PAX West 2019 Preview: Insomniac’s Stormland for Oculus Rift Debuts Its Two-Player Cooperative Mode
The virtual reality scene is moving surprisingly quickly. Last year at PAX West, there were only a few VR games at the show that felt like full modern releases in their own right, rather than a sort of full-price score attack mode. It reminded me of the early CD-ROM era in a lot of ways, when many of the games (by no means all, but many) were more about showing off the tech’s potential rather than actually doing anything interesting with it.
Then there’s Insomniac’s Stormland. It was a Cadillac project last year, when Insomniac rented a storefront near the convention center to show it off in public for the first time. While it was still clearly an unfinished production — the controllers wigged out on me about halfway through my demo — it was also more ambitious and polished than anything else at the show. Stormland has a lot of gameplay mechanics that could be, and indeed have been, made into entire standalone games by other VR studios, but here, they’re just a part of a larger whole.
At this year’s PAX West, Stormland was tucked into the Oculus booth on the fourth floor of the Washington State Convention Center, alongside games like Asgard’s Wrath and Lone Echo II. The VR scene has gotten bigger and more elaborate in the intervening 12 months, so Stormland isn’t quite as far ahead of the pack as it used to be (I’d point here to other projects like the forthcoming After the Fall), but it’s still got a strong layer of polish and craft going for it.
The game’s plot is still a little murky, but the broad strokes have been revealed. A group of androids were surveying a seemingly ideal planet that they called Stormland, which used to be the home of a human civilization. Stormland is also inhabited by a force called the Tempest, which suddenly tears the androids’ forces apart and scatters them across the planet, leaving you — a former gardener droid who’s barely functional — as their last hope.
The big feature that Insomniac brought Stormland to PAX to show off this year was its multiplayer mode, but they didn’t tell me what that would entail until I was backstage. I was half-expecting to get dropped into a VR deathmatch with a couple of Insomniac’s testers. ("We heard what you said about Fuse," they would snarl, and then the virtual beating would begin.)
As it turns out, though, Stormland’s multiplayer is a full co-op mode. You have the option to play all the way through Stormland’s campaign with a partner, drop-in/drop-out style, and even crack into its post-game content together.
It makes a lot of sense, as Stormland feels a lot like it’s designed as an introductory product for VR newbies. Its moment-to-moment gameplay is basically a polished first-person shooter, pitting you against a hostile environment and a bunch of enemy droids, with a lot of cool little extras to enhance the game’s immersion. You can look down to see your grenades slung on your chest, and where your weapons are holstered on your hips. Accessing your map requires you to rotate your left wrist so the AR display on your character’s arm lights up. The same arm also has an energy field built into it for portable cover, so if you’re caught out of position in a firefight, you can throw up your shield like Captain America and limp back to relative safety.
All that you’d need to make Stormland a decent baby’s-first-VR sort of game is a personal tour guide, and if you have a VR die-hard handy to play with you, they can fill that role.
The big rockstar moment in Stormland, both last year and this year, was how you navigate through it. The surface of Stormland is covered in small islands, each of which is handcrafted by Insomniac’s designers but are randomly placed in the world. The space between them is covered in roiling clouds, and when you need to travel between islands, you can point your hands out like you’re superhero-flying and take off at a breakneck pace across the cloud layer. It feels a lot like waterskiing. It is fun and crazy enough on its own that it’s sometimes hard to switch back to simple run-and-gunning.
(I also consistently had a problem where I’d ramp off a particularly high cloud wave and end up flying through the air, which engaged my droid’s Pilotwings-style glider function. The Insomniac developer I was playing with often had to wait a minute or so for me to figure out how to land. Sorry, man.)
After my time with it at PAX, Stormland actually ended up reminding me a lot of Ratchet & Clank. The two games share a certain ramshackle aesthetic — Stormland's crazy robots and Ratchet's crazy backwater planets match up well together — but more importantly, both games have a seething distaste for crates.
You can smash pretty much anything that doesn’t run away fast enough in Stormland to gather currency or resources, which are used to upgrade your weapons at certain stations scattered throughout the world. Those weapons are fairly standard-issue first-person shooter guns, but each one has a more interesting alt-fire that’s activated by taking a two-handed grip on the weapon. The submachinegun becomes a long rifle, and the grenade launcher acquires the ability to fire mines with a proximity fuse.
I did get the feeling from the PAX demo that if both players are roughly of the same skill level, you’d probably want to either split up or turn up the difficulty, but that’s a hard call to conclusively make from a highly curated sample of the final game. It did seem like most of the robots we fought were falling right over.
I was also told by Insomniac’s Tim Salvitti, senior community developer on Stormland, that there’s a substantial challenge-based endgame available after the completion of the story campaign. Once you’ve cleared the final mission, the world “shifts,” enabling you to work your way towards three new, more challenging realms in the Tempest. It could very well be that the multiplayer is actually balanced around co-op in the endgame, which means there’s a real challenge waiting for you and a friend after the credits roll.
Insomniac’s Stormland will be published by Oculus during 2019’s holiday season for the Rift and all related platforms. As Stormland’s production predates the recent acquisition of Insomniac by Sony, it’s unaffected by that deal.
For more coverage from PAX West 2019, be sure to head over to our PAX West 2019 hub.