Welcome to the Stormland

When it comes to anticipated game releases few titles have elicited as much slobbering and salivation in the past year as Insomniac Games’ Sci-Fi shooter Stormland. It feels like Oculus has been teasing the game for years, making lofty claims regarding its innovative locomotion and combat mechanics, all taking place within a fully-realized beautiful open world that the player is free to explore. Stormland is that rare beast in virtual reality, a big-budget AAA title from a top development studio. I am hugely grateful to Oculus who has kindly allowed me early access to the title for review and I’ve spent a large portion of the past week jet streaming across clouds, discovering new island biomes and unlocking some of the game’s secrets. Of course, as a VRFI writer my primary goal is to assess a game’s fitness and activity potential, but when its a massively hyped game like Stormland then it’s obviously of interest to all our readers to discuss what the game itself is like and whether or not it lives up to all of its ambitions.

Game premise, structure and the managing of expectations

In Stormland you take on the role of Vesper, an android gardener whose botanical paradise has been destroyed by a corporation of terrorist cyborgs known as the Tempest. They seek to gain control of an unusual plant resource, that is somehow connected to the planet’s consciousness as a whole. The narrative develops as you progress through the story, via familiar tropes such as recovered memory fragments and the discovery of audio logs and journals. I won’t spoil the details beyond stating that it’s all very Avatar-like, with you defending the planet against unwelcome hostiles seeking to exploit it.

Like most of you, I’ve watched the impressive teaser trailers over the past year and have been excited to try Stormland out, but beyond the movement mechanics, I didn’t really know what to expect. That ambiguity allowed for my mind to imagine that it would be a large open world Sci-Fi adventure RPG, with multiple hours long single-player campaign, a cyber version of Asgard’s Wrath if you will. If you were hoping for something similar then I’m afraid I must deflate your hype balloon just a little. Stormland isn’t that game. The gameplay is almost entirely combat-focused and consists of exploring various cloud-based island biomes, looking for loot and resources, and fulfilling objectives that usually involve disabling enemy radar, killing commanders, or destroying everyone in a base, etc. You’ll also be given optional bonus missions.  These involve exploration: scanning a particular animal, crafting: locate and collect a specific alloy, or combat: kill five Tempest by ripping out their battery packs by way of examples.

Breaking up the combat there is a simple crafting system which has you collecting alloys which are used to fabricate more advanced weapons, and the harvesting of aeon buds to increase your growth, essentially opening up more upgrade slots on your body allowing for ability enhancements such as jump boosts or increased carry capacity. The mechanics here are extremely rudimentary, with only two materials to harvest, alloy and aeon buds, so don’t be expecting any base building. This is not Subnautica by any stretch. As long as you shoot enough alloy as you run or glide past it, you can fabricate any weapons you want providing you have scanned them first, so crafting isn’t anything you need to consciously think about.

The Cycling World

The main game is also disappointingly short. It took me five hours to finish, and I sucked at the game initially and died a lot. Those of you more proficient with VR shooters will likely complete the game in around four hours, or a couple of play sessions.

So far, so underwhelming, but thankfully that is not the end of the story. I mean that quite literally, as the main game campaign really functions only as a tutorial. Once completed you have access to what is called the cycling world. Once a week, every Tuesday at 9:00 am ET the Stormland undergoes a complete transformation. All new environments, loot, and collectibles appear and you have exactly seven days to reach Terminus and defeat the Tempest. You will discover more about the game world, unlock more weapons and upgrade paths beyond what happens in the main game alone. How successful this is in pulling players back into the game over the longer term will depend on how much variety the developers are able to pack into these cycles, and if the game retains a feeling of freshness and discovery.

The game is also designed for two-player co-op play. If the cycling worlds feature enough variety week on week to compel people to dive back in, this could prove to be a great challenge to do with a friend.

Effectively what you have with Stormland then is not an immersive single-player adventure but rather a combat-focused game designed for cooperative multiplayer, on maps that change each week.

It’s all about the gunplay and movement mechanics

If the review so far has you thinking this hype balloon is burst then let me assure you that is definitely not the case. In fact, we are about to pump plenty of air back into it…

The game might be somewhat skeletal and bare-boned, but god damn they are beautiful bones! This game has incredible locomotion and combat mechanics. Once I’d got accustomed to the complexity of it I felt like a combination of Boba Fett and the Predator.

In many respects, the game initially mimics the feel of Lone Echo. A gaze downwards reveals your intricately rendered android form, complete with arms, torso, and legs, all of which bend and animate convincingly. The developers are certainly striving to embody the player with a strong sense of presence, obviously to enhance the feeling of immersion, but partly too I suspect to reduce motion sickness by tricking the brain and the senses into believing you’re there and that the action and movement are really happening. Thankfully it works extremely well, which is necessary as trust me you’ll soon be flinging this virtual body in all directions at speed!

It’s the character’s agility, range of movement and weapons handling that quickly dispels the idea that you could be inhabiting Lone Echo’s protagonist Jack. In Stormland you are no mere janitor-bot, best suited to repairing appliances in a zero-gravity environment. Your occupation might be listed as a humble gardener, but in the actual execution of your duties, you are a one-man army rivaling the Predator in weaponry, equipment, and agility.

Movement is incredibly intuitive and satisfying. When you step upon the clouds you hold out your hands like your riding a Harley and push a grip pad to accelerate. You skim over the clouds like a Star Wars land speeder reaching the next island in seconds. I grinned ear to ear when I first tried it.

Early on you gain the ability to climb. Rather than looking for handgrips to ascend as in Crytek’s The Climb, Stormland adopts a Sprint Vector parkour approach on steroids. You don’t need to make contact with a surface, but just need to be close for your gravity trap sensors to work allowing you to stick next to the surface. Free from any necessity to look for things to hold on to you can throw yourself up at considerable speed. This might not mean much if the Stormland world was flat, but in this game, your movement is as much vertical as it is lateral. Everything is climbable and each island features huge structures to clamber up. If you’re scared of heights this might sound terrifying, but in this game falling is not an issue. You see Vesper has thrusters and can fly! So you can climb the highest peak, then leap off like superman using your arms to maneuver. Aim your arms down and you’ll trade height for speed, once you’re descending quickly enough raising your arms will convert that speed energy into height allowing you to swoop. It’s exhilarating and quickly feels natural.

The game’s combat is based around these mechanics as you climb higher to gain strategic advantage and can assess the threats posed below.  With the right upgrades, you can swoop down from a high tower, land in a crackle of lightning and pull out dual machine guns eviscerating your enemies before they even know you’re coming. It’s awesome. I LOVE the combat in this game!

Active fitness potential

(Ordinarily, when reviewing a fitness-focused game we use a specific template and playtest with a heart rate monitor. For fully-fledged games that might involve story development, puzzle-solving, exploration, and character conversations such an approach isn’t possible. So instead when reviewing mainstream game releases that have active components a more descriptive and generalized overview is appropriate.)

Climbing is king

By far the most physically exerting activity you engage in is climbing. Fortunately, climbing is a core part of the gameplay and the game allows you to climb as fast as you can physically fling your arms upwards. Some of the structures and mountain spires are ridiculously high and will require some work to get to the top. One there you will be rewarded with some of the best visuals I’ve ever seen in VR, so it’s a pleasure to engage in. If the cycling worlds offer dramatically different vistas in the coming weeks and months this could be something that remains fun and rewarding to do for a long time.

The gameplay hook is addictive enough to play for long periods

During my time with this game, I often spent well over an hour playing in a single session, which for me is a long time to be in VR. For most of this time, your hands are constantly moving. Whether climbing, flying, manipulating weapons or throwing grenades you’re likely to be standing on your feet for a good hour or so and moving about so already this beats sitting and watching TV by a long stretch. It’s an easy game to lose time in as the locate, plan and destroy game hook is very addictive and I continued to want to play just for a bit longer.

Tips to make the game more physical

One thing I look to do in mainstream games is to find ways to increase the physical exertion in a way that matches what my character is doing. In Skyrim, for example, walking or jogging on the spot to match the pace of your virtual character in-game both greatly increases the effort level and can actually further immerse you into the game.

In the highly vertical world of Stormland, you won’t get to walk much but I found the following ideas quite useful for making the game into a light resistance workout.

Flying and cloud streaming could offer some resistance training with wrist weights

If you’re the kind of person who likes to use wrist weights they would work well in this game. Your character adds upgrade abilities by physically bolting them on to their hands and arms so extra weight would match what your character is experiencing. Then the time spent flying and jet streaming with your hands outstretched can act as light front and side deltoid work. Start light and easy though, you don’t want to injure yourself.

A weighted vest works well

I tried the game wearing a 5 kg weighted vest and it worked really well. As your character is physically armed with a back holstered weapon and grenades and energy canisters across the chest the additional weight of a weighted vest can simulate the equipment you carry. Crouching in tall mufflegrass reduces your visibility to enemy troops, so squatting low for stealth can give you a bit of a quad and back workout.

Summary

Game Rating 8/10 – Physical Activity rating – 7/10

Overall Stormland is an excellent game with truly outstanding locomotion mechanics. What the game absolutely nails are the movement, combat mechanics and visuals, all of which rival anything I have ever played in VR before.  The lack of a decent narrative-driven main story is a bit disappointing and some of the game elements such as crafting seem so simply executed they might as well not be in the game at all.

I do believe this will prove to be an important game in VR however. The ability to simulate motion without inducing motion sickness is a challenge that all VR developers face. I never once felt any nausea playing this, and I’m someone who can’t play Onward for more than a few minutes without wanting to vomit.

The game ultimately doesn’t have quite the depth I anticipated, but it, without doubt, has the most style. It’s gorgeous, exhilarating and breathtaking in parts I just wish there was a little more to do other than kill Tempest troops.

The Good

Groundbreaking locomotion mechanics that will likely inspire future games

Stunning visuals and incredibly well optimized.

Combat is visceral, exciting and has a sandbox feel where you’re free to create your own attack style

Climbing is both fun and a workout

The Bad

The game is a little shallow with no real way to interact with the world beyond killing things.

Stormland is available exclusively for the Oculus Rift and Rift S on the Oculus store.


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