[Disclosure: A review key was provided for the contents of this article]
I wanted to like Skydance Interactive’s Archangel, I really did. The premise seemed like the sort of thing that would finally make VR feel like a real thing… like a must-have device. I mean, who wouldn’t want to imitate walking around in a several story high mechanized war machine known as an Archangel, blowing up ships, punching through bridges and firing off salvos of devastating armament? Seems rad, right? Well, unfortunately Archangel isn’t the game that PSVR owners should look to as the killer app for Sony’s headset.
I’m not going to waste a lot of time on every aspect of the game here, but I will say that the best part about Archangel is the voice-acting. It’s far superior than any other aspect of the game, and it really took me by surprise.
The story centers around Gabriel Walker, a grieving mech pilot who loses everything in an attack by HUMNX, an evil corporation running the world. The plot is pretty much B-movie territory, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s just a vehicle to compel gamers to pick up the PlayStation Move controllers, strap on the PlayStation VR headset, and blow HUMANX crap up.
The problem, however, is that Archangel is more frustrating than fun.
I was willing to overlook a lot of the issues with the game, especially in the graphics department; such as the drab art assets, which seem to consist of PlayStation 2 quality backdrops, buildings and environmental assets. It’s no joke, just check out the in-game screenshot below.
Particle, smoke and action effects aren’t much better. You can see the vector face where smoke emits from some of the objects, giving it a one dimensional look if you attempt to peer around the object, such as the smoke that bellows out of the cockpit when the mech’s hull meter gets too low.
There’s also the technical issue of dealing with chromatic aberration, which is typical in most games running on the Unreal Engine 4, but it stood out in particular in Archangel due to the very visible pixel steps, which gave off the impression that the game appeared to be running at 720p without any major MSAA, especially for objects in the distance. The significance of this is that it makes it hard to see some objects and causes eye-strain when attempting to zero in on distant targets.
There did appear to be some sort of temporal anti-aliasing when looking around at objects in close or immediate range of the player, such as the cockpit controls inside the mech. To their credit, the mech detail looks fantastic; the arms, AI dongle and cockpit itself is designed quite well. However… everything else outside of the mech is a blurry, jagged mess.
This leads to another major problem. Due to the washed out colors, low resolution and lack of anti-aliasing, what happens is that there’s a really, really, major problem with seeing the reticules for both hands.
Archangel is a rail-shooter like old-school 3D arcade games, so you don’t have to worry about moving the mech around. When using the PlayStation Move controllers you can switch weapons with the top face buttons for the left and right arm, activate the shields for the left or right arm and fire the weapons with the triggers.
The major problem is that while each Move wand controls the left and right hand, you can’t always tell which hand you’re moving in which direction due to the reticules almost looking identical at times.
The yellowish-orange tint combined with the brownish gray backgrounds would oftentimes force me to waggle around the wand just to see where the reticule for each hand actually was. Things get worse when the action really kicks up and explosions start filling up the screen. It’s easy to lose your place because the mech arms don’t take up much screen space, so you have to rely on the position of the reticules when it comes to picking targets and blocking incoming fire.
And here is where things get even more complicated. You need to use the lower face buttons on the Move controller to activate the shields. What’s cool is that you have to manually move the arm around to block incoming fire, what’s not cool is that you can’t fire (for a majority of the game) when your shields are up.
This mechanic requires a lot of stop-and-go shield usage, which also respositions the reticule, so what ends up happening is that if a bunch of tanks start shooting at you and some aerial craft start peppering you with fire, if you have to move both arms over to the left to block the incoming fire, it’s easy for misalignment to take place with your reticule as you attempt to block and then return fire. I died multiple times due to this issue because sometimes you’re turning your head and looking away from where your reticule is to block incoming fire and when you stop blocking, it’s easy to lose your position because the reticules blend with the environment or the effects.
For those of you wondering what could solve a problem like this, it’s rather simple: The left arm should have had a red reticule and the right arm should have had a blue reticule, or vice versa, or whatever. Anything so that the reticules didn’t blend with each other or match the effects and the background, especially when the explosions are frequent and expansive.
Now on the upside, I did actually have a lot more fun using the DualShock 4 as a wireless, motion-controlled targeting device. It was a lot more comfortable than the PlayStation Move controllers and it was certainly easier to juggle between firing the weapons and blocking with the shields than using the Wands, mostly due to the fact that the DualShock 4 control setup was just a lot more intuitive due to its simplicity.
‘X’ activates things, Square punches, left and right bumper activates the shield, and left and right triggers fire the weapons attached to the respective left and right arms on the mech. The right analog changes the weapon loadout on the left arm and the right analog changes the weapon on the right arm.
It was really easy grabbing the nano health canisters using the DualShock 4, and practically impossible at times trying to time and grab the canisters with the wands. The reason for that is because an AI companion would throw the health canisters at you and you would have to reach out and grab them. With the DualShock 4 you just held down the ‘X’ button in the direction of the canister and the mech would auto-grab it out of the air. With the wands, you would manually have to time and target the distance to grab the canisters, and a lot of times it just did not work at all. It was another major frustration, especially during my first playthrough when I was a weak noob with no upgrades. After the second playthrough — and with the ability to recharge the hull by using precision blocking for enemy fire — it was a lot more forgivable.
But herein lies the problem with the DualShock 4: Since each arm was designed to block the entire left or right hemisphere of the mech, you’re unable to get full coverage with the controller, since it only has one reticule in the center of the screen instead of two. So when using the PlayStation Move controllers it was possible to use the left wand to block the entire left side from top to bottom, and still fire with the right arm (or vice versa). Since you only have one reticule with the DualShock, it made it a lot more difficult to perform akimbo moves like blocking with one hand and firing with the other, the way you could with the wands.
I know I’ve spent the majority of this review on the controls and technical drawbacks, but that’s because that’s what makes up for the majority of the gameplay.
There are just over a handful of stages, including the tutorial stage, and you can beat the game in your first playthrough on the normal difficulty setting in about two or three hours, give or take.
A second playthrough can be done in less than half that time once you get the upgrades and better understand the limits of the controls. I played through the game the first time with the PlayStation Move and then gave it a second playthrough with the DualShock 4.
While the DualShock 4 was a lot more comfortable than the wands, the wands offered a bit more precision with the shielding and firing, and you kind of needed the shields big time if you actually wanted to survive.
The give and take nature of the controls really made it hard to get entirely comfortable with the game to the point where I could say I had unbridled and passionate fun, because that moment never really came. There was also the issue of the blurry low resolution and washed out textures that made it difficult to play the game for a long period of time without suffering from eye strain and ocular fatigue.
The limitations of the PlayStation 4 hardware were really on display with Archangel, as the game was able to maintain smooth frame-rates but it came at the cost of visual fidelity. It’s hard to feel immersed when you’re counting pixel steps on a jagged cliff surface with smeared textures.
A lot of the Unreal Engine 4’s high-end capabilities just could not be employed here, and I feel as if this game was done a huge disservice due to the PlayStation 4’s low hardware ceiling and the PlayStation VR’s poor rendering output. On a big screen HDTV, Archangel actually looks good running at native 1080p, but in the VR headset it’s a whole different story.
On better hardware I think Archangel could be a decent VR rail-shooter. But due to the technical limitations, the washed out assets, and the somewhat awkward controls, it’s hard to recommend a game like this when other more solid titles like Superhot VR and Arizona Sunshine are available on the platform. So for $39.99, sadly I’m going to have to say…
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