fighting off other birds.
The first few missions have you getting used to controlling the eagle. It’s not long, however, before the game has you facing you up against a flock of vultures who want to make a meal out of your injured companion.
Who knew that the rivalry between bird species was settled in airborne combat akin to fighter plane dogfighting? You can take out enemy birds using your squawk (!?!), which looks more like a white lougie spat at your opponent, who then disappears in a cloud of feathers. Not very realistic, but a lot of fun. Went you go up against crows, the playing field shifts, as they have their own defence, creating wind traps (again, !?!), which looking like red spheres and will abruptly end you flight if you hit one.
As fun as it is ducking a weaving through the buildings, be very mindful that flying straight into an object not only results in a thud followed by a sad little yelp, but will also end your current activity.
Later on, you’ll come across vultures, bats and falcons as you vie for the best perch in the city.
Free flight is a lot more mellow, and allows you and six others to fly around the city. It’s like a multiplayer lobby. The game’s digital Paris is fun to explore, does get to feel a bit samey after a while. But no matter how long I played the game, flying up high and then swooping down into the city, at speed, never got boring.
The online multiplayer pits two teams of three against each other in a derivative of capture-the-flag. Both teams must try and get a rabbit to their nest. It’s fun, but the biggest problem at the moment is trying to find a match.
Comparing Eagle Flight to a non-VR game is not only not very fair, but is also very unrealistic. We are at the dawn of an emerging gaming technology that current systems are barely able to cope with. It’s much better to play a graphically modest, but polished affair such as Eagle Flight than a VR game with cutting-edge graphics, but runs like a nausea-inducing slideshow. Developers used to getting sales through shock and awe visuals will find themselves get left behind during these early days of VR.
Eagle Flight is not perfect, but it is a leap in the right direction. We are still not in AAA territory, but this is a game designed with a lot of thought that offers proper polished gameplay. Flying around Paris, ducking through the buildings and overgrown vegetation is absolutely exhilarating. Eagle Flight is one of my favorite VR titles at the moment and I’m very excited to see what else Ubisoft bring to the VR table.
Released: November 2016
Platforms: PlayStation 4 | PSVR
Genre: Virtual Reality, Simulator