Developer: 4A Games
Review Platform: Oculus Rift
Review Copy Provided By: Oculus
Release Date: October 10, 2017
In ARKTIKA.1 the world has been devastated by a silent apocalypse, a new ice age sweeping across the globe and reducing humanity to little less than pockets of resistance against mother nature. It’s now up to you to give humanity a second chance at survival and to cleanse old Russia of the second most deadly threat after the apocalypse, raiders.
ARKTIKA.1 is a game which prides itself on its gunplay, which is a good thing since it’s what you will be spending most of your time doing. You have a neat selection of pistols to choose from, once you have amassed enough credits to buy them, which thankfully is not too difficult to do since the game piles them onto you for completing optional objectives and main missions. While there are only one-handed weapons available to you, there is a wide variety between the laser weapons, revolvers, and semi-automatic pistols, many of which also come with alternate fire modes to help diversify your shooting. Each gun has a powerful kick and feel to it which brings them to life, with the revolvers especially feeling visceral and undoubtedly powerful with each shot, this as to be expected from the developers behind Metro 2033. Whilst the guns are a highlight on their own, they lose some of their enjoyment when you actually have to use them in-game.
Enemies in ARKTIKA.1 will come at you in waves once you enter a new shooting arena, with the teleport locations popping up in front of you as the enemies pour in and find themselves behind cover. Whilst the guns feel amazing, using them becomes lacklustre when they are confined to a shooting gallery and it’s just you and your enemies occasionally popping up out of cover to get a few shots in before waiting for your health to recover. This seems to be a fundamental problem of the world 4A Games was trying to create, as while grounding the game in realism at times makes for a more compelling experience within the world, the mechanics this world facilitates fail to support fun within the gameplay.
To get around the pieces of cover you will call your home and to get around the world, fixed teleportation points are used to traverse the levels. This is 4A Games’ way of answering the ever-important question of player locomotion in VR by simply not letting the player choose at all. This is not entirely a bad thing however, as cover is a vital part of your survival when it comes to the hitscan weapons that both you and your enemies use, meaning that you must use clever positioning to escape away from breaking cover or to give yourself a better line of sight at enemies. Within combat the teleportation points glow in front of you and you are given a choice between locations in cover which will let you slowly pick off enemies, or more exposed positions which will give you better vision of enemies while also giving them better vision of you.
Despite being able to, I rarely made the choice to swap quickly between various locations during most fights. Most encounters lacked the intensity to force me out of cover, so the best bet was often to find a cover that looked nice with your face pressed up against it and stick to that one. This was not always the case, however, as with some fights the intensity is thankfully increased, with different enemies being thrown into the mix and standard troops coming at you from all sides, leaving little other choice than to jump around the battlefield from once piece of cover to the next. In one particularly climatic fight at the end of a mission the game felt alive, with the combat showing its strength as you have to know and use your surroundings rather than being pushed behind cover and having the player look down an impressive shooting gallery.
Graphically, ARKTIKA.1 is outstanding. The sheer quality of its textures and models is nothing less than remarkable and unlike anything I have seen in VR before. Everything you see and touch is polished to within an inch of its life, with the gloss perfectly complimenting the post-global warming apocalyptic world. While the technology can be a little unfamiliar at times there’s no doubt that it’s impressive to look at. With how much was going on within levels and firefights I was consistently surprised my GPU was not setting itself ablaze trying to process the graphics. With snow pouring down onto the battlefield and sparks spurting from every in-game console, it is easy to say that the game felt active and moving. In some areas the visuals could become a little cluttered, with effects going off from every angle and the glowing points on your enemies being lost within the rest of the world. These glowing points are not something wanting to be lost either since many of the fights take place within dark environments and without a flashlight to light up the area you are left relying solely on the points to guide you.
The darkness within ARKTIKA.1 is at times used to great effect to create a real sense of tension in some moments. There was a particularly powerful section where you’re made to use glow sticks to navigate your way through a pitch-black corridor adorned with mannequins. You have to throw the glow sticks to light up the path, revealing teleport points that allow you to move on. However, each time you lit up a glowstick you were forced to deal with a momentary shiver of horror. Was the glowstick going to light up the face of an enemy? Could you bring yourself to throw away your only source of light and hope it pointed you in the right direction? This real sense of dread stuck with me until I wound up having a rather long lie down to return my heart rate to normal, as even past the initial scare you were left asking yourself if something had moved in the darkness between using the next glowstick. The darkness of ARKTIKA.1 also works excellently with the ghoulish infected enemies which chase you down, running at you quickly or scuttling behind you whilst the lights are out. This really ramps up the tension and leaves you wishing you had invested in a flashlight for your gun rather than a fancy new scope.
The story of a game lives and dies on the player being involved in the narrative, ARKTIKA.1’s approach of a large info dump at the start of the game is a way to disinterest a lot of players who are more content seeing what buttons they can push in car rather than listening to the story being fed to them. Not being invested in a story might only seem an issue for when a beat in a story does not land, such as a character revealing the ‘horrifying’ truth that they’re actually an android and the player just shrugs instead of reeling through the five stages of grief. In ARKTIKA.1, however, this reared its head as a larger problem when there was a disconnect between the player and the world.
The artists have created a believable and gorgeous world for the player but during this process the developers seemed to have forgotten that the players have not been living in the world themselves, meaning all the amazing design work is for naught if a player cannot tell one thing from another. This came to fruition with a tablet that I was meant to get a code off to open a door. Despite looking for a familiar device, I was so alien to the world that I had no idea what I was looking for, having me test the limits of my play area searching rather than being able to obviously pick up the solution. Because of my unfamiliarity and inexperience in what I was searching for I was completely taken out of the experience, the world fighting against my immersion with its design rather than pulling me into it and letting VR be the immersive masterpiece is so wants to be.
I’ve praised and berated ARKTIKA.1 so you might be expecting a middling recommendation along the lines of ‘buy it if it looks like your thing and you can’t get enough of solid gunplay in VR’. If that is what you are looking for then there’s the sentence for you and you can stop reading now. However, I feel I need to address why this review is so late. I have not put on my headset since I finished playing ARKTIKA.1 nearly a month ago as after each play session I dreaded going back in and my impressions of the game slowly turned more and more sour each time I played. Having said that, putting my headset back on now and playing games such as SUPERHOT VR, Echo Arena, and Robo Recall are making me realise once again how much fun VR can be – a feeling I was entirely lacking whenever I was playing ARKTIKA.1. ARKTIKA.1 was not fun. In practice, the visuals can be outstanding and the gunplay can be powerful and weighty, but if a game is not fun to play, then what is the point in playing it?