For a few seconds, Blood & Truth, the most-hyped game to hit the PlayStation 4’s virtual reality headset since its October 2016 launch, is as thrilling a VR experience as one could hope for.
You’re in the headset holding PlayStation Move controllers as the game’s graphics wrap around you. You’re a soldier back in his hometown of London, automatically propelled through a casino’s upper floor as you fire a gun at a clown car’s worth of dim-witted suit-wearing tough guys. After all this forgettable shooting-gallery gameplay, your character stands still as you confront a gangster. Then, a door nearby bursts open and some guy in a helmet walks through and machine-guns the gangster to death.
Then, this cool thing happens.
Blood & Truth pushes you forward down a hallway, making it feel as if you’re fleeing from the person with the machine gun. The hallway ends at a window, but it’s no dead end. The game launches you through it. The glass shatters as the action slows down. Suddenly, in slow-motion VR, you’re leaping through the London air toward a neon sign an alley’s width away. Look down and you’ll sense that you’re several stories up. Look behind and you can see the building from which you just leapt. Soon, you’re clinging to the exterior of the building toward which you jumped. With those Move controllers in hand, you can make your character grab a girder and then reach for a handhold. Then another, slowly scaling the wall. Then you can make him reach into an airshaft and crawl through the chute to relative safety.
This brief, thrilling moment is the highlight of the first couple of hours I’ve played of Blood & Truth, a game that mostly demonstrates how little virtual reality can make up for generic action gameplay and unlikable characters. Blood & Truth is mostly off-putting, mostly just a mindless shootout against uninteresting enemies who evade gunfire about as well as a houseplant, mixed with shouty b-grade dialogue. These are shortcomings that may have been acceptable in the first year or two of this current era of mainstream PC and console VR, when the novelty of wraparound graphics and the comfort of a game running well enough to not induce nausea could excuse other faults. Now, it feels far less acceptable, even more so in the wake of the truly great, no-asterisks-needed PSVR game Astrobot: Rescue Mission.
Astrobot, like Blood & Truth, is a first-party Sony game, the ostensible height of what well-backed VR video game productions can achieve. With Astrobot we got a cartoonish game that let players control a little robot from overhead, making him hop, run and tightrope-walk through colourful, secret-filled levels.
With Blood & Truth, we’re soldier Ryan Marks in a first-person shooter that mixes non-interactive story sequences in which Mark is either being interrogated or chatting with his mother, sister, and brother—complete with a lifetime supply of “fucking hell”s—about how to keep his dead father’s criminal empire from falling into a rival’s hands. The family members are annoying, especially Ryan’s brother. He’s especially irritating in an overly long sequence when the two break into a gangster’s art gallery and start screwing with all of these exhibits that just happen to demonstrate various VR gimmicks. Here’s a room full of objects that can collapse all around you. Here’s a room that lights up differently as you move your hands. Here’s a room that’s mostly dark and primed for jump scares when that annoying brother of yours keeps hopping into the light. Here’s a room where you and your brother suddenly have spraypaint cans and can deface art. Here’s a room with a paintball gun that you can shoot at other art as you and your brother cackle through it and snicker about whether any of this is art. The brother is as insufferable as the action is forced. I’d prefer a game without the shooting, without the brother, and maybe with some of these VR art projects fleshed out into a game.
Blood & Truth is best when it’s simply giving you a moment to feel that you are somewhere unusual. This is a strength of VR overall, to convey a simulated sense of presence. I got that in 2015 when I first tried a pre-launch PSVR demo for a demo called London Heist that would eventually ship on the PlayStation VR Worlds compilation and seemed to inspire Blood & Truth. In that one, I saw through the eyes of a character sitting in a chair being berated by an interrogator who loomed over me and puffed smoke in my face. Strangely, the interrogation scenes I’ve experienced in Blood & Truth are not as in-your-face and are, perhaps as a result, not as impressive.
I got that impressive VR-enabled sense of presence in Blood & Truth when I was jumping out of the window in the game’s second major level and felt, for a moment, that I was somewhere I’d never been—dangling mid-leap between two buildings. I got it, too, in part of the casino level, when my character suddenly found himself at the controls of a DJ booth, where I could trigger different lights and sounds while scratching a record on a turntable. I even got that when sitting shotgun in the car as my annoying brother drove us through London and reached out to hand me a vape. Would that the developers could make a game about this kind of presence, rather than offer drops of it between shootouts that feel so unexceptional.
Fair or not, Sony’s VR games carry the weight of justifying the platform and this entire endeavour of virtual reality gaming about which so many people who play games remain sceptical. Some holdouts simply need to get inside some VR graphics and see the generally wonderful experience of video game visuals that surround you. Others should play the kinds of focused indie games that take a concept like swinging lightsabers to a beat and make a great experience out of them. It’s reasonable, though, to think that some might be on the fence until they hear there’s a whole London action movie of a VR game out there to play. When such a game simply oscillates between basic gunplay and shoehorned gimmickry, it winds up being a poor showcase.
I might play more Blood & Truth, just to look for more of its silly or potentially thrilling gimmick moments. I sense, though, that I have sized up Blood & Truth well enough to know what it is. I also know what I wish it was: a game about leaping through windows and crawling through air ducts. I’d happily spend more time in VR doing that. And less time trying to deal with an annoying brother.