LOS ANGELES – Even if you’ve never heard of Skydance Media, you’ve probably seen some of its films. The production company has worked on movies from Star Trek Beyond to Baywatch, and from True Grit to World War Z. The company believes that virtual reality is the next great storytelling frontier, and has put its money where its mouth is with Archangel: a polished VR action game about war, loyalty and giant mechs.
I went hands-on with Archangel at E3 2017, and although VR tends to make me a little sick, I can’t say no to taking control of giant robots. In the dystopian near-future, two forces duke it out over the ruins of downtown Chicago: a fascistic outfit with drones, tanks and foot soldiers, and a group of ostensible freedom fighters armed with transport ships and, of course, a six-story tall metallic battle exoskeleton.
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While gamers are no stranger to mech games (Steel Battalion, Armored Core, Titanfall, etc.), the genre hasn’t made the jump to VR in a big way yet. Skydance aims to fix that by putting combat front and center, and eschewing any other gameplay mechanic that could be distracting or half-baked. In Archangel, you don’t roam around the battlefield at-will; rather, you simply look, shoot, and defend. Don’t worry; it’s a lot more interesting than it may sound, and it prevents the confusion and potential motion sickness that often go along with VR action games.
Each individual part of Archangel’s control scheme is simple; the game’s complexity comes from combining all the systems together. By using either the Oculus Touch or PlayStation Move controllers, you can use your own arms to control the mech’s arms. Your right arm has a machine gun; your left, a rocket launcher. Both arms have a shield that can withstand a small amount of enemy blows before it needs to recharge. You can also smash obstacles just by punching them. That’s about all you do in the game; movement happens on-rails.
During the level I played, I found aiming and shooting to be incredibly intuitive, and the shields were a nice addition that meant I could take a few seconds to block enemy fire if I needed a moment to think. During the level, cannon fodder soldiers, durable tanks and airborne drones all took turns attacking me, and finding out each one’s weakness was simple enough. (Soldiers are vulnerable to area-of-effect attacks; rockets take down tanks; machine gun fire is best for drones.) Blocking incoming fire while dealing with waves of enemies is where most of the game’s challenge comes from, and to its credit, I didn’t get bored, at least for the length of a tutorial-filled mission.
The biggest challenge came at the end of the level, when an airborne attack vehicle attacked, laying down continuous machine gun fire while tanks, soldiers and drones came at me from every direction. Staying alive was difficult, but knowing when to use shields and when to fire wound up being a pivotal aspect of my strategy. I imagine that intense firefights like this will dominate later sections of the game; I just hope that they’re not too unforgiving, especially given the inherent margin of error for aiming and blocking in VR titles.
While I didn’t get a good sense of the overall story, it all seems sufficiently over-the-top. My avatar went on and on about punishing the enemy, getting revenge and finishing the fight, while some of his more level-headed colleagues tried to persuade him to protect civilians and pull back his forces instead. Whether the full game will lean into action movie machismo, critique it or present it as a little tongue-in-cheek is yet to be seen.
Archangel will be out for “all major VR platforms” in July, although there’s no hard price point available yet. The game itself seems fine so far; the really interesting part will be to see how Skydance’s credentials as a moviemaking company affect it.