There was a time when the height of pop culture Cockney mischievousness was merely attempting to “blow the bloody doors off.” But in new PlayStation VR title Blood and Truth, you’ll be tasked with blowing up an entire casino as you explore the murky depths of London’s criminal underworld.
Fresh from its Paris Games Week reveal, Blood and Truth has quickly leap-frogged the competition to become one of the most hotly-anticipated VR games in the pipeline, and is headed exclusively to Sony’s PS4 platform.
Developed by Sony’s London Studio, it’s the culmination of 15 years work that started with London-focussed GTA cousin The Getaway (when the team were still known as Team Soho), and reached heady new heights with PlayStation launch title VR Worlds and its standout ‘The Heist’ crime caper mode.
“People seemed to really love The Heist and we loved making it,” says Iain Wright, Design Director for Sony London Studio.
“There was loads of stuff we wanted to do but didn’t have time. With Blood and Truth there’s a huge list of stuff we’re working through – while The Heist was a Cockney-geezer-knees-up type thing (which really worked for a demo) our influences this time are much more action-movie orientated.”
If you enjoyed The Heist, with its slick VR shooting galleries and tense, intimidating narrative face offs with dodgy gangsters, Blood and Truth looks set to polish that nugget and extend it for a full, cinematic package. You’ll play as an ex-special forces agent, forced to dive into London’s seedier criminal corners in order to protect his family.
“We want you to be able to handle guns like John Wick – dual wielding, moving and shooting, that feeling that you really know how to handle yourself,” says Wright. “We want you to feel like the hero in your own action movie.”
Having covered multiple genres in VR Worlds, Sony London Studio is as close to achieving ‘veteran’ status as anyone developing within VR at the moment. And it shows with Blood and Truth – from the point-perfect tracking of its gunplay to the quality of the visuals eked out of hardware not set to match its PC brethren, there’s an obvious confidence in what’s been shown of the game so far.
The London Studio had all-but perfected the VR shooting gallery as evidenced by The Heist, allowing the little touches to really shine through in Blood and Truth.
While the majority of the demo the public has seen so far focusses on nail-biting shootouts, it’s the smaller interactions, intuitively directed, that show VR off at its best.
From the hand-over-hand ladder climbing with the PS Move controllers, to the wiggle of a joystick controlling a chunky CCTV camera console, London Studio has the confidence in its players to let them examine and interact with the world it presents at their leisure. Only if a player is truly fumbling will a spoken audio prompt or adaptive UI element kick in to explain what needs to be done.
And it carries over into the sense of embodying a character in VR too, that level of role-playing that only VR can afford. The demo of Blood and Truth seen so far reaches a climax with a chase scene, rushing through a hail of gunfire as you race after an informant.
Reach him, and he’s not all that willing to spill the beans. But fire off a warning shot at his feet and he’ll spring back, lips loosened and demeanour totally changed by taking an action we’ve all seen a hundred times in the movies.
“The London Heist had dramatic scenes – the one with the cigar, the interrogation. We really want to push that as well this time with Blood and Truth,” says Wright. “There’s something special about being in a room with people – we can draw a lot more characters this time, you can answer back and talk. Narrative is a big part of it.”
The language of VR
The intuitive nature of these interactions, which come almost instinctively as part of the allure of VR’s sense of presence, is helping to build a ‘language’ of VR game design that will increasingly make it easier for first timers to dive in.
“If it looks like you can do something you probably can,” says Wright.
“Take the ladder climb – we don’t bring in the prompts until we’ve given someone a chance to figure it out. Because you play as a soldier, we want you to start recognising things, like cover points, for yourself. We’ll minimise the UI – we’ve got a layered system where you can select only what you need, with the UI and your skillset aligning. That’s our philosophy with stuff like that.”
“We’re all as an industry trying to find what works, what doesn’t,” adds Stuart Whyte, Director of Product Development, Sony London Studio.
“Take WASD movement with PC gaming – it took many, many years and iterations of first person shooters until PC games all standardised on that. We’re going to see the same with VR, and hopefully some of the things we’re doing other people will rip off and we’ll all iterate as an industry.”
It’s a philosophy that’s starting to be taken up by fellow VR developers, and it’s helping to shift expectations for gamers, too.
“It definitely feels like second generation VR now, but early on it felt like people were finding their feet,” says Wright.
“Until you put on a headset and play something that’s built for VR from the ground up, I don't think you can really get your head around it. I think at first a lot of people were saying ‘yeah Call of Duty in VR!’ But it wouldn't work very well. A Call of Duty built for VR could work, but it’d be very different from a direct port. And we’re building with VR in mind from the word go.”
A comfortable crimewave
Primarily a shooter, the in-your-face intensity of Blood and Truth’s VR play could be fatiguing if not handled correctly. London Studio recognises that, and has built in fail-safes to make it comfortable for all to play, starting with the fact that seated play is actually encouraged.
“It’s designed primarily around seated play, as it’s actually pretty knackering doing standing play for a long time,” says Whyte.
“We’ve actually got a standing mode in debug that we’ve been experimenting with, but it's preferred to be seated. It will support standing in the end, so if you really want to, you’re going to get a workout!”
The flow of the game is equally important – expect more tonal variety than your average Michael Bay movie.
“Our levels are going to be optimized around a 30 minute length, and there will be peaks and troughs in the gameplay. It’s not going to be ‘ACTION ACTION ACTION ACTION’ all the time, that’d be overwhelming,” says Whyte.
“Pacing is super important in any game, but in VR it’s much more so,” adds Wright.
“We’ll do a big battle, but then we’ll take it down a notch, do some object interaction, and that goes across the whole game. We’re going for something that’s a proper game, of a fairly decent length.”
In the age of loot boxes and in-app purchases, length is a sticking point for gamers, keen not to be ripped off in an industry out to squeeze them for all they’re worth. And while Wright and team are “not specifying any hour length” they’re keen to stress that “this will be a proper AAA VR experience.”
“How long that ends up being?,” ponders Wright before positing: “I think Blood and Truth will be one of the games that helps define [those expectations].”
“The intensity of VR in general, I’m not sure it warrants 30 hour [experiences]. I don’t think you need to tell stories that long, because the stories you’re telling are so much more vivid.
“We’ll definitely build in breaks where you can stop and pick it straight back up. That’s really high on our list, and replayability too, to go back to a mission you’ve done and try it with a different loadout, try different stuff – that feels like a much better way to go.”
The direction of TV consumption – shorter lengths, bigger budgets, better quality over a waning Hollywood cinema influence – is being seen as a potential match for the VR format, too.
“To have 30 or 40 hours of really amazing TV, you’re into a fourth season by that point. So maybe that will be the sort of way we’ll start see stuff [of that length in VR],” says Wright.
“If something warrants [an episodic approach to content], that can be built that way, I would have no problems with it. In fact, I’d say that VR is perfect for that. It leaves it up to you as to how you want to consume it, which is great.
“[VR] is probably one of the real tests of that model and I think it’s absolutely perfect for it – shorter experiences that you can spend a bit more time making, and you can make the choice as to whether you want to continue with that. Maybe you’ll see whole VR seasons, and maybe then you could make the argument for a game that’s 40 hours, played over a much longer period of time.”
'Here to stay'
Blood and Truth is one of the best looking PSVR games we’ve seen so far, with superb lighting effects, well-modelled environments and lifelike (if slightly caricatured) characters with a believable sense of presence. London Studio is squeezing the PlayStation platform for all its worth and loving it, if the enthusiasm of the team is anything to go by. But there are still some points on their hardware wish-lists.
“One of the things I’d love is more power, in terms of for the things that really work well in VR,” muses Wright.
“VFX really bring VR alive. Anything with presence in the world. Haptics is fantastic. Anything that gives us the ability to do more with that kind of stuff. A bit more physics power that we could budget for. Because it increases presence.”
But these are things that London Studio expects to see before long, perhaps giving a glimpse behind the curtain of what’s planned for PlayStation VR in the future.
“In terms of the base technology, it’s only going to get better,” says Wright.
“We’re going to get more power. But I think we’re starting to see that it’s clearly ready.
“Controllers will get more sophisticated, but there’s nothing where I’d go ‘if only!’ We used to talk about treadmills and stuff, but the reality is I’m not sure. I might do that at a theme park, but I’m not convinced I’d do that at home. But I’m incredibly unfit so perhaps that’s why!”
But in the here and now, Blood and Truth looks like a system seller in the making. From the short section shown so far, it looks set to deliver that action-hero wish fulfilment without you being threatened by the long arm of the law that only VR can deliver. If you’ve been in any doubt as to the long-term shelf life of VR, Wright and the London Studio are effusive.
“100%, VR is here to stay. No question about it,” says Wright. “The technology is ready, it’s only going to get better, the software is only going to get better, and we’re all going to get better at working in it.”