Stepping outside a battered space pod, I drink in the forest's sights and sounds. A shallow river meanders to my left. Some birds chirp overhead. It's a tropical paradise. Or it would be, were it not for the legions of dinosaurs roaming around. I'm playing Robinson: The Journey, a game developed by Crytek for the soon-to-be-released PlayStation VR. As Robin, a young astronaut, I'm tasked with searching for survivors on a strange, alien planet. The problem is that I suck at pretty much everything.
First, there's movement. Most VR games will keep you in a single spot, or, in the case of the HTC Vive, an area enabled by its room-scale tracking. In Robinson, however, you can move around like any other video game. The left stick moves your astronaut, while the right stick changes the camera angle. In VR, it's both liberating and incredibly jarring. I could walk in any direction and peer at any part of the environment, near or far. But strafing left or right, while my body was stationary in the real world, felt unnatural. I was never sick or unable to continue, but I definitely felt a little queasy.
Crytek has tried to mitigate this problem in a few different ways. As you look around, for instance, your character will naturally slow down and, at times, grind to a halt. Then, if you need to strafe, you can push the stick horizontally and Robin will move a smidge in that direction. These controls are designed to help your body and brain adjust to the game's free-flowing movement. They also encourage you to take in the environment at a slower, leisurely pace. Which is sensible, except sometimes I would slow down to the point where I thought Robin had gotten stuck on a tree root.
OK, so I'm not the most nimble astronaut. What about my survival skills? They're not much better, it turns out. Robin's robotic buddy, Higgs, tells me "Laika" is being a bother and requires some assistance. I have no idea who or what Laika is, but can hear a primal cry somewhere behind me. Curious, I investigate. (A dinosaur scream. What could go wrong?) After looking in a few random bushes, I realize that I need to move a crate blocking a nest inside the cave. I fiddle about with my multitool -- a Gravity Gun-inspired instrument that can push and pull objects -- to free the creature. In the same breath, I leap backward, expecting a violent confrontation.
But it doesn't come. It turns out Laika, a small two-legged beastie, is a companion I've been training in my spare time. I'm relieved, but also a little embarrassed by my misplaced "fight or flight" instincts.
Never mind. I'll just prove myself as an engineer instead. Before Robin and Laika can explore the rest of the jungle, Higgs explains that I need to open a gate blocked by a blue force field. I look around, a little confused. I can shout to Laika and guide him over the fence, but nothing happens. Unsure, I turn around and start walking back toward the space pod. "You need to go to the river," a Crytek developer hints. Under the headset, I feel my cheeks turn a bright shade of red as I traipse over, pulling out the multitool and removing some boxes that were blocking a hydropowered generator.
Before long, the gate is open and I'm wandering down a path flanked by large, leafy trees. Some herbivores break cover and Elijah Freeman, an executive producer at Crytek, explains that I can scan them with my multitool. Completing this task will add them to my encyclopedia, along with a detailed 3D model. Maybe I can excel as a dinosaur historian? Determined, I keep the multitool aloft and creep forward. Before I can reach them, however, they scuttle away into the undergrowth. I press on, undeterred, scanning the environment for any signs of life.
Up above, I spot some birds gliding from one branch to another, mere silhouettes against the harsh midday sun. Immediately I hit the scanner, waiting for the colored orbs that indicate a successful lock-on. To add a little challenge, the orbs appear in two different colors: green and red. Hoovering up the green ones will complete the scan, while touching a red one forces you to start over. The mini-game is simple, provided your prey stays still -- unfortunately, the birds had no interest in such behavior. A few seconds later they had soared out of view, never to be seen again. I look down and scan a rabbit gnawing at a flower instead. It's not the same.
Before long I hit a fork in the jungle, which indicates the end of the demo. I've enjoyed my time with Robinson: The Journey, but can't help feeling a little dejected. As an agile adventurer, I've failed miserably. As a computer genius, I've struggled. Even my turn as a prehistoric archivist ended in disappointment. Never mind. When the game comes out, I'll have more time to hone my skills. To become one with the wild. That's dependent, of course, on me getting used to the controls and the mild motion sickness it seemed to trigger in me. Right now, my brain could use some fresh air.
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