Written in collaboration with Hunter Bond
It’s a late start on Sunday morning. The sun is already high in the San Antonio sky by the time we leave our hotel room. By the last day of PAX, it takes a bit longer to get going. After a necessary stop for coffee, Hunter and I are enroute to our meeting with Phaser Lock Interactive at the Grand Hyatt hotel, just down from the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center where the main show is being held.
As we disembark from the elevator, Phaser Lock’s media director Autumn Taylor peeks out from an alcove, breakfast in hand. She apologizes for being caught out in a rare moment of peace between meetings and informs us that there is currently someone else finishing up an appointment and we’ll have to wait. We, of course, agree and leave her to her meal while we move further down the hall. Shows like PAX often leave few enough moments for dev teams and PR to satiate their basic needs and it’s the least we can do after interrupting the first time.
While we wait I give Hunter the rundown about Final Approach – the game we’re here to see – or at least, what I’ve been able to gather on the VR title from trailers and press releases. In Final Approach the player takes on the role of flight controller, guiding biplanes, passenger jets, helicopters, and other flying vehicles safely around airports and bases. Poor judgment and instructions can lead to fiery crashes and failed missions.
Hunter and I head back to the room and are once again greeted by Taylor, smiling more now that she has had a chance to get some breakfast down. One of the two stations is ready and waiting and she asks if I’ve used the HTC Vive before. Sheepishly I tell her no, but I’m definitely willing to give it a shot.
She guides me over to the far side of the room and introduces me to Phaser Lock producer Micah Knight. He quickly explains the similarities between the Vive VR unit and the Oculus Rift, something I’m slightly more familiar with, before helping me strap on the headset.
With the Vive on, all I can see is darkness. Micah hands me the two controllers and I instinctively look down. The screen is still dark, but now I can see two digital hands that look as if they’ve been pulled straight out of Tron. As I move the controllers around, the hands follow my movements perfectly. Neat.
“Turn around, the menu should be behind you.” It’s Micah’s voice coming through my headphones. I follow his instructions and turn my body. Sure enough, when I turn around I can see the main menu of Final Approach, behind me and a bit off to my left. When Micah tells me to push the bottom button I tentatively reach out my hand and point at the one he mentions. “It’s not working,” I tell him, expecting this to be a bug in the software. Looking at the monitor that’s displaying what I’m seeing, Micah tells me, “You need to get closer.”
In this way I’m introduced to the first instance of physical depth in the game. As I once again follow the developer’s instructions the menu screen looms closer, bouncing slightly as my head moves to track it. In all previous instances of using VR technology, I’ve either been stationary on my feet and looking around or seated with a controller. This extra layer of immersion is new.
The game loads up and I find myself looking at a non-descript wall and filing cabinet. I turn my head and notice that I’m inside of a small office complete with desk, bookshelves, and other adornments you’d expect. The office window looks out into a hangar bay with various flying vehicles parked inside and on the desk itself is a futuristic palm scanner that I’m told opens the mission-select menu.
I’m tempted to walk around the office and look around, but my curiosity about the meat of Final Approach’s gameplay gets the better of me and I select the tutorial mission. After a brief loading screen, I find myself standing god-like over a small island airport complete with two runways, a helicopter pad, and control tower. Looking around I can notice biplanes lazily drifting past my gaze while the in-game tutorial voiceover starts explaining the situation.
At the same time, Micah’s voice comes through the headphones and both he and the tutorial jockey for my attention as they try to explain the mechanics. It’s a little overwhelming at first, but I get the gist of it and start reaching out my digital hands to click on planes and drag them a path into the runway. Quickly I find out that the depth perception in VR takes a bit to get used to as plane after doomed plane flies along my path to crash into the edges of the runway.
After one particularly fiery explosion where I accidentally guided one plane directly into the path of another, Micah calmly suggests that I get a bit closer to the runway and draw some wider turns for my unsuspecting victims. Embarrassed that I’d forgotten I was able to move about the game space, I follow his advice and instantly notice better results. Soon I’ve landed multiple vehicles safely and the tutorial progresses through a few more features like zooming down to eye level to scare seagulls off the runway and to extinguish a burning airplane. Shortly after that, I amusingly finish the tutorial level in much the same way I started: by crashing two planes together above the runway.
Back in the virtual office, Micah guides me to pick the next level, an aircraft carrier. As I load it up and continue to get a handle on the game, Hunter is speaking with Phaser Lock co-founder and chief technical officer John Nagle about the team’s origin and the project itself.
Nagle tells Hunter that he was once a part of the Iguana Entertainment team back in the days of Turok. When his studio shut down, Nagle shifted his career into industrial applications for programming like high-speed lasers for assembly on production lines, and other assorted government projects.
However, the game dev scene was never far from his mind. When the chance to participate in an HTC Vive two-day game jam came about, he teamed up with other ex-Iguana employees and together created what would be the first iteration of Final Approach. No more than a skeleton with rudimentary controls by the end of the game jam, their faith in its potential led the new team to continue working on it long past its inception. The build I was currently playing was the result of that effort.
Back in the game, I’ve succeeded in landing a few fighter jets, launching some drones from the carrier, and saving a pilot from those same drones after they malfunctioned. Unfortunately, I then crashed my rescue helicopter and failed the mission. That’s okay though, I realized I had been playing for over 15 minutes and thought it might be time for Hunter to go for a spin.
I step back and watch Micah take him through all of the now familiar setup and controls before setting him loose on the island to get into the controls. Almost immediately I notice a huge difference between how Hunter plays and how I did. While I kept my movements conservative for fear of running into someone or moving outside of the control space, Hunter’s sweeping arm movements and full steps show that he isn’t worried about these things. He’s immediately getting into the full body experience that is possible with a VR title like Final Approach.
While Hunter sweeps through the first level’s missions, I chat with Autumn Taylor about the game. The pride in her voice is obvious as she tells me that Final Approach has been selected as a launch title for both the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. Further, she adds that Final Approach will be coming to PlayStation VR as well, giving them lots of reach into each of the potential virtual reality audiences.
After Hunter completes the island level and jumps into the aircraft carrier controller role, I start to pay more attention to his progress. I want to see what comes after the helicopter rescue. Hunter already had the benefit of watching me do the first few missions, and he seems to be more comfortable with the VR controls as well, so he breezes through the first few missions. My gamer pride is saved from completely being crushed when he struggles with the same rescue mission I did.
As he finally lands his helicopter and cargo where it needs to go, another mission starts with a call about those pesky malfunctioning drones again. Apparently they’ve gone full Skynet and need to be taken out. Hunter gets to man the turret guns on one of the battleships stationed nearby. I feel a spike of envy as I see him shoot down drone after drone to complete the mission and the level.
As he rejoins me on the side of the room, it’s clear he put more into his demo than I did. Sweat glistens on his flushed face and he’s breathing as if he’s just returned from a rigorous jog. He comments that he feels exhausted after that demo and one of the Phaser Lock team starts to apologize. Hunter forestalls them, “No, I really liked it.” and I can’t help but agree with the assessment. It was probably also partially the result of Hunter deciding to test the limits of the Vive’s capabilities by flailing about vigorously as though he was landing planes during a rave.
Phaser Lock Interactive’s Final Approach will release as a launch title for the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive and will be coming to PlayStation VR as well, though the specifics of that launch are still up in the air.