Entering the Void
* Unprecedented physics interaction with nearly every object in the game world.
Intense, visceral combat
Solid weapon variety
* Vague, unsatisfying story
Platforming and physics are occasionally awkward
No real checkpoint system.
The Bottom Line
Boneworks is probably the most anticipated, most-hyped VR game in recent memory. A “next-generation” first-person shooter, it combines a complex physics simulation with combat and puzzles reminiscent of Portal, all presented in virtual reality. It’s an ambitious attempt by indie developer Stress Level Zero to take VR to the next level, and while it is not a complete success it does at least show how much more potential for game design that VR can offer.
The story in Boneworks is vague and extremely cryptic. You play as Arthur Ford, an employee of a company called Monagon, which is developing a virtual reality operating system called “MythOS”. The employee shuts themselves in a strange room and barricades the door before putting on a VR headset. MythOS resembles a city under construction, and as you go through it it becomes apparent that something isn’t right. It is populated by strange orange men called Nullbodies, virtual reality helmets which resemble headcrabs, and other weird digital abominations. The story is primarily told through graffiti on the wall as well as computer monitors with videos from your fellow employees. Despite that, it doesn’t seem to make much sense.
That’s partly because Boneworks is actually part of a universe that Stress Level Zero has been building across multiple titles. The game’s lore is actually quite deep and expansive and touches on some intriguing ideas including corporate espionage, demons, and the blending of virtual and physical reality. That being said, you really have to dig deep for these things, as well as be familiar with Stress Level Zero’s previous titles. On a surface level Boneworks’ plot is simply unsatisfying, failing to give even the most basic explanation why you’re doing what you’re doing as you play through the campaign. With a more direct surface-level plot, Boneworks could have even been more special, but as it stands the story will only appeal to lore junkies. Luckily, that’s not really why you play this game.
Boneworks is definitely a weird gameplay experience. Most of the time it feels amazing to play: you’ll aim, shoot, duck, swing, stab, and reload with nothing but your controller movements. Theres a real tangibility to each weapon, and it feels great to use them. For instance, rifles will need to be gripped with both hands to reduce the recoil. It’s a real joy to pull out two pistols and take out a bunch of enemies at once in slow motion. When Boneworks works, you truly feel like an action movie hero.
Your player character has four slots for holding weapons and objects, two spots under the armpits for storing pistols and SMGs as well as a pocket on the back. The backpack system works most of the time but it can be a bit frustrating when you have to fumble around for your next weapon after running out of ammo for your current gun during intense combat situations. Weapons can be “force grabbed” from a distance, though this only works for specific items marked as weapons.
Early in the game, the enemy AI isn’t especially smart. Most of the time, you’ll be fighting the zombie-like nullbodies and all of their variations, which wander around slowly and flail their arms at you. Some later enemy types do use guns or other ranged projectiles and you’ll need to make smart use of cover to make it out alive. There are also the headcrab like virtual reality helmets, which leap at the player and attempt to cover their face. The reason that most enemies are so “easy” however, is due to the nature of the game’s reloading system as well as the sandbox nature of the game’s combat mechanics.
Part of the fun of Boneworks is the true physical interactions with just about everything. You can move and grab just about anything that isn’t nailed down. You can use tables and boxes as makeshift cover, or create bridges over gaps using planks. You can use whatever is lying around to bash enemies in the skull. You can use trash-can lids to defend yourself against turrets. It is really next level stuff, and at times it feels like you can pretty much utilize anything to solve your problems. Boneworks was definitely designed with Valve’s Index controllers in mind, but it is playable on any headset that supports PC VR, including Oculus and Windows Mixed Reality.
Its when you have to deal with platforming or manipulating large physical objects that things begin to get a bit dicey. Despite the game’s attempts to simulate weight for every object that you pick up, objects just seem to flop around with little control. You’re supposed to move heavier objects slowly as if you are truly holding them in real life, however it sometimes feels that some objects just don’t want to move where your hands are in the real world, resulting in a strange disconnect. For instance, heavy red boxes can only be lifted up so high, which is frustrating when you need to toss them across a gap. While it is workable, climbing feels springy and awkward, and mantling onto objects is a Herculean task even once you figure out how to properly do it.
You’re really only have full control of your head and arms, the rest of your body just kind of dangles underneath your torso. Despite the game’s best efforts to compensate for this via inverse kinematics and realistic physics, platforming and jumping just feel awkward. You can control the height of your crouching by pulling down on the right analog stick, which will prep you for a higher jump. However, its difficult to get a feel for the momentum you’ll have when you hit the jump button. It’s especially terrible when you have to perform multiple jumps in a row on high-placed platforms. Thankfully there is no fall damage (this is a virtual world after all) so you can jump off of high places to your hearts content.
Boneworks’ biggest problem besides its awkward platforming is its checkpoint system, or lack thereof. The game will only save at the start of each level. If you quit or die while in the middle of a level, you’ll have to complete it all over again. Each level takes about 45 minutes to an hour to complete, so you definitely need to be prepared for a lengthy session every time you reach a new stage. You can at least choose to start from any stage after you reach it.
Boneworks takes away all of your weapons at the end of each stage, however, you can toss them into reclamation bins near the end of each stage. This will allow you to use these items in the game’s sandbox mode. After you complete the campaign, you’ll also unlock the arena mode where you can utilize the game’s myriad weapons against waves of enemies. I should point out that while there are a great variety of weapons, the game doesn’t have explosive weapons or even explosive barrels to shoot.
You can purchase items in vending machines by using the ammo you collect throughout each stage. You’ll have to place each clip one by one into the vending machine slot, which can be tedious as some items are incredibly expensive. In addition, there are several fancy “dev-tool” items that you can unlock near the end of the game. These items cost a lot of ammo but can do cool things like allowing the player to fly, climb up any surface, or manipulate objects from a distance.
Graphically, Boneworks has a clean, realistic art style. The surroundings are mostly concrete and steel, with the game having an extremely industrial, urban vibe. At times the game’s spartan visuals can belie the deep interaction systems lying underneath. While it is funny to view the construction of a VR world in a literal, rather than code-based sense, it also has an intentionally sterile and cold feeling. You get the sense that you really don’t belong in this world as you continue through it. Later in the game, it shifts to a much more surreal direction with cosmic horror undertones. Admittedly much of Boneworks has a very “tech-demo” vibe to it, but this is intentional to highlight the physics system and tweak your expectations for when the environments begin to shift. It runs on the Unity engine and the performance is mostly fine apart from a few areas with too many physics objects in them. It’s a game which demands a powerful CPU thanks to the physics simulation.
The sound design for Boneworks is hit and miss. Guns sound fantastic, with a satisfying ping whenever bullets hit something and the memorable clicking noise whenever you reload them. Other objects have kind of a stock sound effect when hit or destroyed that isn’t particularly exciting. I’m not a huge fan of the noises the enemies make either. Luckily, Boneworks also has a surprisingly fantastic soundtrack. I know that VR games are still fairly niche and don’t get the same recognition as their 2D counterparts, but man if this isn’t one of the best soundtracks in any game released last year. Every tune is catchy and well-suited for the situation. There’s creepy ambient music during quite moments, loud synthesizer during the firefights, peppy pop music blasting from the in-game radios, and at one point what sounds like a Latin mass. This composer deserves a lot of credit for coming up with a great set of tracks.
I may sound like I hate this game, and truth be told there’s a lot to criticize here. The platforming and physics are awkward, and the story is so vague as to practically be nonexistent. However, despite all of this, Boneworks is also fantastically, riotously fun and a true milestone in the history of VR games. Honestly, it is truly difficult in words to describe just how this game makes you feel when playing it. While it may be a bit barebones in its presentation, disappointing in its plot, and sloppy in its mechanical design, it also brings to light many of the gameplay possibilities that this new form of gaming is capable of delivering. Its so far ahead of the curve that playing any other VR game feels like a step down in comparison. I’m fully on-board with whatever Stress Level Zero decides to release next.
by krisko6 (813) on January 24th, 2020