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Review: Serious Sam VR: The First Encounter on Linux

Posted by Norbert, 4 months and 2 weeks agoMon, 13 Mar 2017, 14:51 (0 comments)
Game Information:
Name: Serious Sam VR: The First Encounter
Released: December 20, 2016
Developer: Croteam VR
Rating: 8/10

Hardware Specifications:
Processor: Intel i7-4770K, s1150
Video Card: Nvidia Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1060 Windforce OC 6G
Memory: 16GB DDR3; Corsair Vengeance LP 1600
Hard Drive: Samsung 840 EVO, 250GB SSD

Software Specifications:
Distribution: Linux Mint 18.0
Graphics Driver: Nvidia 375.27.10 (beta)
Desktop Environment: Xfce

Serious Sam VR: The First Encounter (SSVR:TFE; Steam), an arcade-style first-person shooter by Croteam, is still in Early Access. The game is basically finished, but its developer is still ironing out bugs and the upcoming Fusion update will bring solid modding support via Steam Workshop. I have no plans to try out user-created content, nor did I run into any gameplay bugs, so I feel comfortable reviewing the "beta" version of this product.

In February 2016, I pre-ordered an HTC Vive. On the 29th; paid €972.81 including shipping. It's still one of my most expensive purchases ever, considering I don't have a lot of money. The VR headset was delivered late April 2016. I upgraded my GPU from a GTX 650 Ti Boost 2GB to a GTX 1060 Windforce OC 6G in December 2016. In February 2017, SteamVR arrived for Linux in beta. On the 21st. Two days later, Croteam released SSVR:TFE for Linux. Three days after that, on the 24th, I managed to get SteamVR up and running on Linux, and I started playing SSVR:TFE.

If I remember correctly, the Vive is the second thing I've ever pre-ordered. The first was The Talos Principle, which, like SSVR:TFE, is a game by Croteam. Their Serious Sam 3: BFE (SS3) was the 10th game I bought on Steam, in 2013. In my experience their support of Linux has always been excellent. The €36.99 price tag for SSVR:TFE seems fair. Even if it would not have worked on my PC, I would have still been glad to have made the purchase; to support Croteam, as a thank-you.

Being able to use VR at home 24/7 feels similar to the transition from dial-up Internet access to always-on broadband Internet access. More than twenty years ago, when I was sixteen years old, I got my first VR experience with Virtuality equipment (this is me). I've never really been waiting for or looking forward to using VR since. Valve's support of Linux and their VR hardware announcement made me interested. Having to wait a year, from February 2016 to February 2017, until I could use SteamVR was disappointing.

With the GTX 1060, Dying Light is basically still unplayable for me. This made me worried that SSVR:TFE would not run properly on my system. I was happy to find that it runs well - really well! Its menu gives me only 49 fps, but in-game I get a solid 90 fps. Consistently too. I haven't experienced any nausea, even when playing up to a full hour non-stop. I first tried some 1 versus 1 briefly, but VR input, especially for movement, does not feel ready for proper deathmatch games. Then played through and finished the entire single player campaign, on Serious difficulty no less. Finally, I earned myself a global top 10 spot in survival mode. I now have 23 hours on record.

So, how much fun was all that? First of all, as they say, variety is the spice of life. Experiencing proper, modern VR for the first time is awesome. Having Kleer Skeletons run up to your face, killing charging Sirian Werebulls and seeing their corpses slide towards (and through) you, literally look and shoot around corners; it's fun. The game is played with two controllers, an in-game menu allows you to quickly and easily switch guns separately for each hand. Imagine not only being able to play with two mice, but being able to point them anywhere you want all around you. And then imagine holding two XM-214-A miniguns, haptic feedback and near endless amounts of enemies to kill. Now, that's what I'm talking about! It's interesting that using the side grip feels more natural on the wrists. High structures are impressive in VR. Also, standing in real life, for a change. My back noticed that.

It's not all sunshine and rainbows. To start with VR itself. Using SSVR:TFE on Linux means using the beta versions of Steam and SteamVR, and a bleeding-edge GPU driver. Any software update in these departments can remove your ability to use VR. This has happened to me a few times. All that software also impacts on the game in other ways. There was a short period when SSVR:TFE was crashing every ten or so minutes, and I was relying on its autosaves. A SteamVR update fixed this. I gave up on trying to make pavucontrol pass audio to the plug on the head-mounted display (HMD), and just taped an audio extension cord to the Vive cable. The vision you get with VR makes it feel like you are wearing a diving helmet. To figure out where enemies are, you'll rely more on audio clues than you do when playing in flat 3D. You'll deliberately move into corners, to better see what's moving towards you.

The game itself is repetitive and formulaic. Picking up an object or moving into an area has a chance to spawn enemies. You kill the enemies, pick up more objects and move into new areas. Occasionally the game locks you into a room or area. Or enemies spawn above or behind you, but that's about all the variation you can expect. Every now and then it tries to bring change by spawning lots of enemies of the same type. The game's narrative is weak, it has no real puzzles. Most environments look alike. It also surprised me how much the Egyptian theme and the enemies are like what SS3 delivers. Enemies that are far away, such as approaching Scythian Witch-Harpies, are nothing but smudged pixels. Such great distances are not suitable for the Vive's resolution.

The game has various locomotion modes, but in my experience quickly moving around by teleporting with both controllers is the only way to go. When I felt enemies were likely to spawn, I pointed the controllers in opposite directions, briefly teleported forward and then quickly away. In large areas, teleporting can be used to very quickly create a huge distance between yourself and enemies. That way you can slowly kill even the biggest enemies with just your .45 Schofield. Circle strafing is difficult, with the Vive cable, but is possible by using one controller to shoot projectiles and the other to shoot teleport exit points around the playing field, including behind your own back.

Perhaps one of the reasons I did not get nauseous was my choice to only move around by teleporting. (I never 'moved' in-game while standing still in real life.) My play area is just big enough for room scale VR. In survival mode, the battle field frequently became so hectic that I no longer noticed SteamVR's safety grid that marks the play area border. A short anecdote. I'm being Rambo, but suddenly the game disappears. Did it crash? I take off the HMD. Stove? Apparently I'm in the kitchen. By the way, the very first time I took off the HMD, I realized that the 'Oh, this is where I am.' experience - at least for me - has nothing to do with returning to real life, but with your position in the room and the direction you are looking at.

My final thoughts. I'm giving this game a good rating. It's fun and entertaining. However, it is a game with a (mandatory) VR mode and not a VR game; not a game made for VR. A first-person shooter such as this one is suitable to play in VR, the dual wielding is a nice touch, and Croteam did a good job adding VR support. But some events in the game made me realize how much more interesting an actual VR game could be. One example is a barely lit section where you need to pass a "wall of darkness": nice and spooky in VR. Another example is that the game never expects the player to peek around corners or manipulate objects with two controllers. Nothing was designed with VR in mind. When I was doing something as simple as playing catch with someone else in Destinations, I felt I was playing an actual VR game. This is also why I'm looking forward to playing Valve's upcoming VR games and not Half-Life 3 with a VR mode.
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