A GEARVR NEWS RETRO REVIEW
New doesn’t always mean better. And in the gaming world, old doesn’t always mean outdated or “not worth it” as some might assume. The GearVR has been out for over a year now, with some of its core titles available at its release now looking aged from a consumer’s point of view. But that P.O.V. would be wrong because a few of the games that make GearVR worthwhile were the ones that have already been out a long time already. The point here is that it’s better not to overlook titles in the Oculus Home Store based purely on their age in the store. Some great games are starting to be forgotten simply because of the breadth of new titles flooding the GearVR community; that influx promised by Palmer Lucky during 2015’s “Connect 2” last October. And that promise has definitely held true. The inflow of exciting new games, the operative word here being “new” draws first timers away from older titles that still have the punch and maybe even more of the playability people are looking for. This article focuses on Darknet, an older game that still plays just like a new one.
Darknet was released in October of 2014 as one of the first “premium” games for the platform, and I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment. It’s got style in droves. It was initially released as a free game and later upgraded to $9.99 when Oculus got the monetization aspect of the Oculus Home Store up and running. Everyone I’ve read online has praised the game and said it was definitely worth their 10 bucks. I couldn’t agree more. Plus it has won many awards to boot:
While many games development teams may still be trying to get their sea legs developing for Android in order to produce games for GearVR that just … aren’t quite there yet, one man, E. McNeill*, (an indie developer going it solo) has managed to light a fire in VR’s war camps. He is a man with the talent and drive to make games that look like they were made by whole teams and do not suffer in any regard for his solo ambition.
*To be fair to McNeill’s cyber friends, he did have help (a few subcontractors pitched in) for a lot of the assets and content, but the majority of the game was coded and invented by him.
Along with the wonderfully neon and stylish Tactera RTS game he’s releasing in Q1 of 2016 (a free demo in the Oculus Home Store until it’s release), E. McNeill first produced “Darknet” for GearVR, a strategic-puzzle game I just bought along with a few other purchases at the same time. Of them all, I couldn’t resist playing Darknet first because its cyberspace and hacking themes resonate highly with me. What I found led me to abandon everything else for the moment and focus squarely on this title. The reason in only a few words? …“Oh boy, what fun!” I was hooked.
To get the game started, you follow an instructional hack that guides you on your journey into becoming a hacker. For this, the game has an outstanding tutorial, voiced by none other than Jon St. John the voice of Duke Nukem himself, his deep gravelly qualities hypnotizing to say the least. The tutorial really gets the complexities of the game out of the way right from the start. The game is about removing obstacles in the way of progress, like real hackers must do. Only, you must learn which obstacles to keep and which ones to remove, or your viruses will get eaten up by memory wipes designed to protect the System you’re penetrating.
Once you complete that tutorial hack and find yourself ejected out into the neon-blue Menu area, it all suddenly becomes a bit confusing to say the least. There are tons of menus with no variation in color to help you figure out what to do next. You have to dig into each menu single file. I found this a little frustrating because I really was just looking for a way to get jacked back into the game to give it another spin. I ended up reading a bunch of stuff I didn’t really want to be involved with just then, details useful to real hackers but not so useful to me at that exact moment. It was clearly there to add flavor and style and something to think about hacking-wise. I let myself be taken in despite my eagerness to get back into the action. But finally, after an exhausting 15 minutes of fiddling around, I found my way back into the game by entering the Cloud and accepting one of a dozen contracts found there. So let’s talk a bit more about the Menu system first.
In the Menu screen after each hack, there are a number of panels floating all around you. The text is a little small but still quite readable. It feels a bit overwhelming at first, like there are too many choices. And really, you just want to get back into the game. Some panels are instructional, such as a news bulletin, and some are for flavor. One panel is for upgrading your digital avatar to make your hacking skills more elite. And the final panel is for getting missions, which as I stated are in the “the Cloud” … Therefore, when you want to start a new mission, you need to upload yourself into the Cloud so you can take a look at the available contracts.
There seems like way too many contracts from a beginner’s point of view, each with varying difficulties, rewards, and even potential shame ratings for failing your mission. It’s hard to know what to choose from at first and there is no more instruction at this point. The tutorial was very good for what it taught you, but it doesn’t lead you out into the Cloud to give you instructions on what missions to pick or why. You pretty much have to just dive in and see what happens, the hard way. Pick something too hard, you could fail your mission and that is no good for this particular game. Failure hits you hard here, because being a hacker means your value is only as high as your last hack. Getting employment means being successful, not being shamed as a fraud. But … if you do complete certain mission, you can get extra “lulz,” (a kind “hacker credit” for being great at hacking). Some missions are apparently so lame to the Hacking Collective, you get neither shame nor lulz, merely a few Bitcoins from the company that hired you. This digital money can only be spent online to upgrade your Avatar, not (as the system warns you) for offline purchases since you are anonymous.
One sour apple is that after each mission, all of your viruses, exploits, and other items are lost, meaning you have to re-earn them during each new hack. This preserves the game dynamic of attack-(build viruses and exploits)-(earn money)-(buy more tools)-(re-attack). The slate gets wiped clean between missions, only your status and your Bitcoins being kept for you in Menu world.
The graphics are a stylish but not overly powerful, often mesmerizing, yet at other times less amazing. On one hand, the actual mechanical nature of the graphics represent a kind of board-game simulation such as Chinese checkers, with everything in neon lines etched over a black universe, in the artistic-mindset of Tron. The graphics in the network simulation are not particularly amazing, just floating neon balls with lines between them, but they do convey the idea to our imagination, where the true magic happens. Our own minds fill in the gaps, writing code, portraying computer mainframes churning along as our virus penetrates corporate offices to take out their firewalls. You can almost feel the magnetic-tape machines heating up, exploding with sparks, as your imagination takes hold. As your viruses infect every square inch of System memory and you seize the corporate data as your own, you feel your infamy grow. You imagine yourself wanted by authorities. You feel your influence literally spreading as you breach your target’s firewalls one by one in a race against time.
I don’t know what other people are imagining while doing their hacks, but I am seeing amazing things at work behind those painted lines. The lack of actual graphics used here to portray anything behind the scenes just might be this game’s genius after all. The graphics are game-play driven, and in that respect, leave the rest to our imaginations and actually do serve to guide your imagination the same way books do. At the basic level of every book are just random letters, but when read with the author’s intentions behind the words they form, the book’s scenes come to fiery life in our minds and linger long after the words are forgotten. Darknet uses that same idea by channeling its graphics in a minimalist way, giving you just enough to drive your own imagination. However, since this is a hacking title, I would have liked a bit more in the way of ambiance to drive that idea. For example:
Maybe some Matrix-like symbols get ejected from the core in every direction and then explode like fireworks when you finally conquer the level? To add more hacking flavor and let us feel our accomplishment just a little bit longer.
When you send an exploit, virus, or worm into the System, I’d like to see a DOS-shell command line window open and a bunch of hacker code scrolling too fast to actually read as the virus/exploit is executed inside the System. Then after the injection occurs, the DOS-window closes. This is to let us feel that hacking is actually going on behind the scenes. The top-layer visuals are stimulating, but aren’t really enough to sell the hacking motif as they are. Implementing this suggestion would add a ton of flavor to the game and suggest to the user they are hacking instead of just playing a game.
The sense of Presence fluctuates depending on what place you are at. At the Network-Map area, it’s a little lower because there really isn’t much need for the 3d to pop out there. Other areas the sense of Presence is great. When you buy upgrades, the screen presented to you is deeply stereoscopic, it really amazes. But that screen is only used for 6-7 seconds here and there. The current network you are hacking is mapped on the inside of a sphere and here you can feel the 3D depth quite well. The stereoscopy is pretty good inside the puzzle part. And being inside a Node itself is what brings us to game mechanics, which is, at it’s core, where this game really shines.
Each sphere you enter is a different size because it’s based on the Node you are interacting with. The larger the node, the loftier the puzzle you’re attempting to solve. When you trigger a virus, if it trips a security scan, the scan detonates a memory wipe according to certain rules, and that memory wipe burns much faster than your virus can populate. Your virus gets eaten alive. You have to figure out how to wipe the board of security triggers while preserving at least one virus point that will be able to spread unchecked and reach the core before the next memory purge you trigger is complete. That’s essentially how this game works.
The difficulty of each Node hack is dependent on how many links it has to other secure nodes within the hub. So you start by working around the harder challenges to whittle them down by taking out their support structures, and then infiltrate that larger node when it’s much weaker. It’s exciting to do all of this because everything is based on a timer, so you are always racing and feeling the pressure. The whole level, all of your progress, will be for nothing if you don’t achieve the main objective! But you can make more money if you stay longer on the level and hack all the independent objects and nodes. But if you wait too long and then can’t solve the final puzzle in the time you left yourself to do so, then you fail your hack and suffer the ill consequences.
For all the fun and amazing game-play, there are some small flaws I’d like to discuss here:
The first one is the way the game handles turning your view in the Network Map area using the controller. It doesn’t feel very responsive. You turn, the screen goes dark, you wait for 1 whole second which (seems like so little on paper, but in game time) is immersion breaking. It feels like at least some time has passed like in a movie cut scene. It needs improving. I would recommend shortening the eye flash in Darknet to the more believable one used by Dead Secret.
Dead Secret’s left-right blink-turn dynamic is to eye blink for 2/5ths of a second as it instantly rotates you whatever direction you chose. It feels instantaneous, responsive, and realistic. Darknet’s blink-turn speed is pretty slow by comparison. Having experienced a better one, and knowing it’s possible, I asked the Developer in a private message on Reddit to do an update fixing this issue once this article hits the web. It’s not a deal-breaker of any kind, just something that irritates me already and I’ve only played the game for 10 hours! I mean, you don’t actually need to use the controller if you have a swivel chair, you could just rotate your actual body, but then you’re looking at a longer turning time. Nonetheless, since every second does matter in this game, the only option for now for speed’s sake is to absorb the eye-blink and continue on.
When contacted about the issues I’ve raised in this article, E. McNeill was swift to reply, graceful and friendly, stating quote:
McNeill: “I’m thrilled to hear that you’ll be writing about Darknet and I appreciate the feedback about the turning. I haven’t played Dead Secret since it was first in development and it had a different turning mechanism from what you’ve described. I’ll have to check out Dead Secret again and see it for myself, but yes, it’s definitely an option to include in Darknet. In the upcoming update, I’ll be adding a new “comfort mode” option. Since I’m already revising motion controls anyway, it’s a good opportunity to revise rotation too!”
Now that’s an interesting guy who cares about gamers’ opinions! Enough so to go back in and edit some issues and update the title based on user input. And all of this while still cranking out another whole game, Tactera, which will be available in early 2016. Even if you don’t have the cash to spend right now, Darknet is a must buy … for when you do!
Categories: Retro Reviews