Is VR the future? A tired old question, perhaps, but when you browse the Vive games available on Steam at the moment, VR certainly looks an awful lot like the present. You know: the glitchy, lovably half-baked present of any infant technology, in which people are chucking everything out there to see if there are glimmers of promise lurking within the fragments, in which people don't necessarily know what they've even made until they've seen all the ways that it doesn't quite work.
Now, Budget Cuts? Even limited to a demo, Budget Cuts looks an awful lot like the actual future - a future that is arriving fully-formed, and in some style. It's not just that Budget Cuts is one of the first Vive treats that genuinely feels like a good game in its own right - I have a fondness for Out of Ammo, too. It's that Budget Cuts feels like it's effortlessly solved a bunch of problems with VR that I wasn't expecting any game to tackle this convincingly for a good few years. It's a confident glimpse of the landscape other games may reach a couple of miles down the road, if we're lucky.
In other words, I spent most of my half hour with Budget Cuts squealing - first with delight at the tangible array of novelties I was offered, and then in blind panic as the challenge ramped up and I started to understand the world and its confines.
Let's start with the delights. Budget Cuts is an espionage game, which is always money in the bank for this special agent. You're infiltrating an office building filled with deadly robots. All good fun. But for now? For now, you're standing in a corridor, juggling coffee cups.
Trying to, anyway. With Budget Cuts your twin controllers are not quite used as your hands. Not quite. Either of them can be equipped with a variety of gadgets. You can pick things up - like the coffee cups and pot plants that litter the game's opening sections - but you can also turn one controller into a kind of gun doohickey, that fires out a fat tennis ball of blue light in an appealing arc, and allows you, with the push of a button, to teleport yourself to wherever it lands. This is how you move around in Budget Cuts, moving down that opening section of corridor, say, in one click, two clicks, five clicks, however many clicks you want.
Teleportation is increasingly popular as a movement solution for VR games, but in Budget Cuts it's particularly beautifully delivered. Not only is the handfulness of it absolutely lovely - trigger to fire, grip button to commit - but the rest of the experience is built around making this means of teleportation feel real and gameable. That tennis ball of light is a physics object in its own right, which means you can bounce it off walls or pull off trick shots, landing on top of filing cabinets, say, or even teleporting yourself onto light fittings. The game's also smart about where you'll end up, telling you to duck before you teleport beneath a table or into a crawlspace. Movement's fun in itself, in other words, and it also reinforces the game's physical world.
And this only gets better. Simple puzzles start you off: grates that you can pull out of the wall to aim a teleport ball through, working your way past rooms with no other exits. Then there are grates that are electrified, and which require you to follow a thick cable along a wall until you get to a junction box to turn it off. Some of these junction boxes are locked, so you start to rummage around in desk drawers. And this is the VR difference again. I've rummaged through so many drawers in so many games, but there was a crazy thrill to yanking open these guys one by one, hunting for that most quotidian of video game elements, a key. Budget Cuts uses VR to make simple puzzles feel dazzling, and that will certainly wear off, but I'm not sure the sense of roleplaying that it encourages will wear off with it. I was in this game with both feet from the start.
Panic next - patrolling robots who go down with one hit. Firstly, they are terrifying: human-sized and horribly present when they come close, head slowly swivelling to lock on. Secondly, hiding from them is amazing, as you physically duck behind walls and peek around corners. Thirdly, murdering them is even better: I found a bunch of throwing knives on a shelf somewhere, and then one by one I placed them, physically, in my inventory that pops up on one controller whenever you press the big round button. They hover there, nasty bladed fingers, and then you can feel like a cold, calculating killer as you pluck one out and hurl it at your oblivious foe.
When the first robot got killed, I realised he wasn't the only guy around, and a period of holy quaking set in. I knew I'd been spotted through a window, and I could hear the spotter clanking around the corner to come and get me. The physicality of it was amazing, as I frantically threw the first robot corpse around to extract my throwing knife. Then, when I hid and the second guy couldn't find me, I trailed him for a while like the whole thing was Manhunt all over again, teleport-hopping after him and after him until he paused and I could kill him at my leisure.
More treats followed, but - and this is the dismal thing - they are genuinely worth seeing for yourself, though who really has easy access to a Vive when the set-up requires an empty room and the headset costs a fortune and most of the other games are entertaining novelties? Anyway, at one point I was clambering along a spar of metal high over a drop and I realised my legs were shaking with the fear of falling. At another, I was crouched in the gap between ceiling tiles, watching two robots from above, aiming at them with a little crossbow I had collected, using the sights like I really never quite have in a game before. I leaned closer and closer to the gap in the ceiling tiles, and then? Reader, I faceplanted.
And it was a pleasure to faceplant. To be transported so utterly to another world, where different rules applied - to be so transported that it is a shock to return to earth. Budget Cuts would be a great game without Vive, nervy and witty and filled with furious bursts of action. But you would have seen it before, or parts of it, at least. With Vive it becomes a one-off, a brief burst of brilliance, a glimpse of a future that I really want to arrive.
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