The Brookhaven Experiment shows how shooters can work in VR

A classic

A classic "Sophie's Choice": Which one to shoot first.

Last week I spent some time exploring the outer reaches of Steam looking for fun Vive Pre demos to play. A few lessons learned from the binge: horror games are going to work really well, choreographed moments that surprise the player are very effective, and so is anything that uses a dramatic sense of scale. Oh, and that my dog is super intolerant of people having fun in the living room if it doesn’t involve him.

Yesterday I tried a demo that combines all of the above. It’s called The Brookhaven Experiment—which was apparently an actual thing—and essentially it’s a zombie-based lightgun game like House of Dead or Resident Evil Survivor. Except that description does it a disservice, because what it feels like is proof of concept that shooting stuff in VR is going to be a core application for the tech. (Lest anyone was in doubt.)

The demo plonks you in a nighttime scene on a patch of parkland surrounded by trees and tall buildings (some of which are on fire). The two Vive controllers function as your flashlight and pistol, for which batteries and bullets are in limited supply. This is one of those fixed-location experiences, meaning you’re free to move around the area you’ve demarcated as your Vive playspace, but not beyond. In my case that’s a pretty small rectangle—about three metres by one and a half—which only added to the claustrophobia as silhouettes of the monsters appeared in the distance.

Your initial enemies, (the demo is wave-based), look and move pretty much like standard coffin dodgers. Because you’ve only got so many shots per wave it’s actually better to let them get close enough for you to land guaranteed headshots rather than spam-firing into the darkness. The risk inherent in that strat soon ramps up, though, because bigger enemies (who presumably aren’t zombies, but results of the titular botched experiment) get added to the mix.

"Uh, darling, you didn't happen to bring a bigger firearm did you?"

"Uh, darling, you didn't happen to bring a bigger firearm did you?"

Once the first shot hits one of the big boys they will bull rush at you, at which point panic fire is pretty much inevitable. The same goes for the third, even bigger, type which you absolutely have to unload into as fast as possible. As the pressure mounted I found myself spinning every few seconds to try to assess where the next threat was coming from. When there are multiple enemies advancing on you, it’s a case of having to juggle which targets pose the biggest threat and sharing your shots out accordingly.

What’s immediately apparent when playing The Brookhaven Experiment is how well the controller doubles as a pretend 9mm. Between the trigger on the underside and the feel of the hilt, it’s just about perfect. You reload by tapping a button on the side of the grip, which sees the magazine slide smoothly out and a new one slapped in. It’s also fun aiming your flashlight and pistol in tandem, as you’ve seen on a million cop shows.

There's a strong whiff of Resi's

There's a strong whiff of Resi's "Tyrant" to the enemies.

Between waves you get to pick from weapon upgrades like expanded magazines, explosive ammo and laser sights. The latter proved particularly fruitful, enabling me to dome the critters from almost double the distance. And it feels totally badass when you’re swivelling around nailing a string of headshots. Less so when you miss a bunch and the creatures get close enough to claw your face off.

As with the Abbot’s Book demo I tried, I was stuck by how shocking it feels to be stood next to humanoid characters in VR, even in a scenario as cliched as this. Think how startling the effect will be when applied to something like a BioShock. It’s easy to look at the screens here and think “well, yeah, it’s a lightgun game”. Which of course it is. But it’s that sense of being surrounded, of really being threatened, that makes the big difference. Now they just need to find a way to nail movement.

Let's be real here: no one is choosing batteries over laser sight.

Let's be real here: no-one is choosing batteries over laser sight.
Tim Clark

With over two decades covering videogames, Tim has been there from the beginning. In his case, that meant playing Elite in 'co-op' on a BBC Micro (one player uses the movement keys, the other shoots) until his parents finally caved and bought an Amstrad CPC 6128. These days, when not steering the good ship PC Gamer, Tim spends his time complaining that all Priest mains in Hearthstone are degenerates and raiding in Destiny 2. He's almost certainly doing one of these right now.