SAN FRANCISCO - If you want to make a video game that demands attention, simply do something that’s never been done before.
Augmented Empire – as far as I am aware – is the very first cyberpunk tactical RPG released for a VR system, and that alone makes it worth noticing. What’s even better is that Augmented Empire has the potential to be a ton of fun, combining an intuitive control scheme with an unorthodox premise and an attractive art style.
I went hands-on with Augmented Empire for the Samsung Gear VR at GDC 2017, and while VR generally makes me a little queasy, I would gladly risk it to play more of the game when it comes out. You play as yourself, more or less, sitting at a desk with an augmented reality diorama setup. In the diorama, you can control Ashley, a futuristic operative, and her offbeat party members as they undertake action-packed missions in a near-future dystopia.
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The full release of the game will have two distinct styles of gameplay: a simulation where you can sit at your desk, correspond with non-player characters by phone, observe your environment and so forth. Since this part of the game wasn’t available in the demo, I stuck to the more traditional half of gameplay. Ashley’s adventures in the diorama play out as an isometric turn-based RPG.
If you’ve played X-COM or Final Fantasy Tactics, you know the drill: Ashley and her party members get two actions each turn, and you’ll generally use one to move, and one to attack. You can also take advantage of terrain to make yourself harder to hit, or activate special abilities that can damage enemies, affect movement or restore health. Of course, your enemies can do the same, making each level a fine balance between keeping Ashley alive and taking your foes down.
Gameplay has one unique twist, however. Rather than simply ordering Ashley to attack or letting her take damage when baddies return the favor, players have to play a timing minigame. Tapping the touchpad at just the right time will determine whether Ashley hits, misses, or scores a critical hit, or whether she dodges, takes reduced damage, or takes full damage.
The difficulty of the timing depends on how far away you are from your enemy, and what kind of cover is available. The system is simple, but the tactical applications could be very deep, especially in later stages.
The demo itself was fairly short and straightforward: Ashley took out one foe on her own, then three foes along with the help of a party member. Since Ashley and friends didn’t have many skills available yet, the battles were a straightforward war of attrition, but the gameplay felt fluid, and the art style was easy on the eyes. Despite the dark setting, the characters are colorful and cartoony, lending an agreeable air of fantasy to the whole thing. Neuromancer this is not, although it’s very much a love letter to the cyberpunk genre.
With so many VR simulations dedicated to sports, racing, and shooting, I was glad to see one of my favorite genres get the immersive treatment. Although I didn’t see too much of Augmented Empire, what I saw was more than enough to put the game on my radar. The game should be out this summer, and while there’s no hard cost, it will be one of the more expensive games on the Gear VR platform. (Currently, that would put in the $10 range, but we’ll see what happens.)
British TV fans should also take note: If all goes according to plan, both Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz, Doctor Who) and Sean Pertwee (Equilibrium, Gotham) will lend their voice talents to the title.