I initially intended my VR Review series to focus entirely on cinematic VR.
I don’t know if this review will be an exception, or if my scope will be expanding.
Regardless, here’s my in-depth review/critique or OrbusVR.
What is it?
Orbus VR is most easily described as a Massively Multi-Player Online Role Playing Game in VR, or MMORPG in VR (or MMORPGVR?)
You spawn as a silly creature with two free floating hands, a head, and a body. You may customize your appearance to a degree.
You quickly learn about the three main classes, the Warrior (sword-tank), Ranger (bow-attack) and Musketeer (ranged-healer/support.). There are references to the mysterious fourth class, the Mage (overpowered super-class) which you learn about in a progressive manner, in-game.
The world presents you with a main quest, and various side quests that come up along the way. If you stick with it, you’ll end up topping out your character’s main build progression and entering an end-game state, where progression is much slower and eventually tops out with a ultra-rarity equipment system.
I’m not going to give much more summary here because it’s not useful.
At first, I found the control scheme to be very awkward. But after a time, I found I liked the top level aspects, while I loath a lot of the smaller grained decisions about how it works.
How it works
There is a menu. The menu is very clearly meant to be used as little as possible. It’s most notable in-game usage is in managing inventory and potion making. Neither of these things is meant to be done out in the field during main gameplay. Rather, they’re done in towns and homes. They’re logistical in nature. You can also manage your equipment between encounters with it. But usually you won’t.
Rather, when you’re out in the field, most everything you will be interacting with, is on your body. Literally.
I began as a ranger. My bow is on my back. To take it out, I literally must reach behind my back and grab it. Which is awkward at first. But is kind of great.
Similarly, if you want to knock an arrow, you need to first pull it from your quiver with your other hand. Luckily, it doesn’t make you pull an arrow for every shot. You’ll automatically keep the arrows equipped in your hand, until you reach back to your quiver and put them back.
As you might imagine, drawing and firing an arrow is just a matter of bringing your hands together, pulling the trigger, drawing the string back, and then releasing your finger from the trigger. Somewhere in the middle there, you need to aim 😉
For an MMORPG, this is pure magic. The ability to directly engage in battle as yourself, with your own aiming and body brings a whole new level to the RP (role-play) aspect of the G (game).
Anyhow, similarly, the warrior requires that you pull your sword and shield from behind your back and swing your sword at things. And as you might imagine, the musketeer has a similarly interesting physical dynamic where you pull your musket out and load the shots into the muzzle. It’s a front loader.
So yea, combat is a blast.
The more interesting bit comes with the rest of your body. As a ranger you can equip two extra power-up arrows on your belt. And you can reach your arrow hand down, grab a power-up arrow, and knock it instead. The power-up arrows have a cool-down timer for re-spawn. You literally look down at your belt to see if they’ve re-spawned yet.
I’m not going to list all the aspects of each class. You get the idea.
Some other interesting bits include, a teleport crystal on your belt and a compass\logbook mounted on your chest. When you learn how to turn the compass into the logbook, you literally turn through the logbook by turning its pages with your hand. It is also buggy as all heck with regard to the content of the pages.
You pick up loot by putting away your weapon and grasping at the loot with your hand, if you’re close enough. You put it in your bag by throwing it over your shoulder and letting go.
The mage is based on a wand. And it’s a little different. The idea is good. The execution is pretty infuriating.
When you wave your wand in the air, while holding the trigger, the tip sparks to life, and you can draw in the air with it. If the glyph you draw, matches a pre-set magical glyph, a spell will activate. Most spells are a particle effect on the end of the wand. You then point and release the trigger to let it fly.
As I said, neat idea.
The problem, is that the developers have used a piece of open source code for the gesture recognition that’s really pretty bad. I don’t want to go into details of the problem with the algorithm. But you can track it down and figure it out if you really care. I’m simply going to state, that it malfunctions. Bad methodology. Point clouds should not be matched the way they do it.
A better (or good) gesture recognition engine, would (be good at and) do its best to match your gesture. This would actually be really bad for a game which intends to make magic gestures things that must be discovered or learned. If the engine is really good at guessing the closest glyph, you’ll be firing off all kinds of spells at random just by making squiqlies. You won’t need to follow the game’s prescribed path to discover and learn them. It’ll be too easy.
Rather, the game should want something different. The game should want a thing that’s far more discerning and controlled, which has a very good rejection layer, that can be tweaked on a per glyph or stroke basis. Something that allows you to tweak just how forgiving or strict a particular glyph or stroke must be. From there, they’d have the tools to focus on their glyph and magic lexical design.
What they used is; an algorithm that was meant to be the former, and is so bad at it, that it sometimes seems like it might be the latter. But it’s not. That gives far too much credit to the development team.
It usually fails to match any glyph, which makes you think it’s being really discerning. But it’s not. Not purposely anyway.
Further, there is an entire culture of “short-cuts” that has developed in the game’s community. Which are patterns and ways you can draw glyphs, that take advantage of some of the flaws in the gesture recognition engine, and allow it to match glyphs erroneously.
The players en-mass, seem to think this is intentional. It creates the impression that a whole second layer of short-hand magical language was built into the game. It wasn’t. It’s just the result of a bad gesture recognition engine being used for something it’s not supposed to be used for. It’s not controllable. And no one is a genius for creating this dynamic. However, Orbus has sponsored mage competitions and fostered the idea that the short-cuts are somehow their creation, rather than their foley.
Good developers admit when they make mistakes and seek to fix them. Bad algorithms should be replaced with better ones. Bad developers fail to recognize the problems in the first place and take credit for designing things they didn’t intend. In a better world, they might reap the whirlwind for such behavior.
Part of the way through my time in OrbusVR, I discovered that the sword swinging gesture recognition was actually effected by the frame-rate or power of your graphics card. You could change the way swings are recognized, by changing your graphics from “low (150fps)” to “ultra (60fps)” and back. It was pretty ridiculous. The community had been up and running for nearly a year I think, before I noticed the entire warrior class was broken. I made a forum post/bug report.
The community had already developed quite an obnoxious tendency to decide certain people were “good” or “bad” warriors based on their ability to “hit combos.” And none of them had noticed the entire combo system was heavily dependent on your video-card.
This was “fixed” in a later release. But actually, fishing (a strange pastime in-game) was also heavily effected by frame-rate the same way. I never saw that part get fixed despite posting about it.
This is just bad programming. It’s a sign of novice programmers biting off more than they can chew. Any experienced Unity 3D programmer knows that the type of math they were doing belongs in “fixed updates” to isolate it from the graphics card’s performance.
It’s right on top of me
Also, the warrior class is really poorly thought out and executed in the general sense.
You end up with the creature standing right up on top of you. Which could be fun. But it’s really just a horrible experience because it’s not been thought through.
The hit boxes are really strangely placed. A lot of being an effective warrior, lies in realizing that the hit boxes are not where they should be at all. This is not clever. It’s stupid and lazy. As if no-one is actually play testing as the warrior class.
The near clip plane is too far and you end up just seeing clipped geometry flying about in your face.
The animation isn’t something that OrbusVR seems to have control over. So, the kinds of movement patterns or visual patterns you might think should be there, in order to dodge and use your shield, aren’t visible to the player. Often, the actual moment of damage from a enemy doesn’t match the sound, or the animation. So you’ll find you can’t actually use the shield without noticing that the actual attack is a full half a second earlier than it should be. For no good reason. Again, not clever, but stupid and lazy.
In general, the whole experience is pretty terrible in this class due to a complete lack of attention. If the developers had truly loved the warrior class as much as the mage, you could expect a really polished and exciting interaction system. Instead, you’ve got a mess of a combat experience.
One of the more interesting aspects of Pokémon Go, was that it was a great game-ification of exercise. Or rather, it was a cleverly constructed exercise app.
In general, VR games often feel like exercise apps. Or in some cases, accelerated repetitive stress injury (RSI) generators.
A previous game I was addicted to, gave me horrible tendinitis for weeks on end, for example, due to the need to to hold the “grip” buttons constantly.
I myself have pointed out in earlier VR UI design discussions, that gorilla-arm will become a design problem. UIs that require too much flailing about in space, will not be effective UIs.
But OrbusVR is a game, not a productivity application. That having been said, games are often measured in hours. Both in terms of hours of playability, and in hours of immersion.
This means OrbusVR, and other experiences like it, need to find a proper balance between exertion, fun, playtime, injury, immersion and fairness.
I started as a Ranger. I hold my bow in my left hand and my arrows in my right. This means, that as I fire away at monsters in rapid fire mode, my right arm is moving furiously again and again but tucked closer to my body. My left arm is holding itself out horizontally for minutes at a time.
This hurts. A lot.
It took weeks, and I mean weeks of repeated gaming sessions before I could do more than an hour or so of playing at a time. And sometimes, I had to take days off to give my tendons time to heal.
Eventually, my body adjusted. But I do worry about RSI were I to keep at it.
Later on, I began leveling up my musketeer class, just so I could rest my arms and keep playing.
The warrior with its constant sword swinging and screwed up frame-rate based input system, was another serious strain on my right arm. And again, I feared RSI.
The mage’s gesture recognition engine works best if you fold your off arm and hook the other elbow into it to steady your wand arm. This is a bit of a contortion itself and also causes a lot of tendon strain that makes me worry about RSI.
All of this is to say: the physicality is great. The potential for real exercise and activity is great. But greater care really needs to be taken in the future of VR, to balance out movements, and remove repetitive strain. Especially in an experience that’s meant to immerse you for hours at a time. There’s a fine line between exercise and injury.
Community, the three edged sword
Community is amazing for an MMORPG like OrbusVR. I met a bunch of people. The buggy but functional world-space based chat makes it intuitive. Walking up to people and talking is a great thing. Yelling across a battlefield to your party, is a great thing. Spending hours on end, just talking while you quest about on foot, is a great thing. Other parties drifting in and out of earshot is great. Conversing with random players on the side of the road is great.
As you might imagine, there is a guild/squad system. And there’s ways to form parties and raid dungeons. And it’s really quite magical.
I’d go so far as to say, that OrbusVR kind of ruins Skyrim VR for me. In that they’re very similar. But Skyrim VR is all non-player characters. And as such, Skyrim manages to feel empty to me. I appreciate it is superior in many, MANY ways. But without people to talk to and allies to work with, I find it lacking.
People are just horrible. I don’t want to quest with foul mouthed 13 year olds. Any game that forces you into common spaces with the masses, just puts you in touch with the worst people. There were racist character names and views the likes of which I never want to repeat or encounter again.
I will point out, that the world-space chat, which attenuates players volume, based on distance, means you can just walk away from people and conversations you don’t want to be involved in. And that’s a good thing.
But I’ve been playing MMOs for a long time. And I know community moderation from the old days. I can’t stress how much community management and moderation is a very tedious and tenuous thing. OrbusVR seemed to have minimal to no moderation. And that probably will bite them and others, when more people are drawn to these kinds of experiences.
Fact of the matter is; telling people to just ignore bad threads, isn’t sufficient in a BBS. Telling people to walk away from conversations they don’t like, also isn’t sufficient.
I don’t have a solution here. But I see it as a very big red problem that needs an actual solution. OrbusVR provides no real thesis on this.
Imagine basing the success or failure of your game, on the hope that a good community will evolve, rather than a toxic one; but leaving that up to chance.
Every MMO I’ve played risks the same major community disease. Elitist aristocracy.
Some game designs manage that disease and some don’t.
OrbusVR suffers from horrible Elitism at the upper ranks and levels. Once you reach Level 20, you really need a guild to get in a party. Not only is there no other way to advance, but there’s really no other way to play once you reach level 20.
As mentioned in edge 2, people are just horrible.
For me, I very quickly lost any interest in playing at Level 20 once my Ranger got to that level. The people were taking the game too seriously. They were too critical. They took no steps to teach people or bring them into the fold. Why would I want to play that way? It’s not fun. It’s all stress and animosity.
Back in the day, a squad I built (in a very early MMOG) held onto a league championship for multiple seasons. We were the 1337est of 1337 (in the language of the time.) This is long before e-sports were a thing. And I can tell you from experience, you don’t have to be elitist jerks to get to that level. In fact, it’s a lot more fun to recruit, teach and be known as a nice group of people, while also being on top.
The internet has changed of course. But I despise games that channel people into elitist aristocratic structures.
In my view, a good end-game design is very cognizant of the idea that people are horribly elitist, and makes absolutely sure to allow the game to be played outside of such an aristocratic environment.
For example, one might channel people into situations that force them to break up their groups or build mixed level groups.
Anyhow, I decided to level up my other classes rather than push myself into the level 20 clubs. And I met a lot of interesting people and had fun doing that for a time.
So, I’m just going to say it. OrbusVR is developed by some pretty bad developers.
If you really look hard, you’ll find nearly every art asset in the game, is bought from the Unity 3D content store. They literally do not know how to make monsters. They can only buy existing animated models and integrate them. Which is why their creature design is so limited and strange.
Their gesture recognition engine is bad it seems, because it’s the only one they could find. If they needed to build one, they wouldn’t know how. And they don’t seem to be self critical enough to notice that they need one.
Their art is not designed, it is cobbled together from what they could buy or use for free.
Their understanding of the engine they’re using is poor.
At a game design level, they have bad balance. The progression through the levels and fields is pretty poor. They present the image of being obsessed with balance. But they don’t execute it well. High level characters can easily carry low level characters.
Once you reach level 20, the dungeons become completely gimmick based. Bosses are defeated through weird strategies that you simply must be taught. They’re not meant to be discovered.
Quests are tedious and usually you feel more like a bike messenger than an adventurer.
The mage class is overpowered and clearly has all the attention of the development team. The three other classes feel secondary or obligatory.
But it’s addicting and unique
Really though, the number of hours I’ve spent in OrbusVR is embarrassing.
I have cut myself off actually. It was made easier to cut myself off from it when the guild I was playing with, sort of imploded. I really didn’t have any desire for the politics, or the rest of the community at the end-game stage.
I just wish someone else would make something like it, but you know; something good.
OrbusVR exists in a vacuum of good developers. And as such, they’re the best at the time. But that doesn’t mean they’re any good.
Much like most VR games, OrbusVR claims that they’re in some kind of early release or testing stage. So, yea. They might fix everything. Maybe they hired a whole new team of developers who know how to do everything really well. And no, I’m not sticking around to see it.
I do however reject the idea that companies can release semi-complete versions of games publicly for money, and then claim they’re not to be reviewed or critiqued because they’re not “production releases.”
So the best I can say for OrbusVR, is that this is a critique at a point in time. And they do seem to keep releasing updates/expansions. Which means every release is an opportunity to fix it.