The battle royale genre has carved out its space on the console and PC world already, and with more experiences making their way to VR the team at Big Box is bringing an immersive fight to Oculus Quest 2 and Steam. Population: One is a squad based shooter with verticality at its core just as much as the shooting and looting are, but does this approach send Population: One to new heights or ask players what game they are dropping into next?
Population: One sets the player up for success by having you play through a quick tutorial to understand the basics of combat, traversal, and building. While at first, some of the nuances to reloading weapons or managing your inventory may seem overwhelming but that initial jolt of uncertainty is wiped away after your first match or two and you start to become more inclined to the flow of looting, shooting, and climbing. Having to use hand motions and button presses to load clips of ammunition into your virtual weapon or peel a banana four times to heal up while in the midst of a battle is the type of chaos that exists on a different plane than its non-VR counterparts. All of these actions, and others like it, work extremely well in Population: One and I never felt like the tracking or the game was the reason I fell in a firefight.
Matches consist of six squads of three duking it out in a variety of areas on the map. From the start you can choose to take a flight pod that will send you flying through the air to reach further parts of the map, or just drop off the side and glide towards one of the closer areas. With eighteen players, matches never felt too crowded or too desolate in my experience. I think there could be room for a few more teams, but with the starting size of the map, fewer than six teams may have felt too barren. As with other games in the genre, as time goes on the battlefield shrinks, and players are forced into tighter areas.
The gunplay in Population: One portrays accurate and succinct results in relation to your movements within the virtual reality space. Elevated by the ability to grip weapons with two hands or holding the weapon closer to your face to aim down sights or peer through a sniper scope, each pull of the trigger felt impactful and carried true weight in a sense that wasting a bullet can quickly put you at a disadvantage while engaging with opponents. When a simple button press isn’t the option when reloading your weapon or healing up, but a string of actions that emulate doing those things in reality, each decision, each shot fired all matter seemingly more in the rhythm of battle. Maybe it’s just a concept I’m exaggerating in my head, but the rush of adrenaline when actions such as reloading your pistol or eating food to recover can separate the difference of winning or losing a firefight, that extra level of pressure added an enjoyable layer of euphoria when emerging victorious.
An interesting addition into your arsenal in Population: One is the ability to craft walls and platforms for cover and protection. While not a new mechanic for battle royales, the ability to craft these types of structures adds another level of strategy to the gameplay while also not dominating the game. Materials for crafting never felt scarce, but also never felt so abundant that I needed to be proficient in or constantly building in order to stand a chance. In all of my matches, building was balanced enough that it never felt necessary in order to win, which I know can be a deterrent for certain players not interested in the building mechanics of other games in the genre.
Although, perhaps one of the most exhilarating aspects of the Population: One experience is the ability to climb and glide almost anywhere. The ability to walk up to just about any structure in the game, or a ladder, or a wall that you’ve built and use the grip buttons on the controller to physically and virtually scale those objects results in a level of immersion that feels grander than climbing in most games, simply because you’re wearing a VR headset and moving your arms around. While crawling your way back down buildings is also an option, the ability to spread your arms and glide down through the air opens up the movement and freedom in exploration and evasion.
The immersion isn’t the only aspect that warrants praise though, the strategies that become available with climbing and gliding open Population: One up to creative ways to explore, attack, and defend against enemies. Creeping your way up the side of a building to then hang off while one hand is still gripping the wall and the other is pointing your weapon or zipping past your opponents to drop down and attack from their back line always felt rewarding and enthralling. It also kept me on my toes when scanning for enemies, I wouldn’t just be looking on roofs or in windows but scouting out all angles of buildings and structures.
Even though the games felt snappy and matchmaking never took too long, probably due in part to cross-play with Steam, it would’ve been nice if there was the ability to queue up for the next match without having to return to the lobby. Another area that was lacking, especially when compared to other games in the genre, is the lack of customization. There is a leveling system and there are different cosmetics to unlock throughout playing, it just would’ve been nice to see more options or the ability to create your own character.
It’s hard to compare VR experiences to games that don’t require a headset, but in the virtual reality landscape, Population: One just might be the bar setting battle royale for VR. Controls that feel responsive to what I was doing and how I was moving, satisfying gameplay built around realistic physics, and immersion levels that scratch at the peak of what gaming in virtual reality can be all coalesce into easily one of the best shooter experience on VR and a must play for those seeking multiplayer fun in virtual reality. Population: One is undeniably on my short list of killer apps for VR. I honestly wonder how long my play sessions would be if I wasn’t playing on an Oculus Quest 2 and had to take breaks to charge my headset, because the impulse to jump back into another round and the “one more game” mentality was always in full swing, especially when my friends were on.
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