When news of Respawn's first foray into VR development came to light back in 2017 during Oculus Connect 4, most people's money was probably riding on the end product being some kind of Titanfall spin-off. I know mine was; the thought of climbing aboard a huge mech and dropping like a rocket propelled boulder into the middle of an intense sci-fi battlefield is honestly the stuff my VR dreams are made of.
But Respawn wasn't in the mood to make my dreams come true during last week's Oculus Connect 6 event in San Jose. Instead, it wanted to turn me into a time traveller by putting me inside what it hopes will be the most authentic World War 2 game ever made, the Oculus exclusive Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond.
Take a look at my video below where I go hands-on with the game for the very first time, and I think you'll be able to tell from my whoops of excitement that they've done just that. I've played so many WW2 shooters in the past I initially feared Above and Beyond would feel like retreading old ground, but the incredibly detailed visuals and authentic sound effects combined with the immersive properties of VR made the experience seem incredibly fresh. Oh, and I also managed to stun a Nazi by lobbing a saucepan at his face, which was worth the price of admission alone!
So why reboot Medal of Honor in VR and why now? Especially when Titanfall spinoffs like Apex Legends are such big business? Well, as Above and Beyond's game director Peter Hirschmann told me when I spoke to him at OC6, a lot of this decision was based on the history of Respawn itself.
Peter was the original writer and producer of the first Medal of Honor, so this is almost like his career is going full circle. "We had the opportunity to start a third team at Respawn and we were sat around talking about what we wanted to do,'' he explained.
"The core group of Respawn folks came out of Infinity Ward, which in turn came out of 2015 Games, which is the studio that made Allied Assault. That's where I met Vince (Zampella, CEO of Respawn), so early on in our career this was a really big franchise in our lives and it was like, 'God wouldn't it be great to reboot Medal of Honor with modern tools and everything we've learned in our careers over the last 20 years since the first game came out?'
"We started talking about it and I started working on what that might look like and not too much time later Oculus came a-calling. Their pitch was, 'Hey, we want AAA developers to make AAA games for the Rift,' and it was like, OK, let's call your bluff here, because we knew they had Facebook resources so you know it would be a big budget. It would also need to be a big team size and we knew they could cover that but the thing that we sent back to them was that the issue here wasn't money it was time. You know it takes years to make a game like this? And they were like, 'yep!' And so, I went up to Menlo Park and laid it all out for them and they bought it right there in the room and it was like, 'Oh my God, OK!' "
But what kind of game can Facebook's money actually buy? Well, in the case of Above and Beyond, it's a game with almost movie-like production quality. "For any given level and we've got over 50 in the game, there's a production design document that's 50-60 pages," Peter enthused. "I mean, we measured Omaha Beach with drones and we were there multiple days, just to make sure we could hit it at all the right times so we could make sure the tides were matching. It's kind of cool to know that if you're on Omaha Beach in our game, it's going to be one of the most accurate representations of that moment of the morning June 6th that's ever been made in entertainment. That's why we call the headset a time machine, because we can recreate things so accurately."
It's not just the exterior locations that are dripping with authenticity though. As I made my way through a level set inside a Gestapo Headquarters, I was taken aback but how gorgeous everything looked. Little blink-and-you'll-miss-them details like the high resolution aerial photographs and maps of bombing sites that were scattered across a table in a large conference room, through to the way light refracted through the crystals of an ornate chandelier, it all comes together almost subliminally to create one of the most believable VR worlds I have ever inhabited. This kind of polish is rarely seen in even the higher end of the VR games market and if it wasn't for the fact that I was running commentary as I played it, I might have forgotten I was standing in the middle of a busy Oculus Connect altogether.
"We're pouring all our efforts into making sure things are as smooth and accessible as possible," Peter continued. "All in the service of trying to build an authentic experience. But when it's realism vs. fun, fun always needs to win. In real life you get shot once you're done, evacuated from the battlefield. Realism isn't fun, but if you can make it feel real, that's our definition of authenticity so it's getting the details right. Extracting concepts into gameplay mechanics that are fun, but also give you a taste of what it must have been like back then.
"And most importantly it's keeping the tone grounded that the Third Reich was the scariest, best trained, best equipped, deadliest fighting force. The biggest force of evil the planet has ever seen. You don't need to embellish them, or make them zombies or give them jetpacks, you're reading the wrong history books if you do that. Our goal is to make the Nazis as scary as they actually were. So when you see that Waffen-SS uniform come round the corner, you have this almost pavlovian response of, 'Oh, snap! This is an incredibly well trained, deadly bad guy so I better up my game,' so to speak."
This certainly felt true as I pushed my way through the Gestapo HQ level. Shooting Nazis in flat games is second nature to me now, I've done it so much it hardly registers. But the sight of a 6ft tall Nazi wearing a period authentic uniform bursting through a door in front of me brandishing a firearm and looking like he could reach over and grab me by the throat was legitimately unnerving.
It's a shame then that currently, the clumsy AI threatens to ruin the carefully-crafted immersion by turning these terrifying foes into little more than goose-stepping whack-a-moles. More often than not, Nazis would run straight out of cover and stand in the open, or just wait patiently behind waist high boxes for me to deliver a bullet to their bonce. The polished VR visuals may seem like an important step forward in the world of VR gaming, but I couldn't help but feel that the gameplay was still stuck in the early days of Medal of Honor.
Still, the game is a fair few months out yet, so there's plenty of time to fine tune things and, along with the promised 10-12 hour campaign out of the box, Respawn is also bringing multiplayer to Above and Beyond. What that will entail exactly is still being kept firmly underwraps, but Peter was more than happy to sing its praises, albeit in a rather vague way.
"The sense of presence in multiplayer is crazy, so we're definitely trying to innovate and take advantage of the best parts of the platform and that's super exciting. I think our multiplayer will hopefully be different from some of the stuff that's already in the marketplace, but our goal is to be as accessible and as easy to get into as we can be."
So, will the skills the team has learned while making Above and Beyond inspire Respawn to make the Titanfall VR spin-off that I've been pining for? Unfortunately Peter didn't budge when I pressed him for an answer. But, after playing a bit of Above and Beyond, I don't really mind. Respawn may not be taking me to the future in its time machine at the moment, but I'm super excited to join it on its trip to the past.
This article is based on a press trip in San Jose. Oculus covered travel and accommodation costs.