I’ll say this: I hated Descent, the original big daddy of the Six Degree of Freedom genre (6DoF). I found it confusing, dizzying and uncomfortable. Then again, at the time I had no choice but to play it on a keyboard only setup, so that might have had a lot to do with it.
So as I sat down to play Sublevel Zero by SIGTRAP Games I thought I would thoroughly hate it. There were two versions on show: the first using gamepad or keyboard + mouse and the second using dual joysticks and the Oculus Rift. There was someone on the Rift version so I took a couple of shots at the demo with the K&M…and I liked it. I really did. It wasn’t even disconcerting to change pitch and inclination and roll around and change my perspective. It all felt really cool and I had a blast, no pun intended.
By then the Oculus version was free so I jumped on it and I sucked at it. The VR worked wonderfully and one of the coolest things they did was alter your point of view depending on how close you are to the sensor. If you moved away from the screen, you would see more of the cockpit, and if you moved closer, it was like leaning over the edge—very interesting and adding a lot to the immersion.
I tried my best with this version but the turning/pitching stick was a bit too over-sensitive for my clumsy hands and I spent most of the time in a constant barrel roll and not the fun laser-deflecting kind. By the end, I did catch my bearings and started progressing but the VR version had a time limit and I’d gone way past it.
As I stood up, Luke Thompson—one of the developers and SIGTRAP founders—asked me, “So, what did you think?” And I told him everything. His reply to my barrel roll was simply, “Yeah, it might be a bit over-tuned, but that one’s a really good and precise joystick…the other one is just complete crap and it’s much stiffer!”
When I asked him how the title came to be, he told me it was something that came naturally from a conversation between the team members. One of them had just come out of making a procedurally generated dungeon crawler. Speaking about it and being big Descent fans, Luke tells me he said, “Wouldn’t it be awesome to have [a procedurally generated] Descent?” The idea caught on quickly between them and when a third friend suggested the underground theme, Sublevel Zero was born.
SLZ was one of the few VR-focused games I saw at Rezzed and like all of them, this was a title conceived for the technology. According to SIGTRAP Games, the right way to play it is with the Rift and the dual joysticks, with single-stick and keyboard being the second best. As much as I enjoyed the Keyboard & Mouse controls, they made it perfectly clear that this was the wrong way to play it, but didn’t judge me too harshly.
I won’t lie to you, SLZ was a hard game and now I know it’s going to be even harder on release because of its rogue-like mechanics. If you die, that’s it, start from the beginning with another ship and give it a go. Luke did say, however, that there would be some hard checkpoints at various intervals in the game so you could start from that point instead of from the beginning, and like other rogue-likes, your earnings and collections in one play would carry over to the next so you can craft new items and systems. There will also be a New Game+ and I had to ask: “If you die at New Game+, can you start from NG+?” I was worried he’d say no and in that case, the game would be BRUTAL, but thankfully, he didn’t say that!
Technology and the pursuit of it are at the core of Sublevel Zero’s plot. The game’s setting is that far into the future where the universe itself starts collapsing and no one can figure out why. Your character and his teammates find an unused research station that might have all the answers and perhaps a solution to the crisis. Collecting technology then not only becomes a mechanic but part of the game’s story and progression. Enemies will drop random loot mostly in the form of weapons—with variable stats—and items, and bosses will drop larger pieces of ancient technology, unusable by the player but part of a plot collection.
Luke went a bit further on the upgrade mechanic and how it tied to the loot system. Using the crafting system, once you’ve collected the corresponding blueprint, you can combine some of your weapons into new ones. This adds a level of strategy and risk/reward management to it because you might not want to combine weapon A with B until you find a higher valued version of the two of them.
One thing that I didn’t see in the demo version was the inventory system. I mentioned to Luke that there were items you collected by interacting with them and others you just had to touch. He explained that the former go to your grid-like inventory, and the others are just consumables. He admits they need to make it a bit more clear, though.
When I asked him on funding and if they would attempt any form of early access or crowdfunding, he said no because Mastertronic had already picked them up straight out of the game-jam where they first built a demo for the game and have been funding the development ever since. In his words, “They’ve been amazing and I really have nothing bad to say about them!”
Sublevel Zero is coming this year to Steam and the Rezzed build will be available soon for download and testing, and I’ll be sure to let you all know when that happens! It might be time I get my hands on an Oculus Rift (or a Samsung Gear VR)! And it might be wrong, but I think I’ll stick to Keyboard & Mouse for this…sorry SIGTRAP but I suck at dual joysticks!