Epic Games' new shooter is virtual reality's killer gaming app

"Everybody wants to be Neo." That's how Nick Whiting, lead programmer at Epic Games, describes the main thrust behind Bullet Train, the developer's recently announced virtual reality shooter for the Oculus Rift. What Whiting's referring to, of course, is "bullet time" -- that slow-motion technique made famous by the Matrix films. It's a core part of the gameplay in Bullet Train, which has the player madly teleporting (in slo-mo) around a train station and assassinating wave after wave of masked enemies with an assortment of available weapons. That I greatly enjoyed the demo, playable at Oculus' Connect 2 conference in Los Angeles, is a testament not only to how transformative Oculus' Touch controllers will be to VR, but also to how well Whiting and his partner Nick Donaldson understand VR design. It's also a major coup when it comes to winning over a certain segment of the gaming population: I simply don't like shooters; I like this shooter very much.

"You're badass," says Whiting of Bullet Train's irresistible appeal. "You can't die. You can grab bullets out of the air and throw them back. You can throw guns at people, and then teleport back and shoot the guy next to them." He's not exaggerating, either. While the gameplay is frenetic, it never becomes overwhelming, or worse, nauseating, which is a common pitfall for some early VR experiences. That smoothness is owed, in large part, to Donaldson's own susceptibility to motion sickness and the predominant use of teleportation in the game.

"I'm super, super sensitive to [motion sickness]," he says. "I'm very aware of it and very conscious of trying to make that a comfortable experience."

Whereas many VR experiences rely on a controller's thumbsticks to move the player around the virtual space (and increase the risk of nausea), Bullet Train confines player movement to a small area and, instead, relies on teleports for most of the navigation. It works so well with the Touch controllers that, shortly after a very brief introductory training, I found myself jumping back and forth between different vantage points in the train station, flailing for whatever weapons were nearby without any worry. The teleports also incorporate a subtle fade-to-white effect, which Whiting says helps to make the constant transitions less jarring.

While Bullet Train's obvious draw is its familiar shooting mechanic, it's the ability to interact with the environment that'll really have early VR adopters immersed in the experience. "We built this very physical world and then you can't ask people to not play with it," says Donaldson. Indeed, there are subtle elements, like the ability to cock a gun and actually feel it click into place with the Touch's haptic feedback, that make interaction in the VR world all the more intuitive. Donaldson says that even a few businessmen, who've tried the demo and failed to grasp the most basic VR tasks, had no problem picking up a gun and shooting it.

"We made it so that it hits the [player's] expectations rather than a more accurate physical simulation of it," says Whiting of the current demo's design. "We had an accurate physics setup, and it's not very fun because people aren't assassins going through and shooting a bunch of people in a train station. ... You're playing to the expectation rather than the reality of it."

"We're not interested in making other [VR] experiences anymore."

Nick Whiting, Epic Games

Much of the success of Epic's Bullet Train demo comes down to its use of Touch. Both Whiting and Donaldson were given early access to Oculus' novel input solution and after experimenting with some early gameplay prototypes, decided to do what they knew best: build a shooter. "Not many people have done really good shooting because these Touch controls are so new. There haven't been many opportunities for people to just totally nail it," says Donaldson.

In fact, the experience working with Touch on Bullet Train's been so exceptional that both Whiting and Donaldson agree there's no going back to any other form of VR game design.

"This is the first time where you're in a virtual reality world and you're interacting in a way that makes sense to you, " says Whiting. "We're not interested in making other experiences anymore."