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‘POPULATION: ONE’ removes VR barriers, replacing them with thrills

(The Washington Post; BigBox VR)
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At the center of the square map stands a colossal tower. Its mere presences raises the question: Can you climb that?




Walk right up and place your hands against it, grab hold of the walls by squeezing your middle fingers on the Oculus controllers. Move hand over hand and haul yourself up, story after story. You may even be tired when you reach the top. Want to move a little faster and live a little dangerously? Yank down hard with the hand holding the surface and vault yourself up the face of the building — just remember to grab with your other hand as well or else you’ll fall back to the ground. Even in VR, fall damage is very real.

Free climbing is just one of the many joys provided by Big Box’s “POPULATION: ONE,” a virtual reality battle royale cross-playable on the Oculus Quest/Rift and other PC VR sets (HTC Vive and Windows MR), and set to release Oct. 22. The Post got a taste of the game during an early access period open to the media. After a brief tutorial, players team up in trios, hop into rocket-propelled pods that glide over the map, designate a landing zone and drop down into a fray, pitting their group against five other trios to be the last team standing amid ever-shrinking map boundaries.

The descent reveals another satisfying experience. Extend your arms to the side and soar like you’re wearing a squirrel suit. Retract them to your sides and you’ll drop straight down. Extend them again, and soar a bit more. The same can be applied when leaping from any of the high-rising objects you can climb throughout the game’s map. As you’re gliding down to the ground, twisting your head to survey the environment around you, it’s easy to forget there are 15 other players down there trying to kill you.

Where “POPULATION: ONE” succeeds is in making you forget there are limitations. Too often in VR there are guardrails, guiding users down the developers’ desired paths, performing tasks in a predetermined order to produce a gee-whiz type moment. “Wow, isn’t VR cool!” VR is cool. But many early iterations have been limited by factors that snap you back to the real world. Tangled wires, motion sickness and the aforementioned guardrails that shatter any illusion that you’re actually operating in a different space. “POPULATION: ONE” on the Oculus Quest 2 flourishes by mitigating, if not altogether eliminating those factors. That has been one of the goals of the development team since the project’s outset.

“You’re in VR and it’s like, I can’t hop over this like half-a-foot tall fence because it won’t let me,” said Gabe Brown, BigBox VR CTO and co-founder, in an interview with The Post. “It’s not fulfilling the fantasy that you want to see when you see, like, 'Ready Player One’ and they’re flying around and climbing and you’re doing all the stuff that you see in these movies. And we really wanted to bring that experience to VR. … If you think you can do it, you can.”

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On the Quest 2, movement is free and easy, which makes the “POPULATION: ONE” experience both immersive and advantageous (with no wires to literally trip you up). Arm and leg movement is mirrored in the virtual world. Crouch in the real world, and you’ll crouch on the battlefield. Heck, go prone if you want to lay down like a sniper. If you feel like being super sneaky, find a wall and climb up until you can just peer over the top. Wait for your prey to pass by, hold the wall with your left hand and spray your foes with the weapon held in your right. All of these movements felt natural and instinctive in the game.

A number of immersive VR titles have struggled with the issue of inducing motion sickness and developers have often utilized ways to decrease that sensation, often at the expense of immersion. (Moving via a point-and-click teleport system, for instance.) “POPULATION: ONE” doesn’t fully succeed on this front, but testing with members of the Royal Air Force led them to a solution that creates a kind of tunnel vision, blacking out the periphery when moving. As advertised, the system didn’t overwhelm my senses, but it did make me super paranoid that an assailant lurked somewhere in the darkness 90-degrees to my left or right. While it does break VR’s illusion as well, I’d rather be occasionally reminded that I’m playing a game than feel so sick that I can’t play it at all.

The level of interactivity inside “POPULATION: ONE” also makes up for, it to a degree. In no particular order, here are all the things you will be doing with your hands/Oculus remotes in the game: snagging loot, loading ammo, priming/cocking weapons, peeling bananas (all four sides) and popping soda cans for health boosts. Spray and pray with a one-handed grip on a submachine gun as you flee from a firefight or steady your aim with your left hand to take aim on a distant target. It’s all just far more fun than merely pressing a button.

Cribbing from “Fortnite,” players can build barriers to create cover by pulling the trigger on their handset when their guns are holstered, varying the orientation of the square panels by shifting the position of their hand. In that way, it’s easier to master than “Fortnite,” where multiple buttons are needed to place, reorient and select the desired material of a barrier. When people are shooting at you (and it really feels like people are shooting at you) easier is definitely better.

Also similar to “Fortnite,” there will be a continuous stream of new content for “POPULATION: ONE,” including character skins and other cosmetics. The hope is to keep players coming back to “POP: ONE” and developing a community of players and leaning into VR esports.

“We want to own the premiere esports game in VR,” said Chia Chin Lee, co-founder and CEO of BigBox VR. “Lots of live service, lots of ongoing content, building community and becoming the premier VR esport.” To that end, Lee said they’ve had lots of discussions about developing an esports element, but for now the focus remains on the quality of the game itself.

The game will cost money, but once purchased there will be added free components for all of the game’s owners, according to Lee, including multiple character and gun skins. He added that players will be able to buy cosmetics and similar items via direct purchase and a battlepass system, with details of that coming after the game’s launch.

“There will be plenty of free stuff,” Lee said. “Our goal is to build our community.”

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At launch, trios will be the only available mode, which the developers believe will promote socializing with other players. Other modes will be added subsequently, according to Big Box.

While the full “POP: ONE” package produces an sincerely enjoyable time (even the after-death screen is fun, enabling players to float around via an omnispective camera in 3D to watch the final fights unfold) there is room for improvement. Even after a tutorial and a few test runs in the game, it takes some time to find your footing. To that end, the all-too-familiar storm that shrinks the battlefield moves a tad too quick for my liking, which also limits the time I can get my bearings or just enjoy looking around the map and not running/fighting for my life. Related to this, I wish there was more control over walking speed. There is only one movement speed on the ground, with the game using its climbing/jumping/flying mechanics as a replacement for “sprinting.” Some other VR titles link movement to pumping your arms like you’re running. Maybe that’s too intense, but some more control would be nice.

While the Quest 2 does have a splendid resolution (1832x1920 pixels), I found it difficult to aim at distance. Sometimes the fuzziness was the result of the headset shifting oh-so-slightly on my head, which isn’t terribly uncommon given how much I need to (and want to) move it to spy my surroundings.

On the whole, a limited run (three rounds) inside the game has piqued my interest to see where “POPULATION: ONE” can go. The developers clearly have Epic Games-like aspirations, a la “Fortnite,” with crossplay for different VR sets. The big questions for the full release will be whether the game’s handling of VR’s familiar tripping points (particularly motion sickness) will allow players to enjoy the game for hours on end and/or keep hopping back into the game day after day. If it can, “POPULATION: ONE” could truly take off. But at a minimum, it appears to provide another milestone in advancing the abilities and enjoyment of VR.

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