Developer: Cloudhead Games
Publisher: Cloudhead Games
Platform: PC-VR (reviewed on Valve Index), Oculus Quest (reviewed)
Release Date: Nov. 7, 2019
ESRB Rating: M for Mature
Links: Steam | Oculus | Official websiteA review of the 2018 virtual reality sensation Beat Saber can be boiled down to one or two sentences: wave lightsabers to the rhythm of intense, catchy music. It's a thin elevator pitch, yet all of its pieces add up to something addictive, inventive, and—based on what I've seen from other recent VR apps—hard to replicate.
That changes this week with Pistol Whip, which both evokes the simple genius of Beat Saber yet actually delivers on that rare combination of familiar and fresh. Its single-sentence pitch is just as fun: pretend you're John Wick and get into gun-fu battles against hypercolor hitmen to the rhythm of thudding techno. (No, this isn't a licensed John Wick game, but rather an obvious homage to the house that Reeves built.)
In its current state, on PC-VR systems and the standalone Oculus Quest, Pistol Whip is already an impressive trip of a "rhythm shooter," and it blends some of VR gaming's best qualities—tracked hands, body presence, and quick reactions—to deliver a body-filling sensation of badassery. Yet in its current state, it also sits on the boundary of an "early access" game, in spite of not being advertised as one. The issues are a bit annoying, but I'm having too good of a time to not otherwise recommend this gem of a 2019 VR game.
Guess the tragic acronym between kills
In Pistol Whip, you stand on what is essentially a virtual motorized sidewalk—the kind you might find at an airport terminal—and slowly glide through trippy, distorted environments. An underground bunker. A city celebrating Dia De Los Muertos. A seemingly random explosion of geometric shapes. We never quite learn why we're in these places, nor why they're full of pistol-wielding men in suits. LSD? PTSD? Some intense acronym is probably at play.
No matter: your job is to survive a given level's motorized sidewalk by shooting every baddie down, all while bobbing and weaving to dodge their slow-moving bullets. The catch is, randomly shooting the bad guys gives out fewer points. To maximize your score, you must shoot your gun to the beat of the insane music being piped into your ears. (Again, what's going on here?)
Equipped with a single pistol, unlimited ammo, and a point-down-to-reload mechanic, your primary goal is to stay on the song's rhythm while noticing and shooting every enemy in your field of view, particularly the ones who pop out of cover or run through random hallways. Should an enemy stand directly in front of you at any point (they occasionally find themselves on your automatic path), you can get more points by whacking them with your gun as a blunt instrument. (Right, Pistol Whip, I get it.) All the while, you have to keep an eye on enemies' guns, which flash red when they're about to shoot a bullet. That's a good hint, for example, of whether you should wait to melee-strike a nearby foe or shoot him down a few paces away.
Pistol Whip's secret sauce is its clever level design, since enemies constantly pop out from left to right and from top to bottom while you automatically glide forward. Cloudhead Games proves its VR development chops with Pistol Whip's levels. For one, they're grounded with what I like to call "anchoring" geometry at all times, with a sense of a central horizon point and a high-contrast color palette that favors bold-yet-cool colors. You won't get sick auto-moving through these worlds, and it's a remarkable feat.
Additionally, that forced-movement perspective lets the designers telegraph each upcoming threat. It quickly becomes second nature to read certain block and cover formations from a distance. A floating block next to nothing else? An enemy will probably spawn on that and start shooting. A sharp break in geometry near the floor? That's a good hint of an exposed basement section below to come, which will almost certainly hide a few easy kills. There's a neat choreography to how a good Pistol Whip level works. Its geometry organically forces your gaze to scan rapidly yet smoothly, as opposed to all over the place in a dreadful hurry.
The result feels more like a top-notch '90s arcade shooter than pretty much any VR fare that has launched thus far. When an interesting Pistol Whip level element unveils itself, often with a surprise reveal of gun-wielding goons, I get the same rush I remember from turning a crazy corner in a classic House of the Dead shooting sequence.
Rhythm fun, but also rhythm questions
Yet unlike '90s on-rails arcade classics, which copied each other ad nauseam, Pistol Whip carves out a unique identity by combining the open, wide shooting possibilities of VR with a rhythm-matching tweak. The game tracks any song's rhythm in double time, so you can even get away with some rapid-fire ammunition percussion in a pinch and still get maximum points per shot.
Unfortunately, in my week of pre-release testing, I've struggled to match my shooting rhythmRead More – Source