Platforms: PC - HTC Vive (Reviewed), PC -Oculus Rift, PSVR

Archangel, the first VR game from Los Angeles-based studio Skydance Interactive, has a premise that is perfect for VR.

You are the pilot of a six story robot, stomping through the American west and blasting all your foes into smoldering wreckage with the help of your allies and some serious firepower.

It’s certainly an intriguing concept, and one that seems like a great fit for virtual reality. I’ve written about my initial impressions before, and though I was hopeful Archangel would get a little more ambitious and polished before release, I’m sorry to say that isn't how it turned out., 

While occasionally an exuberant sense of scale and destruction shines through, the otherwise painfully average gameplay and graphics keep it from living up to the substantial potential of the premise.

You can pick up Archangel for the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, or PSVR for $30 now.

Stompin’ around

Archangel is a rail shooter, meaning you are sent down a guided path with control of only your arms and the attached weapons. While this can certainly be entertaining, it does feel a little limited in the modern day and age of open world games.

Each arm has a weapon, beginning with a machine gun and rocket launcher. As you progress through the levels (most of which are about ten minutes in length,) you unlock two more weapons, a lock-on missile launcher that is essential for targeting airborne enemies, and a powerful railgun. You can switch between any of these weapons on the fly, which adds some strategic complexity to the somewhat repetitive “go into area, get attacked, kill everything, move on” formula.

An important component of gameplay in Archangel is the two disc-shaped shields that project from your arms when you press down on the directional pad (on the Vive.) These diminish quickly as you take fire, and learning when to properly deploy those shields is a critical part of the gameplay. It takes some getting used to, but finding the balance between offense and defense is one of the most entertaining aspects of Archangel.

As far as gameplay goes, that’s pretty much it: shoot everything you see with whatever weapon is appropriate, try to defend from incoming attacks, and keep going. There are some fun diversions, like when your mech has to use its substantial strength to punch through bridges, or overloading power nodes with your energy transference capabilities, but these twists are few and far between.

The physical act of punching was very underutilized. There is something immensely entertaining about smashing through buildings or smashing giant mechanical creatures out of the air with your fist, and I wish there was more focus on the physicality of piloting a giant robot.

That’s really the core of the issue I have with Archangel: the wasted potential. There's nothing inherently wrong with simple gameplay mechanics, but when you’re piloting a giant robot in VR, being limited to what’s essentially a shooting gallery seems like a big missed opportunity.

What Archangel does right

Archangel does succeed at making you feel like you’re piloting a giant mech, which is a pretty pivotal achievement in a game about doing just that.

After a fairly compelling introduction in which you train with your robot, tragedy inevitably strikes. When the game finally puts you in control and you’re moving through a destroyed city in your huge robot, it’s a pretty awesome VR experience.

The attention to detail in the cockpit is remarkable. I spent a great deal of time just looking around the lovingly rendered pilot's chair. The arms of the mech look great too; I never got tired of looking at the minute detail on the robot I was piloting.

The sense of scale is effective as well. When you look down and see the ground underneath you, when you’re punching out other building-sized mech monsters, that’s when Archangel is at its best.

There’s some interesting variation in the enemy types. It starts out with a standard assortment of tanks and soldiers, but quickly ups the ante with flying drones, and heavily armed attack helicopters. Some tanks have shields, which means you need to find the shield generator before you can destroy them. These variants add some spice to the shooting recipe, and serve to provide a pretty smooth difficulty curve.

Controls are perfectly fine once you get the hang of switching weapons and activating shields. The game is designed to be played sitting down as though you were the pilot, but there’s no reason you can’t play standing up if you prefer. You can readjust the location of the headset at any time, which is always appreciated.

Where Archangel falls short

I’ve already discussed the simplicity of the gameplay, and I don’t want to belabor the point. Suffice it to say after the novelty of piloting a huge mech wears off (which admittedly takes awhile) it becomes somewhat repetitive. You point, you shoot, and you occasionally use your shield. It does become more frantic and slightly more strategic once you start switching between weapons, but at the end of the day it’s a glorified light gun game. For some people that might be enough, but it left me wanting more well before the end of the relatively short (3-4 hour) campaign.

I mentioned earlier how detailed and well rendered the mech and everything inside of it is. Unfortunately, everything outside suffers from a serious case of last gen-itis. The environments are blurry and simplistic. They are completely non-interactive, which very much decreases the immersion, and is disappointing for a game so focused on destruction.

A great example of this lack of graphical fidelity is in the shanty town you head through toward the end of the campaign. The “houses” are poorly textured boxes, with almost comically archaic character models cheering you on. It’s jarring, especially when compared to the obvious attention paid to the robot you are piloting. It’s as if your shiny new mech is exploring a game from ten years ago.

The exception to both of these criticisms is the final stage. Though it’s far from the best looking thing I’ve seen in VR, the creative location design and excellent boss battle made me feel like Archangel finally found its footing right before it was over.

But even during that last level, the third issue with Archangel is prevalent: the subpar narrative and writing. Archangel tells the story of a dystopian future where an evil corporation is bent on controlling the population, and it’s up to you and a ragtag group of diverse survivors to single handedly defend and save the world. If this sounds familiar, congratulations, you’ve played a video game before.

The story attempts to explore themes like loss, the meaning of Artificial Intelligence, and betrayal, but does so with a complete lack of subtlety. The villain is particularly ridiculous, and his over the top evil-guy monologues made me laugh, which I suspect was not the intention.

The protagonist isn’t much better. Due to a personal tragedy early in the story, Captain Walker is pretty much completely devoid of personality, and is defined purely by revenge, which is not a sufficiently compelling identity. On the plus side, you are able to choose a male or female protagonist, which is not a small thing given it doubles the amount of voiceover that had to be recorded. 

There is some back story exploration in occasional Tron-esque cutscenes, but other than that, the narrative is largely forgettable and has some truly cringe-inducing moments. We may have been willing to forgive these failings in earlier VR titles, but the bar has been raised with games like Narcosis and Lone Echo, and Archangel feels like it needs to play catch up from a writing standpoint.

The potential is there

There is promise in Archangel, and I would love to see Skydance take what works here and refine it further. As it stands now though, it’s difficult to recommend Archangel to anyone except the most avid mech enthusiast. The campaign is short and mostly repetitive, and there is very little incentive to replay it other than harder difficulties.

I love the concept (who wouldn’t?!), but I'll still be holding out for the dream of a truly great VR mech game. 

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