It's probably Lara Croft's fault, but nobody likes the underwater sections in games. Too fiddly to control, too stressful thanks to breath-holding time limits, they represent a maddening cliché that has most players reaching for the save button, if not the off switch.
Yet despite this aquaphobia, there remains a small but devoted sub-genre dedicated to nothing but underwater escapades. It's not the best-populated corner of gaming, but those who are fans of obscure titles such as Treasures of the Deep, Endless Ocean and Everblue tend to be very vocal in their defence of scuba-based action.
Diving games are quietly back in vogue at the moment, and that's almost certainly down to the arrival of Oculus Rift. The very act of putting that headset on and immersing yourself in a digital world maps so perfectly onto the scuba experience that it's no wonder more than one indie studio is developing an underwater game.
World of Diving certainly isn't pulling any punches when it comes to its all-encompassing title, but even from the basic version available through Steam's Early Access programme, you sense that it may well deliver on that promise.
Unlike a lot of Early Access titles, there's a lot already in World of Diving, at least in terms of raw gameplay. What's missing is the goal-orientated structure that will make it an actual game, not just a virtual experience.
For starters, there's a tutorial section set in a tropical diving club where you get wet for the first time. You begin in a swimming pool, and once you've shown that you can navigate successfully there, you're allowed through into a larger system of glass corridors which then open out into a stunning lagoon.
Graphics aren't everything, of course, but when a game needs to sell its world so utterly, it certainly helps if you can make the player widen their eyes involuntarily. That's what happens in World of Diving, which still has a few hitches and stutters, but is capable of delivering true beauty as well. It goes all in with the rainbow colours of a coral reef, populated by turtles and shoals of tropical fish, yet also provides areas of gloom and murk where the shape of a shark or a shipwreck emerging in the distance can make you stop and stare.
Those sharks won't do you any harm at the moment, but there are already more things to do than just swim around. You have a camera, and there are photography missions - identified as scuba tanks on the ocean floor. Some are timed, others are more leisurely, but they're designed to get you exploring the many features at the bottom of the sea. There are multiple maps as well, ranging from ones with a sunken WW2 bomber or submarine, to a more elaborate galleon with a unicorn masthead winkingly called the Brony. More are planned, including the chance to rummage around inside an accurately modelled Bismark and one enticingly called "Nile Crocs". There's also a mission editor, so you can not only create your own bespoke undersea world but design challenges for other players to tackle.
Yes, other players. Scuba in real life is a social pastime and so it is in the game. You can share the water with up to seven other divers, and there's a rudimentary sign language communication system in place, allowing you to wave, beckon or warn others, or just give them the "OK" hand signal to let them know everything is fine.
Out of the water, there's a hint as to how the long-term appeal will take shape. Experience can be earned, and you diver avatar levelled up. There's a store where you can unlock new scuba gear, and customise your character in multiple ways - including green or blue skin. There's a basic F2P economy, in the sense that you can buy in-game currency to purchase things immediately, but in the full game you'll also be able to swell your coffers by treasure-hunting in the wild, finding doubloons in the sand or prising pearls from oysters.
The important thing is that even in this nascent form, it feels like a satisfying diving game. You can swim around in gorgeously realised locations, and it's great fun just to do that. Add in the first inklings of a deeper structure, and the prospect of user-generated content, and it's clear this is more than just a VR tech demo.
You can play it on the monitor, of course, but played in VR the result is incredibly immersive. My original Oculus Rift dev kit doesn't really have the resolution to do justice to the game's sub-aquatic vistas, but even in this chunkier version the feeling of being both utterly free and sealed in perfectly suits both the technology and the diving experience. The prospect of trying World of Diving with the new Rift headset, without the chicken-wire pixel effect, is something I'm honestly anticipating more than any of this year's upcoming AAA console blockbusters.
What interests me most about World of Diving is the variety of experiences it can offer. There's a cave in the tutorial area that is currently sealed off, but even just hovering over its inky depths and wondering what lies down there is chilling. Once those sharks can take a chunk out of you, and there are seaweed-clogged abandoned Lovecraftian temples to explore, there's no reason World of Diving couldn't become one of the scariest virtual reality horror games around.
Equally, lazily exploring a sun-dappled cove, snapping photos of rays and clown fish, could make the very same game the ideal chill-out experience. I've been playing the game on and off for weeks, and still raise a smile when I bump into a turtle or a dolphin. It could also become a historical tool, offering access to accurately mapped real-life wrecks and ruins, or it could evolve into a watery RPG with XP and hidden loot. It can be all of those things, at the same time.
I make no secret of the fact that I'm one of those people who gets a bit passionate about the small but wonderful scuba game sub-genre, so I'm keeping my flippers crossed that World of Diving lives up to its considerable potential as it paddles towards its full release.
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