A Quick Word About Nostalgia: In the 1980’s, the classic arcade game Galaga was one really fun game for me as a kid. I got one of those portable units for the car at Christmas one year, I must have played it endlessly. I thanked my mom every day for that one, it never got old to me. In many ways, GunJack reminds me Galaga, the name even starts with a “G” haha. One would be tempted to think my review will automatically be skewed in favor of Gunjack. You might be right, as this was indeed a nice reminder of a childhood favorite but with far prettier graphics and amazing sound effects. The game play is just about the same, too. And there are some deeply-3D elements in GunJack; just not all the time. I will try my best to be balanced, but I do think my review is far kinder than most of what I’ve read from disgruntled people on Reddit who seem to hate this game for no good reason at all. It’s like they never even gave it a chance, just labeled it and boxed it away. This review seeks to re-kindle a tiny bit of the magic in the hopes that some may go off and try it again … with kinder eyes this time around.
GunJack is a turret-style game where you are just like Luke Skywalker or (now) Fin sitting in the Millennium Falcon: your job is to blast everything that moves in the inky darkness of space around you. You do this over the course of 20 ever-increasingly challenging levels. I literally blew through the first 10 levels in a single hour. I felt there wasn’t much meat there. It seemed too easy up to the game’s half-way point. Then I began the second half, and had to eat some serious crow. It gets harder. Way harder. Especially the closer you get toward the end.
The turret you occupy is outstandingly modeled and contains within it the greatest sense of Presence you will find in the game. It is very enjoyable to feel yourself being in that cabin, you really need to take some time and just study the whole GunJack cage around you whenever you have a few moments to do so. A ton of detail was given to this aspect. In fact, everything inside your immediate surroundings inside the turret area is rendered with the same impeccable depth of Star Citizen … only at a phone-scale not at PC level of graphics, but close enough. It will leave you breathless the first time you experience it.
THE GOOD: Your turret cockpit is lovingly designed and has the feeling of a well-lived in machine with some personalized tidbits tacked onto the walls above and behind you the way the characters of 2012’s Battlestar Galactica TV-show did up their own space fighters. This makes exploring the GunJack cabin quite mesmerizing. In addition, the animation of your hands gripping and rotating the turret-control interface to prepare for battle is one of sheer beauty and ramps up your adrenaline. The pre-battle-animation sequences are incredible, and the most immersive part of the game.
The game gets its name for the way your twin-machine guns fire off, sounding like two jack hammers clacking away high on meth or something. The following explosions as you tear through the filthy space chum assaulting you are huge. This helps to hide the removal of numerous exploding pieces so the game can remain at high frame-rates even when there over 40 ships on the screen, plus incoming rounds, asteroids, freighters, attack waves, and missiles all moving and exploding simultaneously around you. There are rarely any glitches or issues graphically, but if the game-play is too busy like this for very long, my S6 does tend to overheat. But that did not happen often, only twice in 12 hours of game play (across multiple days).
The Bad: The actual space ships you fight against are pretty lackluster except for on level 10. Level 10’s ship is really cool with its massive laser cannons, I would have liked to have seen more impressive things like that. But the way so many other other ships pop out of nowhere is not very impressive. How about having a portal or star-gate open (with some fireworks) as they come through it? Sometimes a larger ship comes in and the smaller ships launch out of it, that tends to be the best method so far.
Another issue that some Reddit users have complained about is that our P.O.V. gets moved too far forward when the battle begins so we end up not being able to see our arms or legs anymore. But this is for a good reason: there would be no way to sell the illusion of someone moving huge mechanized cannons around using your face (as if attached to your face) if you could see the entire turret jerking about to and fro at the speed of light the way the human head turns rapidly in short arcs. To allow something like that, the developers at CCP would’ve had to work harder selling the idea that your turret has no mass, as if powered by some kind of a Zero-Mass-Drive enclosure.
But come to think of it, that might have been pretty cool! Because if the enemy struck that drive system, it would have reduced how fast you could look around (making the turret suddenly unable to move as fast as your head turns. You’d end up looking over at your left window instead at the battle in front of you while the GunJack sluggishly trails after you, trying to catch up.) That would be quite alarming, and makes me think it would have been good if they had added this effect, just for how shocking it would feel to have this occur. A vividly frightening loss of control in some extreme cases could have added variations to the game play. I wonder how such a scheme would have impacted the difficulty in earlier levels, making it more challenging? For that reason, I think maybe those Redditors could be onto something here. Having the view be adjusted forward so far you can’t see your cockpit anymore, can’t see your legs, your body, your arms, all detracts from Presence and hinders what could have been another strength of this title. But, in order to not have to explain why the turret moves so fast without any inertia, and to get this game out in time for the CE1 launch that it was scheduled for, perhaps such corners really needed to be cut.
I do like the attack runs where the enemy ships come out from under or above your capital ship, those feel more real. But when coming in from in front of you, the way they come in is not so good. There isn’t much variety in the attack formations and not many tricks employed by the enemies. Many of the enemies just sit there doing nothing while you blast them, as if they are just set pieces. They feel like they are only there so you can see yourself emptying huge clips of bullets into something because that’s …. well, FUN! They don’t have much personality. I’m sure ships could have more personality, but not sure what suggestions to offer on that, though. Maybe the Devs were in the same boat?
The reason I gave Presence a 6 in this review is that while in space, most ships are too far away to feel the 3D. There are some asteroids on level 2B (between levels 15 & 16) that come in really close to your face, you can see the 3D working there. That level is excellent for Presence. But most of the space combat feels 2D except for the turret you sit in. The lasers on level 10 look deeply 3D and feel very powerful when they hit you. But this is the first time that offers something mesmerizing and memorable in the way of enemies.
The hangar area has stereoscopic elements but the 360 background is not stereoscopic, but that’s okay because it still works well due to the 3D objects in the foreground. The Presence going up in the lift is awesome. This part is highly stereoscopic with amazing animations in the turret as you prepare to engage the enemy. But once you hit space, the feeling of depth is gone somewhat because of the distance most of the enemies appear from your face. I feel VR’s richness comes from its stereoscopic-depth effect, and would have loved to seen more 3D in the space-combat of this game, even if they had to drive some of the battles really close to your face to do so. I think a good rule of thumb for VR would be to have one-half of all visuals be deeply stereoscopic, to keep reminding the gamer that they are indeed playing a game in VR.
You get a visceral rush just shooting so many bullets and experiencing the re-loading sound-effect sequence. It all becomes a bit addicting, but that doesn’t mean it has deep game play. It’s fun for what it is: an updated, modern Galaga-style game with eye-candy VR visuals.
CCP used a cool technique for the hangar area of merging a 2D 360-surround photo as the backdrop while added a foreground layer of a 3D-rendered set piece. The 3D foreground sits over the backdrop image to convince you everything you see behind it is real. They are integrated together well so the effect is totally convincing. The foreground blends well and is seamless with the background’s color palette and style. Well done.
SUGGESTIONS FOR THE HANGAR BACKDROP:
- Find a way to add small overlays over the 2D backdrop to make some of the distant lights flicker or have at least one machine working (animating) in the background. Give us some cycling sparks on some welding equipment far in the distance. It all seems sort of dead, although beautifully so. More subtle animations would be good.
- Add a few more things to interact with in the hangar, like a little computer or something, to help space out our time on the action levels. As soon as you return from one mission, you can just load the next one. It’s easy to chew through the first half of this game in 1-2 hours at most. Although later levels do take more time.
- The spaceships we shoot down are rather bland and non creative. There are few animations to make them come alive. I guess since we’re blasting them to hell so quickly, it’s not that important overall. But what about an occasional transformable ship, that holds a few surprises in it?
The Good: The audio is thrilling in all situations. From the indoor-hangar announcements from a loud-speaker aka “K-Mart-speaker” style to the sound of loading into the turret and the turret loading up into the advancement bay, to the sound of your twin barrels firing at full auto, all of the audio is over the top. The sound and animations of your weapon reloading is brutal sounding and mechanically satisfying. Your boss barking out orders is well acted and humorous. The sound effects are great throughout the game.
The Bad: Not much to say here, as it’s all quite amazing. For what this game is, I don’t think it could get much better. The mechanical nature of piloting a turret leads to some very awesome mechanized sounds. I’m not a sound engineer, so I can’t hear any flaws.
SUGGESTIONS & IDEAS FOR CCP:
GUN JAMS: The blasters from GunJacks fire enormous amounts of bullets. Surely, there would be some jams. I’d love to see a button sequence (like in a fighting game) that you have to press in perfect sequence to help un-jam it. You have to memorize the sequence and deploy it right if you get jammed during a wave of enemies. Bad timing could really muck you up. There is something like it that disables your whole GunJack until you mash a button, but this requires no thought or memorization. I think Gun-Jams could add a twist to the difficulty level.
GRAVITY WELLS: Perhaps the enemy could manufacture some gravity wells which are designed to only target our ammunition? That means our bullets no longer fire straight, but are curved, meaning we have to learn how to fire by leading the target to some extent. It could be quite awesome to try and learn how much to lead the targets based on the color of the gravity well. Each well would have different gravitation levels based on color. In the beginning it’s easier, but later it gets way harder.
ENGAGE SHIELDS IN EXTREME CASES On the controller, only three of the 4 main buttons are used. Bottom is bullet fire, left is reload, top is deploy the power up. Why not add a shield dynamic to the remaining right button and get some enemies to begin suicide runs, crashing into us? This can add one more element of difficulty to the game. You have to press the shield button but the shields overheat after 3-4 seconds, so you have to time it perfectly with the suicide-ship’s impacting of you. There would be a siren that goes off indicating such kamikaze’s are incoming, but you have to face the incoming ship square on in order for the shield to cover you fully. Otherwise, if you are off of center mass, the dive-bomber gets around your small shields and does extensive damage even to you. This could add some anxious moments (with an angry siren wailing in your ear to ramp up the fear level).
OTHER IN-HANGAR ACTIVITIES: Add something more to do in the basement of the hangar so that we can’t just blow through all the levels so quickly. Maybe there’s a computer with some training material to read through or listen to an audio tape. Give us a chance to listen to an email from a friend or relative working another mining rig somewhere in another part of the galaxy (with in-game animations) to expand our imagination about the the universe we’re in. Next idea, allow us to see a full-scale CGI model of the rig we work for in case we want to analyze where we live and work. You already have the models and the game intro did show us a bit, I’m asking for a way to re-open this model and fly over it from other angles and get to really take a good look at this huge flying citadel we work for. You could call it “Take the Tour” and it would talk about the rig we live on. This would contribute to help space out the missions so that we don’t swallow this entire game in one sitting.
ENTER REPAIR MODE AFTER EACH BATTLE: After each battle ends, the game freezes in place and all the stats are opened and it’s the typical end of level recap of your play and rating value. Instead of freezing on this screen, the game should turn our turret around and give us a brief glimpse of the entire station behind us and then draw us into the bay where a few service robots descend and do repairs. Lasers and arc welders and sparks flying everywhere as our turret gets repaired. The repair lasts until we press “Main Menu” as usual or for about 1 minute at most, and then you return us automatically. I just think it would be more cool to have us do an about face so we can enjoy a fresh perspective on the capital ship and then show the turret we just used being repaired from all the damage it’d likely haven taken. You don’t have to show the damage, just show the robots and lasers and arc welders going about their business as we stare at our statistics. It should feel something like a futuristic car wash. We sit there as the turret is drawn back in toward the lift and get repaired in the process. Would be so cool!
PLAYER RELOCATION AFTER LEVEL 10: Change the player’s perspective to another pod after a catastrophic accident and/or alien attack takes out our current pod (#8). Now we would have an all new turret to use, with new characteristics and all new cockpit graphics. Plus, the turret should be re-located to whole other part of the ship, with a new 360-degree 2D background (and new 3D foreground aspect) to admire. This would help flesh out the capital ship more and give us a change of pace so we feel we got just a bit more for our money.
FUN IDEA: How about if during one of the final battles, at the last level (or a new stage added in before the last level) a capital ship comes in with a huge laser that literally slices your GunJack away from your own ship? Suddenly you are detached, spinning through space (slowly so we don’t get too sick, maybe we can even use our guns to control our spin rate?) Each firing of our guns is like a push away from the direction we’re aiming. Now we can see our capital ship and the of space around us and have to attack waves of enemies all around us, using our GunJack’s weapons as our thrusters to turn this way and that. Hey, it’s pretty complex, I know…. just a really fun idea and could shake things up a bit, take the rail out of the common “on-rails” criticism with a non-rails moment.
Gunjack is really fun in my opinion. For many people on Reddit, the game comes off a bit thin, but not for me. I really enjoyed it from beginning to end. It’s really a great experience despite being “only on rails” as most Redditors argue. The game is too easy for the first 10 levels, and then slowly becomes too hard by the end. A bit more balancing of the challenge level would be nice in any future updates to the game. The game can be played halfway through in 1 hour as I did, but the final 10 levels will oddly take 6-8 more hours due to the requirement to have us go back and get more stars on previous levels. I haven’t finished GunJack yet (I’m on 18), so there may be more surprises yet to come.
I think perhaps the usual (but steep price for a GearVR game) of $14.99 is mostly justified, but the way they extended the life of the game (by making your re-play all your old levels again and again to get those stars) is too predictable of a strategy for beefing up a thin game. How about just a bit more game instead?
Anshar Wars 2 did not ask players to keep re-playing old levels in order to see the game through, yet GunJack makes you play the game several times in order to even play it once. That’s why there won’t be any replay value left here at all by the time you’re done. You will be entirely over it once you’re done. I think that’s a mistake. Perhaps let the player run through it and win it on easy mode, and then die hard fans can re-play the game again on a harder setting. Making you replay every level so many times trying to obtain that last reluctant star actually ensures the game has no re-play value once you’ve completed it. In fact, there is no explanation for how to get that final star on most levels, and I’ve played some nearly flawless rounds, killing everything there is, and not dying even once, and still can’t get the third star. Why not have the game tell us how to get the 3rd star so we can go and complete this game without having to re-do levels endlessly trying to find the missing equation here? A little pop up could come up automatically and say “Hey, are you trying to get a third star? Why not do this …. “ Because when you play a perfect game, kill everything, don’t die even once, and still can’t get that star, then you don’t have a clue what you could have done any better. And all that does is make you want to quit playing. That’s no good. Just tell us what to DO, CCP.
GunJack is not the horrible game that many people on Reddit would make it out to be. If you actually listened to them and didn’t give this game a chance, perhaps it’s time to dust off your credit card and take a risk on an experience that will not soon leave you. The game is more than just its space battles, and there are some truly deep 3D moments worthy of exploring and sharing with friends. I show all of my VR games to my students in China, and so far, GunJack is one of only 3 other titles they always want to see again and again. Those other titles are Ocean Rift, Android’s Dream, and vTime. But yeah, they really love GunJack over here! Maybe you will, too…
Don’t Listen to the Nay Sayers, This Game Rocks!