VR and the Third Coming of Lightgun Shooters

Light-gun shooters are, as you’ll know if you read the Gal*Gun Double Peace coverage from last year, a venerable genre, dating back to the very earliest electronic games.

They are, however, also a genre that has fallen by the wayside over the years, thanks partly to changing trends in gaming but also due to significant changes in display technology — most notably the change from the flickering, interlaced images of CRT TVs and monitors to the stable, constant displays of today’s flat panels; a change which meant old-school light-guns no longer worked.

Light-gun games have remained popular in arcades, however, since they tend to be large, “showcase” machines that are immediately impressive to visitors, and the advent of motion controllers with the Wii (and, to a lesser degree, the PlayStation Move) brought about a half-hearted renaissance for the genre at home, albeit pointing a remote-like device at the screen wasn’t quite the same as fervently gripping a plastic weapon in your hands.

With the advent of affordable virtual reality solutions, however, the light-gun shooter is well and truly back, and more fun than ever.

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I’d like to draw your attention to two games today, both of which are available for PlayStation VR and HTC Vive: one called Pixel Gear, from Chinese developer Geronimo Interactive, and another called Mortal Blitz, from South Korean developer Skonec Entertainment. Both offer slightly different twists on the basic formula, but both capture the simplistic but highly enjoyable fun of pointing things at pixels and polygons, then pulling a trigger.

Pixel Gear is the simpler of the two games, taking the form of a relatively straightforward, static shooting gallery featuring a variety of voxel-based enemies. Standing atop a platform in one of several different rather sharp-edged environments, you must fend off a series of waves of enemies, blast ghosts and finally take down a boss via the time-honored method of shooting its helpfully marked weak points.

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Pixel Gear’s controls are very simple, requiring only a single Move controller which acts as your virtual “hand”. You reach out and grab a pistol to begin the level, then pull the trigger to fire the gun, your aim point helpfully marked with a laser sight to allow shooting from the hip. As you defeat enemies, a Skill meter charges up, and, when full, this can be unleashed with a tap of the circle button. This slows down time for a few seconds and also temporarily gives you a more powerful machine gun with which to mow down enemies.

Completing a wave causes a series of ghosts and angels to fly up from the ground into the sky, though these only appear if you’re looking directly at them. Shooting ghosts rewards you with points and coins which can be spent on upgrades between waves, while shooting angels carries a hefty score penalty. The purchasable bonuses include increased clip sizes, health boosts and new weapons, including the machine gun you temporarily get when you use your time-slowing skill and a grenade launcher. Both of these have limited ammo, however, in contrast to your default pistol, which has unlimited ammunition but requires reloading every time you empty a clip.

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Pixel Gear is mostly about recognising the different types of enemies, how they’re likely to attack you, and how to deal with them. Most enemies can easily be dispatched with a shot to the head, though some protect their heads with helmets and others require multiple shots to fell. The game doesn’t expect you to dodge incoming shots; instead, it clearly marks them on screen and allows you to shoot them down before they damage you. Most of the game’s boss fights require you to fend off an attack in this manner before hitting the boss’s weak point in an opening.

Pixel Gear is simplistic but fun. The levels are just the right length to satisfy the urge for a quick blast, and there’s enough content there to allow you to keep playing if you’re enjoying yourself. The game perhaps suffers a little from a lack of enemy types once you’ve been playing for a while, but the boss confrontations keep things interesting, and the varied environments the different levels offer see you dealing with enemies up close, from a distance and with cover involved. It’s an enjoyable shooter; perhaps a little unpolished in places, but certainly no less enjoyable for its rough edges.

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The Unreal Engine-powered Mortal Blitz, meanwhile, is an altogether more immediately striking affair that channels a very strong sense of classics of the genre such as Time Crisis, while providing some interesting VR-powered twists to the formula.

One of the ways Mortal Blitz channels its spiritual predecessors is by having a largely indecipherable plot that doesn’t really matter. As part of a three-man team consisting of Hot Girl Who Appears on the Cover Despite Not Being That Important, Butch Guy who Grunts a Lot and You, your mission is to infiltrate a series of installations, blast everything in your path and try not to get shot full of holes, set on fire and/or eaten by rampaging bioweapons.

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As I say, the context for Mortal Blitz doesn’t really matter all that much, since all it does is provide a convenient excuse for sending you through a variety of cover-based shooting setpieces in which you tend to do all the hard work while the two speaking characters get all the glory.

Unlike Pixel Gear, Mortal Blitz makes use of two Move controllers for dual-wielding funtimes, and you have a few options as to how you can take advantage of this. You can hold a pistol in each hand for additional damage or firing in multiple directions at once, or you can leave one hand empty to pick up environmental objects and throw them around or use them as makeshift cover. There are also weapons and grenades to pick up scattered around the levels, so you’ll need a free hand to use these.

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Mortal Blitz’s main gimmick, however, is its “anti-gravity control system”, which is somewhat reminiscent of Bulletstorm. Shooting an enemy enough to make them “groggy” but not kill them allows you to grab them using a laser lasso-type thing that emanates from a free hand, then fling them into the air and fill them full of holes as they fly over your head in pleasingly cinematic slow-motion. Doing this not only rewards you with bonus points at the end of the level, it also causes the unfortunate enemy to rain powerups down on your head, with this being probably the most reliable means through which to heal yourself.

Mortal Blitz uses the PlayStation Camera to track your position, so as long as you stay within its field of vision, you have freedom of full-body movement. This means you can duck down and hide behind things, lean around corners, peep over the top of things and blind-fire at enemies. It’s incredibly immersive — at least until you walk into your coffee table — and the PlayStation Camera’s field of vision means that you don’t need a huge room to make this aspect of the game work; you’ll need horizontal space more than distance from the camera. There’s rarely a requirement for you move around too much, since you can take a good few shots before dying and thus can probably dispatch your enemies before they kill you, but the fact you can take cover just by moving naturally is an enjoyable part of the whole experience.

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Moving between encounters is accomplished by pointing at a hotspot and pressing the Move button on the controller, which “warps” you to the new position rather than making you virtually “walk” there, so those who get motion sickness in VR will probably be all right. (Just don’t look out of the windows on the train level.) The accuracy of the motion tracking on both the headset and the Move controllers is also very good, minimising any feeling of “disconnect” between you and the virtual world unless you accidentally leave the camera’s field of vision.

Mortal Blitz’s story mode consists of a scant few levels that can be completed for the first time in less than a couple of hours, but which can then be replayed on higher difficulties. The developers also promise that the current content of the game is also just the first “episode”, with more to come, though there has, as yet, been no indication of when we can expect more or if we will have to pay for it.

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There’s also an excellent “training” mode, however, which challenges your gunplay with a variety of different minigames, and arguably the game has a lot more longevity as a result of this mode than its story content. A selection of trophies task you with reaching various milestones in this mode as well as completing the story on the three difficulty levels and with accuracy above a particular threshold, and there are unlockable weapons and colour schemes with which you can customise your experience. In other words, there’s plenty here to keep you busy; certainly a lot more than the 20 minutes of gameplay the original Time Crisis on PlayStation offered!

Both Pixel Gear and Mortal Blitz are strong takes on the light-gun shooter in VR, offering distinctive experiences that make them both worthy of a place in your library, assuming you like shooting things. Of the two, Mortal Blitz is the more obviously polished, substantial experience — but don’t discount the accessible, enjoyable appeal of Pixel Gear’s pick-up-and-play simplicity, particularly if you want to introduce VR to newcomers.

Light-gun shooters may not be the most inventive, creative use of VR and motion controllers — but by golly, they’re certainly as fun as they’ve ever been, and with the new twists on the formula that VR adds, things can only get better from here. Now, howsabout a new House of the Dead, Sega?


More about Pixel Gear
More about Mortal Blitz

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