Two ways to make great use of a convincing sensation of weightlessness.
When I played Adr1ft in VR, I enjoyed the sensation of moving through space, but something was missing: hand-tracked controls. Navigating with a gamepad and watching a hand that wasn’t mine reach out and grab things created a disconnect I couldn’t get past. Lone Echo and its multiplayer companion Echo Arena, on the other hand, make outstanding use of the zero-gravity setting and the Oculus Touch controllers in a way that creates a convincing experience of weightlessness and presence. With some of the best VR movement I’ve experienced, sharp graphics, a lengthy story, this is one of the most impressive and complete-feeling VR games out there.
In the single-player campaign, there’s a good sense of companionship between your robot character, Jack, and his human partner Liv. Their affectionate relationship gives some weight to the situation as the space station mining the scenic rings of Saturn starts going haywire for unknown reasons, especially since anytime Jack dies he immediately transfers his consciousness to another nearby identical robot body. The dialogue decisions you make don’t mean much for the outcome of the story – it’s purely about tone, whether you want Jack to behave like a relatively cool and logical robot or an AI with a sense of humor – but every interaction with Liv is well acted, with some genuine emotion behind them.
The story’s fine, with a couple of twists that dramatically change the type of sci-fi game I was expecting Lone Echo to be, though where it ends up isn’t exactly as mind-blowing as it seems to want to be. But it’s an effective backdrop, because the way you move in zero-G using your arms to push and pull yourself off of objects in the environment, with a little help from jets on your wrists and back, is the star of Lone Echo. It’s a surprisingly smooth and intuitive way to get around, and by all accounts it’s surprisingly easy on VR-sensitive stomachs despite giving you full freedom of movement. (I’m personally not a great judge of that due to a high tolerance for VR.)
I was soon impressing myself by how easily I could navigate.
I got the hang of bouncing and flying through the interior and exterior of the station quickly and was soon impressing myself by how easily I could navigate. Soon I was trying more ambitious moves, such as jumping out of transport ships that shuttle you between satellites and mining sites before they hit the brakes to reduce momentum, launching me toward my destination (and potentially careening into space beyond them, if I missed) at terrifying speeds. You’re always in control, though – you can push in the right stick to fairly rapidly stop your movement at any time, and unless you enable it in the menus you’ll never find yourself rotating when you don’t want to be (and that option is labeled “not recommended”).
I played mostly standing with a third Rift Sensor camera behind me, giving me full 360-degree coverage, but I was also perfectly comfortable and capable sitting in my chair and using the thumbsticks to turn in increments. Obviously the standing experience is better (and only occasionally made me come close to losing my balance) but either way feels great.
The puzzles Lone Echo puts in your path you aren’t complex – they’re mostly about finding an object and putting it in place to repair a damaged piece of equipment. Find the replacement fuse, recharge the battery, move the AI core from one spot to another, that sort of thing. Some involve simple laser cutting or scanning with your wrist-mounted tools, and a few have very simple environmental puzzles that sadly never evolve into anything mentally challenging. Most of the find-the-object puzzles are fun at least the first time through because they encourage you to explore the environment by bouncing off of things and floating around, though Lone Echo isn’t as consistent as I would like when it comes to highlighting objectives when you’re in a vast environment, which can lead to some tedious searches. Later in the five- to six-hour campaign some of these objectives will make you avoid touching walls as your make your way through corridors, testing your mastery of the fantastic movement and adding a little more fear to the mix.
Especially relative to most VR games right now, Lone Echo looks excellent.
And of course, you can enjoy the views of Saturn’s rings, which act as a distant “floor” to provide a sense of up and down in space. Especially relative to most VR games right now, Lone Echo looks excellent, with detailed textures, animations, and effects. There are even subtle things like corrosion on Jack’s hands after exposure to radiation, which is a great touch. I had to tone down a few settings when playing on a GeForce GTX 980 to keep frame rates smooth when in detailed areas outside the station, but a GTX 1080 handled it maxed out with no problems (as you’d expect). I did run into a bug early on where I was unable to interact a mission-critical object and had to load a previous save (Ready at Dawn says it’s a known bug and being worked on), and that cost me over an hour of progress. I also ran into a couple of less serious hiccups, such as objective indicators that wouldn’t go away, but their combined effect only slowed me down a little.
Echo Arena is the free multiplayer component of Lone Echo – in that you don’t need to buy the single-player game to play it – and it’s a fantastically physical VR sport where you really put the zero-G maneuverability you’ve practiced to good use. Like 3v3 basketball, hockey, soccer, or Rocket League, the object is to move a ball (or a disc, in this case) to the goal on the other side of the court, but doing it without gravity is a completely different experience where you have to be aware of opponents coming at you from above and below. The really interesting challenge is that you have to learn to understand momentum: chasing the disc around the court is all wrong; you have to chase where it’s going to be, or someone who predicts its bouncing path off of the many floating obstacles better will beat you to it and hurl it across the court to a teammate before you can reach them and punch them in the face to temporarily disable them.
There are a lot of more subtle tricks to learn as well: most importantly, launching off of another player who is already moving doubles your speed, and that becomes the basis for the strategy of the beginning of every round as both teams are catapulted into the field. You can hold onto a teammate who is holding onto the catapult and then launch yourself off of him to get a boost, and another teammate can hold onto you and launch again to get ultimate speed. However, if you miss your high-speed grab and the other team gets hold of the disc, two thirds of your team is on the far side of the court and has no hope of getting back before the other team takes an almost-free shot at your goal. Like any competitive game, Echo Arena is full of this kind of risky choice, and pulling it off is a thrilling display of skill.
Echo Arena’s biggest weakness is that there’s only one mode and only one map. That’s just like real-world sports, granted, but rule and map variations on a brand-new sport – even temporary ones like a variation on Horse – could do wonders for keeping things interesting for those of us who don’t have what it takes to compete with the already amazingly good players and teams out there. I hope it sees more variety patched in.