If it seems slightly odd to fly all the way to San Francisco to play a game demo designed by Londoners, set in London and even named after the capital, it’s no stranger than falling through an invisible desk and stubbing your thumb on the floor as you grasp for a non-existent gun magazine.
I did both.
So immersed in the game world was I that it seemed completely plausible that you could lean on the desk in front of you while you dodged under gunfire. Except, as we’ve established, there was no desk. Just a rather hard floor a bit further down than expected. My thumb still aches as I type this, in fact, but it’s a war wound worn with pride. This is how virtual reality is supposed to be: tense, engaging, all consuming, shifting your perspective.
When I fell to the ground, I didn't curse the game, I cursed myself.
The London Heist by SCE London Studio is a short demo much like most that have come on Project Morpheus, PlayStation’s upcoming VR headset for PS4, but it is the first to feel like the first level of a proper game. If this was an episodic download, I would be coughing up for the season already.
Beginning in a sitting position, you’re tied to a chair and threatened by a towering goon with a propane torch in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The lit fag soon ends up in your face, and if anyone says they didn’t flinch, I call bullshit. But the ringtone of his phone cuts through the tension, a handset that you’re soon taking off him as you stand and click the Move trigger and, in a touch of positional-audio genius, a voice comes out of the controller as you move it to your ear, searching for answers.
You’re then thrust into a flashback where you must live out a heist gone wrong, rooting around an ornate, Rapture-esque desk in search of basic logic puzzles (“Oh look a key… I wonder what that opens”) before uncovering a diamond, setting off an alarm and alerting various enemies to your presence.
From then on it’s a Mad Dog McCree-style static shootout, you ducking behind the gun magazine-covered desk as you pop aggressors with a point and press of the Move controller, loading clips with a satisfying snap of the other. We manage to pick off a few, though are eventually downed by a rogue sniper from a balcony we’ve missed in our room sweep. Bastard.
What’s thoroughly game-changing, though, is you never once question you’re in a game, or that you’re wearing a big plastic mask, or that you’re behaving like a complete wally in front of a room full of press. It’s a testament to how comfortable Sony has made the second-generation Morpheus headset, how seamless the new tracking tech is and how engaging SCEE London Studio as made the demo.
I've tried every iteration of Oculus's Rift, the original Morpheus, even Google Cardboard, and have never found myself so entirely, fantastically lost in the moment, As the ever-so-slightly pervy Summer Lesson has shown in Japan, sharing virtual space with another fairly rounded character really points to where this tech can go in terms of interaction and widening our experiences.
Sure, there are issues; Sony needs to overcome the “how do you move around” problem that dogs any VR experience that isn’t static. The other demos require you to either be sat down in cockpits, on chairs, or stuck in shark cages. The London Heist’s visceral action means that once you’ve found the diamond, you want to throw it in your back pocket and leg it – but you can’t. You’re stuck fighting off your assailants with desk-hiding and gunfire… till you run out of bullets, that is.
An updated Move controller with both tracking bulb and thumbstick on should clear this up, allowing you to manipulate space in relative safety. It needs to, too, as at this speed of iteration, and if the demos get any more realistic, people will be chucking themselves out of windows to escape their digital assailants when it launches first half of next year.