SG Preview: The Horus Heresy: Betrayal at Calth VR11 Jan 2018 0
Virtual Reality and Strategy going hand-in-hand is a premise we can all get onboard with. It may not be the most practical solution to a genre that’s maintained mass appeal for its competitive element, but the natural immersion VR can deliver when done right is an exciting prospect for those looking to command fantasy armies from the frontlines.
So what happens when we look at a licensed turn-based strategy title that’s due to hit Early Access in the near future? Not good things, admittedly. Being handled by Steel Wool Studios, The Horus Heresy: Betrayal at Calth is yet another adaption of a popular portion of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Seemingly handing off the rights to another studio every other month, it’s no wonder message boards and comment sections show a mix of both concern and delight with each announcement. Some turn out great, others turn out mediocre, and some struggle to materialize at all. With the release date quietly pushed into the new year following hands-on impressions, those concerns are well warranted.
The Horus Heresy: Betrayal at Calth can be played both in and out of VR, but we’re going at this purely from a VR standpoint. It fires up through SteamVR without asking whether you want the Vive or Oculus version like most other titles – a warning sign when you’re rocking the Oculus Rift. This may explain some of the issues we encountered, but it’s difficult to confirm that suspicion without a Vive unit on hand. That being said, keybinds matched the Oculus Rift Touch controllers from the get-go, but it was all but smooth sailing from there.
A turn-based strategy title in a similar vein to something like XCOM, you deploy, move, and command your small fleet of units along a hex-tiled battlefield, taking turns shooting at the opposition and using terrain and/or obstacles to your advantage while inching forward to capture certain points. Rather than watch it all unfold from a top-down or isometric view, you’re on the ground with your men using nothing but the common teleport technique to move around. While most would believe the point of VR is to enjoy our games in true first-person, it really doesn’t work in favor of this particular setup.
Clicking units is easy enough once you’ve wrapped your head around the controls, but then rotating yourself and pointing at a valid piece of land on an angle that becomes more difficult to see the further you are from it makes issuing orders a real struggle. The tutorial suggests you can issue these through the interactive overview map, but attempting it usually led to me being teleported to whichever tile the beam of light from my hand contraption was hovering over at the time. I can understand why that might be seen as ‘helpful’, but it’s still far less practical than simply selecting point A and B from that floating display and issuing an order that way. The map itself isn’t easy to read even with a legend. You can’t tell one squad apart from another, and by having such a closed view of the battlefield by treading its ground at every point, the map’s topography rarely helped in the decision-making process.
Even with control tooltips available to pop up at any given time, I honestly still couldn’t tell you which button does what after struggling through more than 2 hours of tutorials. Nothing feels truly intuitive thanks to always being at ground level looking at structures and units typically far bigger than yourself. Rather than having teleportation mapped to a quick flick of the left thumbstick like most VR titles, it’s bound to a pull/release of the left trigger by default. Having your fairly standard movement method switched to a typical action button makes for a lot of mistakes; mistakes that can’t easily be fixed if your hand was on a bad enough angle at the time to teleport you halfway across the map and through various other set pieces. With most of it just being random rubble and walls, good luck keeping your sense of direction on point.
The easiest control method to understand is, thankfully, how to give out commands. Your left control stick employs a dial system used to issue orders to a selected unit. Tilt your stick in the direction of the order you want, click it in to select, and click wherever you need it to execute – like a nearby hex for movement or a visible enemy to shoot. Multiple units can converge on a single hex to form a squad, so that has its own place on the dial, too. Depending on the unit selected at the time, you might be able to choose an ability to execute – like using a certain weapon for more damage, or to destroy an object on the battlefield. Early days or not, the lack of any audible confirmation tone for most actions and animations left me confused as to whether I was doing something wrong, or the game had simply bugged out.
Most of the time it actually had bugged out. Tutorial prompts – which are easily lost when accidentally teleporting – would frequently stop responding, as would the command wheel when trying to issue the orders suggested by said tutorial windows. Again, it’s early days, but the sheer lack of polish for what it essentially a glorified (and excruciatingly long) 5+ part tutorial that had to be restarted several times left a very sour taste in my mouth. Being forced to sit so close to the action often resulted in a far less enjoyable experience than most other turn-based strategy titles, and the overall scale just made things difficult to navigate at times.
Early Access Promises
With so many game-breaking bugs kicking in at this early stage, it’s easy to ask whether The Horus Heresy: Betrayal at Calth is even ready for Early Access. Given its release date has already been pushed back in light of previews on other outlets and YouTube channels, it’s clear that even Steel Wool Studios are questioning it themselves. Trust me, it’s not a good first impression. Whether this eventually becomes a solid entry point for the Warhammer series in VR or not, what is being shared right now isn’t promising.
The game struggled to run on Medium settings on a capable VR rig, was basically unplayable at High, and somehow switched itself down to what I can only imagine was the minimum settings after quitting out to restart Chapter 5 when the Options menu wouldn’t load. The sudden drop in resolution made the game a pixelated nightmare that I attempted to capture with a screenshot. It did help the constant heavy double-vision/ghosting effect that was present on Medium settings, but the trade-off really wasn’t worth it. With the unknown price point set to increase as additional campaign acts are delivered over time, here’s hoping Steel Wool Studios are stocking up on cans of polish to buff out the very rough edges with each update.
After 2 hours of trying to get through the demo with various bugs and technical issues halting progress, I had officially had enough. I’m not well versed in Warhammer lore to say whether the story is headed in the right direction right now, but this rough presentation doesn’t leave me itching to jump into the franchise.
Originally set to launch late last year with its first campaign act and 5 multiplayer maps in tow, it isn’t obvious what will be included now that it’s been delayed into early 2018. It should be in a far better state than what is documented here when it eventually does launch, but we can’t say for certain. It might be best to wait for a few more content drops before really looking into it.