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‘Archangel’ hands-on review

Playstation VR's 'Archangel' puts you in a mech, with humanity on the brink

archangel review cockpit
One of the best game genres for virtual reality as it currently exists is the shooter, where headset views and motion controls translate fluidly into looking around to find things to blow up — and then blasting them. That’s basically the focus of Archangel, the upcoming mech-based shooter from developer Skydance. The game puts you in the cockpit of a giant walking battle tank with the help of PlayStation VR and lets you go nuts.

But virtual reality as we know it is still grappling with a few issues, like “simulation sickness,” the nauseous feeling that comes with your eyes interpreting your body moving when the rest of your senses don’t. A lot of games get around that sensation by limiting how much you can actually move in the game with controls like thumbsticks.

Every fight came down to quickly and strategically taking out enemies while also trying to block incoming fire

In Archangel, shown at Sony’s Playstation game showcase at E3 2017, the solution comes in making the game something of a rail shooter: You don’t control the motion of your huge bipedal death machine as it works its way through the game’s levels. Instead, you’re focused on the weapons in a game that’s more akin to the turret shooter genre, in which players man a stationary gun turret and deal with attacking enemies, than your standard first-person shooter.

Where Archangel looks like it’s going beyond traditional turret shooting games is in the character and detail it brings to that idea. The mech you drive in the game is equipped with an artificial intelligence that serves as your second in command, for instance. The result is something like the symbiotic relationship of Titanfall 2, where the mech is both a vehicle and a robot character unto itself.

Blasting (almost) everything that moves

Each of the mech’s arms comes loaded with different weapons, and it’s your job to make use of them. You’ll blast away with a chain gun on the right wrist, while you can paint targets with your left to fire homing missiles. In the short demo we saw, moving through a destroyed, sand-covered city to fight off incoming airborne fighters and tanks, combat was all about mixing weapons effectively to destroy threats before they became overwhelming, and before one of your guns ran out of ammo and left you momentarily defenseless.

Picking targets is key. As groups of fighters swept in from overhead, we had to target their leaders, explosives-laden kamikaze drones aiming to dive-bomb us. Take out those, and the explosions would catch their wingmen, too, or even larger “dreadnaught” drones that could otherwise dish out huge punishment.

Each of the mech’s arms is also equipped with a shield, which protects about half your robot and only lasts for a few seconds. So every fight came down to quickly and strategically taking out enemies while also trying to block incoming fire. Archangel does a pretty good job of forcing you to keep your attention shifting. While rail shooters are commonly about quick reactions as targets pop into your field of vision, the VR elements of Archangel mean that you’re mostly trying to keep an eye on everything coming at you, deciding which weapons to use against which threats while protecting yourself as best you can.

In practice, it means laying down chain gun fire on a tank to your right while shielding against the ones shooting at you from the left, then quickly swinging your missile launcher skyward to take out banking fighters before more fire comes your way. Since you can’t move, your only means of survival is offensive, strategic thinking to neutralize threats as quickly as possible.

You’ll also have flying units flanking you that make up your squad. The other characters and their vehicles will require your protection, and they’ll take part in the battle to aid you — even providing healing power-ups at key moments.

The human element

The big thrust of Archangel is the feeling of being a human in control of a giant robot. You’re manning the cockpit of your mech more than just being a giant robot. Put another way, your movements aren’t one-to-one with the mech’s actions — it’s more like you’re running the controls.

That little bit of separation is by design, Skydance Interactive President Peter Akemann said. Skydance wants the game to feel like you’re a pilot of something incredibly powerful, but as much as blowing things up is essential to the gameplay, Archangel is focused on the human side of the story as well.

The idea is to tell a sci-fi story that focuses on both the way technology can overtake humanity, and the way that it can elevate humanity.

Archangel drops players into the middle of a war between an all-powerful, mechanized corporation called HUMNX that’s taken over America, and a small band of fighters trying to take back the government and control the destiny of humanity.

As Akemann put it, the idea is to tell a sci-fi story that focuses on both the way technology can overtake humanity, and the way that it can elevate humanity. The automated, totalitarian HUMNX are a tech gone awry, dominating life and taking away freedom. But the mech, and the artificial intelligence that’s taking part in the story, represent the way technology evolves and the way humanity can learn from it — and it from us.

The story of Archangel was only a small part of the demo, but it seems like it could add a layer to the game that might give it some deeper appeal. Mech pilot and player character Gabriel has a photo of his family clipped firmly into the cockpit, suggesting some backstory, and the demo ended with a holographic retelling of an interrogation of a HUMNX officer that adds to the character.

For Playstation VR owners looking for more games to add to the technology’s fledgling library, Archangel should add a cinematic shooter experience without the issues of getting sick while you play. Just how deep the game is remains to be seen, but controlling the big, gun-covered arms of a giant robot at least provides a solid foundation for VR explosions and strategic gunplay.

Archangel is set to release on PlayStation VR in July, and heads to Oculus Rift and HTC Vive soon after.

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