FTL taught me one lesson: It takes more than one person to fly a spaceship. How adeptly I can micromanage each member of my crew to repel alien threats and fix damaged systems aboard my ship creates dramatic tension. But From Other Suns, a co-op shooter for Oculus Touch, has a unique twist on that formula—I can't just tell the rest of the crew what to do because, unlike FTL, my crewmates are human players. During the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco last week, I saw just how much that little wrinkle in the fabric of FTL makes From Other Suns feel like a whole new cloth.
Of course, there's more to From Other Suns than FTL with three-player co-op. I realize this the moment I wake up in my spaceship and take a walk through its dark hallways and various rooms. FTL's bird's eye view of my ship is one thing, but having to physically move through that ship will significantly change how I think about maintaining and defending it. It's such an exciting proposition—to embody one specific crew member in FTL—that I'm a bit surprised it hasn't been attempted sooner.
Unfortunately, From Other Suns is too early in its development to explore these ideas further. Though the potential is clear, the demo I played was largely focused on the fundamentals of combat and movement rather than the strategy of maintaining my ship. That's okay though, because it's here that From Other Suns will either live or die.
Handling movement in first-person VR games has been one of the biggest challenges for the genre—and it's one that still lacks an elegant solution. Most VR games rely on teleportation to sidestep the nausea-inducing feeling of standing still physically while moving in-game. But it's also a solution that removes you from the illusion of occupying 3D space.
From Other Suns' takes a crack at that problem by snapping between third-person and first-person camera modes. The moment I begin to move my body, it leaves me—the eyeballs—behind. I watch from a fixed perspective as my character moves forward and when I stop moving my perspective snaps back into my body. It's a unique idea that doesn't wreck the illusion of VR quite as extensively, but it does have its own problems—especially during firefights.
Like FTL, I pilot a spaceship between star systems as I try to outrun a dangerous alien threat nipping at my heels. Each stop along the way randomly generates an encounter that me and my crew can choose to tackle or ignore. David Adams, CEO of Gunfire Games and creator of VR hit Chronos, explains that these encounters will mirror many of those seen in FTL like trading with merchants or battling pirates.
Running and gunning
In the demo, our mission was to board a space station that had been overrun by killer robots. After getting my bearings with the movement, myself and another developer playing with me made our way to the ship's bridge. There we were briefed on the mission by my commander, which does wonders for delivering a more thematic punch than the brief paragraph of context that usually prefaces encounters in FTL. After the briefing, my teammate and I headed to a teleporter room to be transported onto the station to wipe out the robo-threat.
Inside the station, I came face to face with the murdering machines and the problems inherent with From Other Suns' default movement controls. I couldn't shoot and move at the same time, so I continually felt over-exposed each time I had to reposition myself while exchanging fire with the enemy. Just as frustrating, looking forward means I can't see where my body is moving if I strafe left or right or take a few steps back. While snapping between first and third-person perspective works for moving my character around my ship, in the heat of combat it feels clumsy.
Part of the problem is that fighting enemies who use guns naturally makes me want to keep moving to avoid catching a bullet—but From Other Suns' movement is built around staying stationary. There were energy shields that I could pick up to block projectiles, but I still found myself wanting more freedom in how I moved under fire.
It's a problem that Killing Floor: Incursion, another VR shooter, manages to avoid because its enemies are all shambling zombies that rush to you. It felt natural to put my back to a wall and shoot zombies as they stumbled after me, but From Other Suns' gun-wielding enemies require different tactics that I worry the movement isn't well-suited to.
Fortunately, there's an option for 'free movement' similar to how most first-person shooters work—if your stomach can handle it. The sensation of moving forward in the game while standing still in real life is, for many people, nausea-inducing. I fiddled with the system a bit at first and felt like I was going to vomit, but I also found the other option frustrating enough that I decided to try and endure with the nausea. After a few minutes of wanting to spew, my body adjusted (thank god).
Once I was moving more naturally through the station, I started enjoying the gunplay of From Other Suns a lot more. While the demo I played had a limited weapon selection, Adams tells me that Borderlands in a big inspiration. Guns will be randomized and, as you would expect, drop like candy from the things you kill. At one point I killed two robots and both dropped alien-looking machine guns that fired bolts of electricity. As I dual-wielded both of them and became a goddamn killing machine, I could see a glimmer of Borderlands' frantic cycle of shoot-and-loot shining through.
After the demo, I spoke more with Adams about what From Other Suns' will look like when it launches this fall. To put it simply, it's everything that FTL is but from the more personal perspective of a crew member with two other friends. It's obvious how much fun that could be. Having to coordinate with your friends as they board an enemy vessel while aliens simultaneously board yours sounds wonderfully chaotic. Add in ship-to-ship combat, which Adams says they are hard at work on, and From Other Suns becomes a co-op game I can't wait to see more of. But none of that was on display during the demo, so for now I'm cautiously optimistic.
Where I'm less optimistic is whether or not Gunfire Games can figure out how to make firefights fun for those who can't stomach the free movement controls. With everything else From Other Suns aspires to do layered on top, it might be a minor annoyance in an otherwise great game. But for now it feels rather problematic. Dying is fun in FTL. I hope it's just as fun in From Other Suns.