Platforms: PC + HTC Vive (Reviewed), PC + Oculus Rift
We're still very early in the AGE OF VIRTUAL REALITY GAMING (imagine booming echoes here for proper effect), which means we're in the Wild West of game development for the new VR platforms. Developers are trying their hands at VR for the first time, and are exploring dozens of different ways to accomplish things like basic movement and control schemes. In a year or two we'll be able to look back at these early games and pinpoint which ones figured things out and which ones ended up exploring development dead-ends, but for now there's so little proper gaming content out there that any game has a chance to be a breakout hit.
Time Machine VR is the latest game from the developers at Minority Media Inc., best known for their work on Papo & Yo. In Time Machine you're a scientist tasked with exploring the oceans of the past in order to scan prehistoric sea creatures for reasons which are explained in the game but which aren't really compelling or exciting. It's undoubtedly an interesting VR experience but it's held back by some big flaws that make it hard to recommend to anyone aside from rabid plesiosaur fans who already own VR headsets
Explore, scan, repeat
Time Machine VR is a seated experience in which you take your place inside a virtual single-person submersible craft that can also travel backwards through time. Played on the Vive you use the motion controllers to pilot your craft from your seat, with the left controller acting a bit like an advanced joystick and the right controller used to aim and deploy your various scientific scanning tools. This is one of the few games I've played on the Vive where I've felt as though a traditional controller might actually offer a superior experience, as the motion controls require exaggerated movements and don't deliver the precision that you often find yourself needing.
The game does a good job of teaching you its unusual control scheme right off the bat, dropping you into a tutorial/scanning mission that runs you through the basics of the game. In each stage you are transported back to a different point in prehistory and tasked with locating a particular creature (or creatures) in the ancient ocean. Once you've found your target you'll progress through different types of information gathering, scanning the habitat, eyes, internal organs, and other aspects of the creature.
One of the biggest problems with Time Machine VR is the lack of checkpoints in a game that desperately needs them. Wrangling a VR headset can be a hassle, and getting all the cords in place to comfortably dive into a seated game on the Vive is no small feat. Time Machine does do a good job of auto-pausing if you take your headset off, but each stage consists of a series of scanning steps you need to complete with no ability to save your progress mid-stage if you need to stop playing. This isn't a deal-breaker, since most of what you'll be doing in the game isn't really challenging once you know what to do, but it's frustrating to get 60% of the way through a stage and have to quit, knowing you'll have to do the whole first portion of the stage over again the next time you play.
At its best, Time Machine can make for a tense experience in which you're dodging prehistoric ocean predators in your fragile submarine. You'll never get a "game over" or anything, but much of your research in the game takes place in close proximity to giant sea monsters who will eat you if you give them a chance, and that adds a much-needed layer of excitement to what would otherwise be a pretty dull experience.
Since your ship has no weapons to speak of and isn't very fast or agile, your best defense against your foes lies in your ability to control time, to a certain extent. You're able to slow things to a crawl when you need to (so if you see a giant mouth approaching your ship, that would be a good time to do it). Even if you're inches from being eaten, freezing time will allow you to scoot away to safety...but your time-dilation powers are not unlimited. You have a bar indicating the remaining charge on this ability, and you'll need to carefully manage when and for how long you use it in order to complete your tasks safely. If you're stuck out in the open without the ability to slow things down, you'll likely see teeth and a black screen, and then you'll be returned to the beginning of the objective you're working on.
There are elements of a successful survival horror game hiding in Time Machine VR, as facing down a hunting plesiosaur offers primal fear in a way we rarely experience in games. If there was more of a consequence to being eaten, or if the bulk of the game surrounding these tense moments was better, the whole thing could have made for a compelling experience. As it is, fear quickly gave way to frustration for me, as I struggled to get the sub to respond to my commands reliably and tried to figure out what, exactly, I was supposed to be scanning.
I want to scan a t-rex
Probably the biggest disappointment of Time Machine VR is that you never get to encounter any really famous dinosaurs, because all of your time in the past is spend in the water, rather than on land. I'm sure there are a lot of reasons the ocean setting made the development process easier, but in these early days of VR there's a serious lack of dinosaur content, and this game falls short of what dino fans are hoping for. It's especially frustrating since in-between missions to the past you fly around in the air in the "present day" in your same ship, so there really doesn't seem to be any in-story reason you couldn't be on dry land in the past, scanning t-rexes and raptors.
Time Machine VR is currently selling on Steam for $29.99, and while I like the idea of the game and I'm sure it wasn't cheap to develop for these cutting-edge VR platforms, the game just isn't anywhere near polished or fun enough to recommend at that price. If it's less costly in the future and you're interested in checking out experimental VR control schemes or really love prehistoric ocean creatures then it's worth a look, but its flaws were too much to ignore even for this die-hard dinosaur fan.
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