I push myself off the flamingo’s head just in time to dodge the stun grenade. My momentum carries me to a floating pyramid—I grab its point and shimmy around to dodge incoming fire, before pushing off again and squeezing my right thruster to turn in an arc. When I land on the wall, anchoring myself with my left hand, I’ve got a perfect angle on my enemy, and I gun them down with my pulse pistol.
My teammate isn’t so lucky: he was stunned back near the flamingo (the payload we’re meant to push) and an enemy is zooming towards him with one arm thrust forward like a robotic Superman. I reach for a healing disk on my back, frisbee it towards the pair and activate it, the green burst saving my teammates’ life. Together, we take down his assailant before hopping back onto the flamingo and capping the point.
Zero gravity shooter Echo Combat is what you get when you take the Oculus Rift’s free VR sports game Echo Arena and add guns, and it may come to some of the other best VR headsets in the future. It’s a $10 add-on to Arena, and I’m having more fun with it than I’ve had with any other FPS this year, despite the fact it only has three maps.
Flying free in zero-g
Movement in VR shooters often feels clunky, and many developers forgo it altogether by finding a lore-friendly reason to keep you in one spot. But Echo Combat plays to VR’s strengths, offering you three different ways to use Oculus Touch controllers to get around, all of which feel fluid. If you’ve played Arena they’ll feel familiar, but the addition of weapons changes the way you plan your movements, so you’ll still get something out of it.
My preferred method of travel is to grab onto objects and push off, propelling myself in any direction I want. I haven’t played much Arena, so at the start I was constantly under- or over-shooting my marks, but it only took an hour to get the hang of it.
Each map is full of objects and edges to grab onto, so you’re never left wondering where you should go next. I can’t quite get over how smooth it all feels. Small pushes give you lots of momentum, and the way it models your hands is eerily detailed: if you rotate your wrist when you’re holding something, you’ll see your fingers individually slide around.
You have small thrusters on your wrist, too: you just point your hands in the direction you want to go and squeeze the Touch controller’s triggers. This point-to-direct action feels natural, and allows you to make minute adjustments to your flight path. To go faster you activate your main thruster, which is on a short cooldown, by clicking in your left control stick.
It nails the feels of zero-gravity weightlessness, especially when you’re relying on your boosters to move, and at times I completely forgot I had legs until, in real life, I tried to turn on the spot to face an enemy to my side. It models your robot’s legs in-game too, and they float behind you, which adds to the flying sensation. The HUD has subtle markers that you’re inside a helmet that make you really feel like you’re the robot you’re controlling, and the first time I mistimed a boost and sailed towards a wall I instinctively raised my hands to brace myself, expecting to feel a big impact that never came.
You can also grab onto teammates, and they’ll drag you along without slowing down. When you pull yourself forward and launch away from them, your momentum will stack—and you can generate some serious speed. Whenever I could, I cajoled my teammates into a four-robot conga line at the start of rounds, and as we neared our opponents we’d all push off in different directions, fanning out across the map.
In Arena, you’re trying to create space to help your teammates, or zoom through gaps in enemy lines to throw a disk into their goal. In Combat, being out in the open is a good way to get killed. I try to get into a rhythm of finding solid cover, leaning out, popping off a few shots and hiding again, periodically jumping to another spot to get a better angle. It makes me feel like a hyperactive lizard, leaping wall to wall.
Best of all, it works no matter what setup you have. It’s better if you have lots of space for twisting and turning, but I tried it seated in a swivel chair and it worked well. If you flick the right thumbstick your view will rotate slightly—useful for giving yourself some extra turning speed if you’re sitting down, and it never felt disorienting. The only issue I have is that if, like me, you only have two Rift sensors then it’s easy to block your Touch controllers with your body, thus losing signal. I constantly lost track of which direction I was facing in real life—it’s a sign of how deep I was sucked into Echo Combat, but having my guns fail because the sensors could no longer see them was annoying. I’ve died seven or eight times because of it.
Despite the reliance on cover, Echo Combat never feels slow. Most objects that you can hide behind, like the pyramid I mentioned earlier, are out in the open. Enemies can therefore flank you, and because they can move so fast, you can never stay in one spot for long. And plus, moving around is so fun that you’ll want to do it constantly.
The guns feel fantastic, too. They don’t have recoil, but their laser accuracy fits the sci-fi robot setting. Right now, everybody seems to be using the machine pistol-style Pulsar, which doesn’t deal much damage but fires lots of bullets, making it easy to correct your accuracy. I’m a fan of the Comet—you hold down the trigger to charge it up and release to fire a powerful shot. The laser guided aim makes it feel like a sniper rifle without a scope. The shotgun and rocket launcher are also fun to use but feel more situational.
Having cover that you can go behind, over and under means no two firefights feel the same. Like in other VR shooters, the act of leaning out of cover and firing before quickly retreating, or even blind-firing from behind cover, feels incredible—it’s far more involved than in non-VR games. But having flexible cover makes it feel even better: if an enemy presses up on you, you can dance away, perhaps nipping under cover to outmanoeuvre them, and reposition to a better spot.
You can also choose between four abilities on cooldown and four pieces of “ordnance”, which are discs you store on your back. The one I described earlier is for healing, but you can choose ones that deal damage or stun enemies. I love the knowledge that I have a tool on my back and that I can, without looking, physically grab and fling at an enemy or ally. I’ve been using the healing one almost exclusively, and managing to float it to a faraway teammate in trouble feels as good as landing a headshot.
Tac-Mods are like abilities in other team-based shooters, and they’re a good way of sorting players into different roles: one creates healing beams that snake towards allies, one reveals enemy locations nearby with a scanner, one creates a big shield as cover, and the last one makes you invisible—and invulnerable—for a short time.
All Echo Combat is missing is more maps. Right now, it has one payload map and two where you must capture a central point. Dyson, one of the capture maps, strikes a balance of claustrophobic tubes for close-quarter battles and wide-open spaces that you can fly around in. Crucially, it’s hard to camp on the point because it’s exposed on all sides, so it changes hands often.
The other capture map, Combustion, isn’t as good. It’s too easy to hold onto the point once you capture it thanks to a large central block of cover in its middle. From there, you oversee most of the approach lanes. It’s frustrating to retake—I feel like every time I stick my head out of cover I get pinged, and I have to fall back. You can flank it, but it’s a much less direct route, and I could rarely convince my teammates to join me.
The payload map is my favourite. Defenders have the cover advantage, but for the attacking team the giant flamingo is a natural focal point. I’ve found it makes my teammates more likely to bark instructions and stick together, and therefore we’re more aware of each other’s movements.
The only thing I don’t like is that there are a few narrow chokepoints that feel near-impossible to push through if you’re facing an organised defending team.
It's shame I only get to play it one in three times. If you’re not teaming up with friends then you can only choose Quick Play, which selects a random map. Whether you’ll be able to select your map in future I don’t know, but I’d love to at least see one more payload map added—preferably one with fewer tough chokepoints.
But even with the three maps it has now, Echo Combat is a must-buy for Rift owners. Its movement system is the best I’ve seen in any FPS, and it demonstrates just how good VR shooters could be if they fully leaned into the possibilities—and restrictions—of the medium.