need to know
What is it? A multiplayer-only VR cover shooter that takes place on future-western hovering junk barges.
Expect to pay: $35/£27
Developer: Stress Level Zero
Publisher: Stress Level Zero
Reviewed on: Core i5-3570, 8GB RAM, GeForce GTX Titan
Multiplayer: Up to 8 players, deathmatch and team deathmatch
Link: Official site
Playing Hover Junkers makes for a pitiful scene: me, alone in my office, crawling around on the carpet, pretending to fire an invisible revolver like I’ve seen in the movies. I fire from the hip, behind my back, with the gun turned sideways (damn, so cool), blind over cover, crouching and bouncing around like Robert Redford’s Sundance Kid—all the stupid things I can think of short of Max Payne-style leaps that’d end in a concussion. Just from watching me in the other room my dog has probably sprouted the legal intelligence required to look into emancipation forms.
But she poops on the carpet so who cares what she thinks: Hover Junkers is so fun I’d have hopped around all night were I in better shape. It’s the best VR game I’ve played yet: a multiplayer shooter that keeps it simple but doesn’t feel like a proof-of-concept demo, and couldn’t exist without the HTC Vive.
It is simple, though: there are two guns, a basic loot system (just junk to use as cover), two modes (free-for-all and team deathmatch), up to eight players per match (six is default), unlimited ammo, and no frilly progression system or classes. Just moving, reloading, and shooting. I’d welcome more, but right now Hover Junkers can get by on just that, because even reloading is fantastic fun.
Can I move?
First off, though, a VR shooter needs some practical solutions, movement being the trickiest. With the HTC Vive set up for room scale in my office, I only have a space of about six-by-six feet in which I can realistically walk around without knocking over my plant. If this were the map, we’d all be standing inside each other (and we actually are in the cozy lobby, where bodyless hands float around throwing ketchup bottles at an exasperated robot bartender). A lot of games are solving this with teleportation—you magically hop from point to point, then walk around small areas—but Hover Junkers just went and gave us moving floors: the titular levitating junk barges. It works brilliantly.
Standing on the deck of my junker (there are a bunch of different sizes, so you can play even if you only have a small space to stand), I use the Vive controller in my left hand to pilot, pointing it in the direction I want to go and holding the trigger to putt along smoothly like I’m on a giant Segway. I forget I’m even doing it after a while, and the junker stays stable, so I never feel seasick. In fact I didn’t notice any motion sickness at all, though I’ve got a pretty strong stomach, so your vestibular systems may react differently.
With my left hand piloting, the controller in my right hand is my gun, and that can be switched up for left-handed players, or I could stop piloting altogether and dual-wield. The rest of the movement is me tumbling around my deck, hiding behind hardpoints, looking for shots as I gently collide with other junkers while their pilots likewise crouch and dodge and shoot back at me. In team deathmatch (which the small playerbase never seems to want to play), you can also choose to spawn on a teammate’s junker, which is great fun so long as they’ve chosen a deck big enough to keep you from clipping through each other constantly. VOIP is built in, but one teammate and I took to communicating non-verbally, giving thumbs up when we were ready, instinctively switching firing positions while the other reloaded. It was thrilling and I felt truly upset when my missed shots directly lead to the avatar in front of me crumpling to the floorboards.
vr and performance notes
Hover Junkers ran well on my system (Core i5-3570, 8GB RAM, GTX Titan), maintaining a healthy framerate for VR and causing me no motion sickness. It did occasionally hang, the world halting in front of me, which is jarring and uncomfortable, but that was mostly when I was fiddling with screen capture solutions. There are a few bugs, as well, though I’m not sure which to attribute to the Vive and which to the game. Once, for instance, the floor leaped above my head, and I had to reboot the headset to fix it.
As this isn’t a review of the Vive itself, I won’t get into any deep criticism of the headset. I love using it, but it’s still early days in the development of VR, so we’re putting up with glitches and limitations such as a relatively low resolution, and that does affect game design. It’s important to note, though, that the screenshots you see here are poor reproductions of the real experience: you’re either seeing a small portion of my vision, or a flat representation of both eyes, and neither capture what it’s like to duck and lean around cover, or aim down the sights of a revolver.
Movement solved, we’re left with shooting and reloading. Here’s something I’ve never said about another shooter: reloading is more fun than shooting. The reloading is great! For the revolver, a press on the Vive controller’s trackpad flips open the cylinder. Circling the pad with my thumb plugs in bullets— thwap thwap thwap thwap—and then I flick my wrist to slam it shut. It’s not the one-to-one reality merge of further-off VR tech, but my mind happily accepts the idea that I’m holding a gun anyway. I give my revolver credit for more weight than the controller in my hand actually has, flicking it hard to make sure the cylinder locks in.
The break-action shotgun isn’t quite as fun (press the trackpad to eject the shells, then again three times to load it, then snap it to close), but both are cartoonishly convincing and put reloading at the center of combat. I have to remember how many shots I’ve taken because there’s no counter on the screen, and I can’t just hit a button to reload after every bullet I spend. I have to hunch down to the floor to stay in cover, then mindfully go through the actions. It’s becoming second nature as I play more, but never mindless, and always satisfying when I demonstrate my skill to myself with a quick reload.
It also feels ridiculously cool to stand up in the middle of a fight, smoothly dump my empties and fill the cylinder, then immediately squeeze off a headshot. I only did something as badass as that once, making the lack of a replay system a small disappointment.
The shooting itself is a little disappointing, too. The guns are fun as stand-alone toys, for sure: the revolver fires straight out of a lowset barrel, striking near where my iron sights point. Firing without the sights scatters bullets in a wider radius, and it’s delightful to know that this isn’t just because of some bullet spread variable but also my own shoddy aim. The shotgun is tricky, too, with a loose spread that I tend to fire crooked. What’s bothersome is a technical limitation: the Vive’s resolution is too low for much practical distance work.
I can hit targets in the shooting range just fine, but the three available character models don’t stand out among the grayish pixels of the junkers and the dullness of most maps, so real engagements are usually at short-range, peeking at each other through gaps in our hulls. I’ve gotten a couple kills from 20-or-so yards, but I might chalk that up to luck more than me being a deadeye. And hitting a moving target—if someone decides to retreat with their junker, for instance—is hard as hell, which is probably because doing it with a real gun would also be hard as hell. It can be a little exasperating when players run away instead of engaging, neither of us able to hit each other.
It’s also a drag to have only two guns. I’m dying to know what a scoped weapon looks like in VR, or how two-handed rifles in general might work. The good news is that more is coming—Hover Junker’s robot guy (voiced by Rick and Morty's Justin Roiland, if you thought the tone might be serious) specifically teases scoped weapons, and a couple of guns appear in the menu as ‘coming soon’—but right now the overall simplicity and lack of variety does dampen Hover Junker’s long-term appeal. My rounds and kills are never spectacularly different: I glide toward a traffic jam, shoot someone in the back, then scramble around while more join the fray. As a contrasting example, I feel like I could play Rocket League forever because each match and goal has a different story, with multiple plays chained together, bounces, passes, finesse, my teammates and opponents all factors in punting the ball past the goalkeeper. There’s not a whole lot to say when recapping a messy firefight (well, we both shot at each other a whole lot!), and Hover Junkers doesn’t offer much pomp and circumstance when I score a kill, casually exploding the vacant ship.
But even though matches feel samey, they’re great fun in the short term: a giddy merging of make-believe play and game rules, where score is kept but winning isn’t as important as the inherent joy of playing ultraviolent peekaboo, rolling around on my carpet like an idiot. Sometimes I even add my own recoil in, pulling my arm back as if there were actually force to my shots. I bounce around more dramatically than I need to, and pretend I can’t just put my arm through the hunks of metal I’m hiding behind.
It makes me feel like I’m an actor in that ridiculous Hot Pockets VR commercial and having just as much fun as those kids are pretending to (except without the disgusting breadbags of hot goop they love so much). With the currently limited selection of VR games, if you own a Vive and want to use it and have fun, I heartily recommend Hover Junkers. It’s not highly populated right now, but I’ve never had trouble finding a few other kids to play pretend gunfight with.