The VR game in this movie kills its players, but that's not the worst thing about it

A seemingly random collection of gamers are mysteriously summoned to the top floor of a skyscraper to beta test a fully immersive VR shooter. They are locked inside the building and their VR bodysuits and helmets, once put on, cannot be taken off. They have to fight their way to the ground floor through packs of virtual terrorists, and the player with the highest score wins $100,000. There's a catch, though: this movie isn't very good.

Yes, it was one of those lazy Netflix days where maybe you've finished wrapping your head around German sci-fi series Dark and aren't yet willing to dig into something complex and dense again, so you opt for some easily-digestible junk. For me, it was 2016 film The Call Up. There will be spoilers for the film below. And above, I guess. Like, in the headline.

As you can probably guess, the actual catch of The Call Up is that this VR shooter the gamers are testing isn't just a game. In fact, I had a mental bet with myself that it would be 20 minutes into the film before someone breathlessly said "It's not a game, it's real."

I was wrong, though. It was 25 minutes.

See, if players are shot once with a virtual bullet, they lose their virtual armor. If they're shot again, they'll be shocked by the haptic feedback of their VR suits, and if they're not given a medipack within a few minutes, their headsets will literally kill them with... electricity, or some sort of sonic boom in their headphones, or something that makes them foam at the mouth and bleed a little and die. On the plus side, none of the players have to do room calibration, screw sensors into the walls, plug in 400 cables, or update their firmware. Based on my own experiences with VR, I think that might be worth the risk of literally dying.

The assembled gamers, meanwhile, with gamertags like Reaper_2000, Str8_Shoot3r, and Slayer_Girl, are pretty standard in that sort of insulting way that movies and TV depict people who play games. There's the nerd who says nerd things. The braggart who becomes a coward when the shit goes down. The meek one who becomes a cold-blooded killing machine. The sensitive one who is sensitive. And the rest, who are just there to periodically die.

The rules are explained by a VR Drill sergeant, played in the film by a real human being mimicking a computer-generated NPC yet somehow failing to approximate either. He also comes back to punch and kick the players who try to escape the building once they realize they can actually die. The haptic feedback in the body suits, somehow, is so strong it can actually knock you across the room or render you completely incapacitated if you're shot.

As for the VR game within the movie itself, it's kind of not that good. I'm not just talking about the fact that it will kill you. I'm saying that even with death removed from the equation, it's just not that impressive of a shooter.

The AI isn't great—the virtual terrorists mostly just walk around slowly and rarely take cover. The setting, too, is incredibly unimaginative. If you had an entire skyscraper to transform into a cool game environment in VR, what would you do? Make the clean white rooms look like sort of dirty gray rooms? Add a few digital crates? Make the doors look like slightly different doors? Snore!

There's a stairwell blocked by a dangling live electrical cable, something we've seen in games since forever, and there's a level where they can only fight bad guys using knives, which is a terrible feature for a game since it's what people do in CS:GO when they're absolutely bored. 

There's also a bomb defusal challenge near the end, which requires pressing a big button: frankly, a giant 'defuse' button is a stupid thing for terrorists to put on a bomb. The boss fight at the end is just one guy with a heavy machine gun, and they've been given a rocket launcher to beat him, which doesn't seem like much of a challenge. Rockets are for killing helicopters or firing into the exposed brains of giant floating interdimensional monsters, not for taking down a single dude in a parking garage.

So, the game is bad, but the gamers playing it are pretty bad, too. Just look at McNerd wiggin' out after he throws a VR grenade.

I mean, look, I'm sure it could be freaky having a virtual grenade exploding sort of near you, but it's not really 'kick-your-legs-like-that' freaky. Then again, I'm not strapped into a VR suit that will shock me to death, so maybe I shouldn't judge.

There is one decent moment in the film where one player tries to punch another, bonks his hand on the headgear, then opens the other player's headgear in order to punch him properly. That's about as good as The Call Up gets, though.

On the plus side, the effects are pretty nice, and the movie comes in at a tight ninety minutes so it's not a bad thing to glance up at occasionally while playing Desert Golf. I'd give The Call Up a score of 50/100, but the game inside The Call Up I'd rate about a 30—and not just because it can kill you.

Christopher Livingston
Senior Editor

Chris started playing PC games in the 1980s, started writing about them in the early 2000s, and (finally) started getting paid to write about them in the late 2000s. Following a few years as a regular freelancer, PC Gamer hired him in 2014, probably so he'd stop emailing them asking for more work. Chris has a love-hate relationship with survival games and an unhealthy fascination with the inner lives of NPCs. He's also a fan of offbeat simulation games, mods, and ignoring storylines in RPGs so he can make up his own.