Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to be at the helm of a giant robot. I’m not sure if it’s because I spent most of my youth watching mecha anime, or because I enjoyed Pacific Rim so damn much, but there’s something primal about being in command of hundreds of tons of destructive power. As a result, you can imagine how gleeful I was when Archangel – a mech-based VR campaign by Skydance Interactive – landed on my desk.
The great news is that my manic grin didn’t fade. While there are a few caveats, such as making sure you have a pair of PS Move sticks handy, Archangel definitely manages to put you in the skull of a walking death fortress. Throw in a decent single-player campaign and you’ve got a satisfying if shortlived, virtual reality experience.
Even so, there are a few downsides that detract from an otherwise well-oiled machine. Archangel’s cliche-laden storyline feels ripped straight from an 80’s action movie, which is going to annoy some more than others. There are also a couple of technical annoyances, such as painfully long loading screens and simplistic graphics, but these are limitations of the PS4 platform as much as anything else. In spite of those shortcomings, Archangel’s war machine continued to deliver an enjoyable and satisfying ride.
Punch to Punch
Surprisingly for a mech-based action fest, Archangel does have a story running through it. Through a mixture of cunning and might, a malevolent mega-corporation named Humanix has taken control of much of America. Pushed into a corner, the few remaining freedom fighters have been working on a covert project – pairing a powerful AI with a human pilot to command a giant robot and dominate the battlefield.
What starts out as a simple weapons test rapidly escalates to all-out conflict, as HUMNX launch a surprise attack before you’ve even got the seat warm. Unfortunately, there’s no time to stick around in the secret underground lair, as the carnage quickly spills out topside into the ruined streets of Chicago. Still, at least commuting became a ton easier.
Controlling the war machine is straightforward, as long as you discard the DualShock controllers and grab a pair of PS Move sticks. It meant that my own arm movements could be mapped to the mech’s, allowing for much more accurate aiming of wrist-mounted weapons. It also meant that each weapon could be aimed independently, allowing me to hit multiple targets at once and be a super-efficient killer robot.
One arm comes with a machine gun for taking out slow-moving projectiles, mines and ground troops. The other fires rockets, which are great for obliterating tanks, fighter jets and so on. Each arm also has a short-duration energy shield mounted like a buckler, which I could move around just by raising my arm to block different parts of the battlefield.
It takes a little getting used to but, as I fought through the levels, I felt a gradual mastery start to emerge. And, while I died several times, the checkpoint system meant that I didn’t lose too much progress. Admittedly, part of the trick is memorizing the pattern of incoming forces and the best ways to defeat them, but it didn’t become repetitive.
Archangel also makes an effort to reinforce the virtual reality immersion through scenery interaction. At specific points in each level I had to reach out and grab nanite tanks to repair my mech’s armor, or actually punch for my mech to punch through a barricade. Even the menu system encourages reaching out and gesturing to an option instead of reaching for the directional pad.
Robot on Rails
As Archangel progresses, so does the story – and the mech. During each level, a short flashback moment occurs, with the mech pilot reliving a fragment of their troubled past. Much of it serves to ratchet up the angst of our protagonist, s if everyone they ever loved had died purely to serve as an angry plot-point. As I said earlier, it’s 80’s action hero stuff. Voice acting is performed competently enough, it’s just that the source material has more cheese than a swimming pool full of fondue.
More importantly, the end of each mission also presents the opportunity to upgrade the mech, helping me to compensate for my lousy aiming with better shields and armor. As I progressed, further weapon options also unlocked, a railgun swap-out for the machine gun, and tracking missiles instead of the aimed rockets. It all helps to keep the action interesting, as there always seemed to be some new toy to get the hang of.
Because of the focus on moving those robot arms – shields, aiming, switching weapons and so on – it’s little surprise that the legs are managed by M1KL, that harmonious AI. Motion sickness is minimized by taking a slow, lumbering pace, although moving backward can be a little unsettling.
While the action has enough variety – even introducing new enemies such as mines, turrets and kamikaze fighters – the scenery can get a little repetitive. Yellows and browns from rubble-strewn and sand wrapped city streets give way to browns and yellows for mountains and canyons, mapped out with simple geometry and texturing. Much of that is due to limitations with the PlayStation 4 console and VR headset to keep the framerate high, but the level scripting and pacing help to wrap each mission up before fatigue sets in.
Those technical limitations also rear their head in the form of long load times, even though Archangel installs to the hard drive. Whether it’s continuing a game or restarting from a checkpoint, expect to spend a good few minutes twiddling your virtual thumbs.
If you’ve harbored a secret desire to pilot a giant robot through the streets of Chicago, Archangel is a clear winner for you. But, for those after more of an action RPG experience, it becomes a harder sell. There’s plenty of stories, backstory, and narrative that’s been crowbarred in, even including comms banter from a support flotilla accompanying your missions. Get past the cheese, and you can find plenty of narratives to gorge on.
However, like many VR experiences, mission lengths are kept short to minimize the potential for motion sickness. Even though it might be spread out over a number of play sessions stretching out for a few weeks, there are roughly five hours of content to chew through. Whether that’s worth the premium price tag that Skydance is asking for is a more difficult question.
Even so, Archangel is a giant-sized step in the right direction for VR on the console, delivering a mechanically satisfying experience despite those shortcomings. With further launches planned for both Oculus Rift and HTC Vive later this year, this might be one to keep an eye on.
SCORE – 7.5/10
+Immersive mech experience
+Great use of VR and Move
+Solid voice acting
-Long load times