Robinson: The Journey preview – Hands-on with Crytek’s VR dino romp
For animals that died tens of millions of years ago, dinosaurs get wheeled into a lot of technology demonstrations. Silent cinema had The Lost World, animatronics had Jurassic Park, the first PlayStation had a walking T-Rex demo, CGI had Walking with Dinosaurs and virtual reality had, in 2015, Crytek’s Back to Dinosaur Island. Dinosaurs: a reminder of our own fragility, both as bodies and as a species. They’re big, is what I’m saying.
Now, Crytek is actually going back to dinosaur island with its upcoming VR game, Robinson: The Journey. You’re cast as Robin, a young boy who’s stranded after his ship crash-lands on a mysterious planet. All alone, Robin carves out an existence with the help of a floating AI orb called HIGS. There might be a dearth of other humans, but Robin can’t walk ten feet without bumping into a dinosaur, not least because he’s decided to adopt a baby T-Rex as a pet. No problems on the horizon there. Nope. None at all.
“When we came up with the concept, we wanted to do something that felt unique and still had something to do with our roots,” explains the game’s executive producer, Elijah Freeman. “One of our earliest VR demos was a dinosaur demo. We love dinosaurs and liked the way they felt, but we wanted to make the experience something everyone could enjoy. Compared to our other games, this is more about exploration.”
The first few minutes of my hands-on demo of Robinson: The Journey would, if presented on a 2D screen, be a rather pedestrian introduction to the world of a game. I exit a pod, take in a grand vista, greet my pet dinosaur, solve a few puzzles and make an exit. If this were on a flat monitor, I’d zip through it, only glancing at the incidental gestures of environmental storytelling before searching for the path I know I’m supposed to follow.
But during my hands-on (heads-on?) play in PlayStation VR, I’m reminded how perspective can have an enormous effect on pace. I move around the grassy overhang like a longsighted toddler, investigating piles of rocks and throwing boxes off the side of a cliff. That’s partially down to VR environments being novel, but I can’t help feel that the immersed viewpoint encourages a slower pace. Exploration becomes a more involved process when you can lean and peer instead of twiddling thumbsticks.[gallery:2]
For a studio best known for putting graphically demanding engines to work in shooters, an emphasis on exploration marks a decided change in Crytek’s approach. “We decided we wanted it to be more a game of wits than shooting,” Freeman tells me. “It kind of goes against our instincts, but it ended up being fantastic. For us as game developers, I’d say a lot of us grew in terms of how we think about games. Not everything requires a gun.”
Robin didn’t have a gun in the short time I spent with him (although Freeman did joke that a cliff edge would be a good position for a sniper), but he did wield a tool similar in appearance to a PlayStation Move controller. Controlled with a DualShock 4, I used a combination of eye direction and buttons to interact with object in the environment – picking them up and shooting them off in a manner similar to Half-Life 2’s gravity gun. As you’d expect with this toolset, physics puzzles make an appearance. At one point I had to fix a broken water wheel by unpicking stuck crates. Throwing them into the jungle below probably didn’t do much to help Robin’s quest for survival, but there you go.
Later in the demo I was tasked with relaying power to an electric fence. Here, perspective switches to HIGS’ bird’s-eye view, allowing me to select different power points in the area. It plays much like a hacking mini-game in the vein of BioShock and Deus Ex, albeit one overlaid on the environment. The brief example in the demo was simple, but it’ll be interesting to see how far Crytek integrates this tactical view into Robin’s adventure.
While HIGS’ view of proceeding is recognisably game-like, Robin’s perspective is refreshing for its lack of UI bells and whistles. Most notably, I didn’t encounter anything in the way of quest markers, which made orientation through the jungle feel like a challenge rather than a path-hugging non-event. HIGS may direct the player by hovering towards certain places, but this diegetic guidance is far less imposing than floating white arrows. Freeman told me that the game eventually opens up to become much more sandbox, and I’d love to see how exploration works when there’s a larger area to navigate.[gallery:4]
While many VR games tend to be either on-rails roller coasters or testing grounds for a single mechanic, Crytek’s adventure gives you a rich environment and presents you with a number of tools for interacting with it. There’s even a scanning mechanic, reminiscent of No Man’s Sky, which logs plants and animals you encounter. Instead of holding down a single button and letting your scanner do its thing, scanning in Robinson involves a mini-game of scooping up floating green dots without touching red ones. It’s a straightforward task, but it shows a studio experimenting with ways of layering gameplay into VR.
“I haven’t seen this much fast-paced experimentation since 20 years ago,” says the game’s technology director, Rok Erjavec. “That’s what makes it exciting. It feels like we’re going through these uncharted waters now and finding things as we go.”
“I agree,” adds Freeman. “There’s something really interesting and – at least on our side of the fence – we’ve been encouraged to explore and understand the medium. You have to rethink how you’re designing things. You have to think where the story is, where the audio is. You’re thinking much more dimensionally than you have before.”
We’ll have more on Robinson: The Journey as it surfaces. For now, you can check out some insight from the devs below.