The holy grail of VR is presence: the absolute sensation that you are in another place, the real world on the other side of the headset simply melting away. Too many of the games that launched alongside Rift and Vive offer only the holy grail as Monty Python saw it, their little foibles and contrivances reminding you that you are sitting in your living room wearing a £700 blindfold – that those are two halves of a coconut, not horse’s hooves. Well, no more. Halfway through the all-too-brief level that comprises the first playable demo of Budget Cuts, we try to nudge our crossbow through a hole in the floor, and are stunned to find that we hit real-world carpet instead. It is some trick to make us feel that we really are lying prone on the floor in a crawlspace above an office complex patrolled by robot guards, but somehow Neat Corporation does it.
Even in its current, one-level, 20-minute form, Budget Cuts is full of tricks, but it is the physicality of it all that gets you first. You crouch behind cover, peeking over ledges and around corners. You shrink back out of sight when spotted, rummaging urgently through your inventory to grab something to fight back with. We won’t judge you if, as you lift yourself gingerly up from the floor to peer over a low wall, you try to put your hand on it and pull yourself up, the limb flapping pointlessly through thin air. We may have done precisely the same thing.
With its first VR game, Neat Corporation has solved the presence conundrum with gusto – and it doesn’t stop there. Budget Cuts sees the young Swedish studio put forward a finely considered take on player locomotion, another thorny issue in VR. Its solution is the Translocator, a term borrowed from a
similar device used in Unreal Tournament, though there is an obvious touch of Portal here too. Squeeze the trigger on the controller in your non-dominant hand and you shoot a small, spherical projectile; once it comes to rest, a window opens on the world around it. You can pan around to ensure it’s a safe spot before you commit by pressing the little-used Grip button on the side of the Vive controller. The projectile is a physics object, meaning you can fire round corners or on top of furniture. It means Budget Cuts is the first VR game to turn automated movement, a technical necessity, into a fun mechanic.
“We wanted to have a nice system for moving around, since it’s such a basic thing to do,” co-founder Joachim Holmér tells us. “The stealth mechanics came afterwards – we just noticed you could use it for looking round corners, spying on areas that are farther away. The way it works right now, it’s almost too powerful – you can look anywhere [without risk], which removes a big element of stealth games. We’re experimenting with having enemies be able to see the Translocator ball – it’s going to change quite a lot, I think.”
The guards could certainly do with a leg up. They’re quite hapless, in a cheerful sort of way – if one happens upon the corpse of a fallen comrade it emits a mechanical scream and runs laps for a while. Eventually it’ll give up and return to its post – unless it sees the corpse again, anyway. Still, enemies are quick to act when they spot you, though just slow enough on the draw for you to either duck behind cover to escape the shot, or loose off a quick throwing knife. Puzzles are simple, too – rummaging around for keys, tracing power lines to deactivate wall-mounted sentries – and Holmér says we can expect the complexity to ramp up in the final game.
But even in its current form, Budget Cuts is intoxicating, a playful little thriller that already feels remarkably fully formed as a game, while also putting forward elegant solutions to some of the biggest technical hurdles that VR developers face. It’s a huge achievement for a studio which launched with a failed Kickstarter project, went on hiatus while its founders freelanced to pay the bills, is now being funded by a shader tool Holmér sells on the Unity Asset Store, and only got into VR after bumping into Valve’s Chet Faliszek at a party during GDC.
When we speak, Holmér’s in Seattle, where he’s working on the game for a month at Valve HQ. “They help out with various things – if you’ve got technical issues, need help with design, or just playtesting, since there’s a bunch of people there that can give really good feedback,” he says. “And they just see the potential in VR, and want to help it grow. VR’s a strange new world: it’s hard to convince people about it, and to get content out there. Large companies don’t want to commit because the audience is so small. It makes sense to support smaller developers.” On this evidence, it most certainly does.
It’s the first virtual reality game to turn automated movement into a fun mechanic
You can switch freely between the various gadgets available in each hand – you’ll normally want access to the Translocator at all times, but when combat’s on the agenda, two throwing knives is a fine option
ABOVE The opening puzzle has you trace the power cable from this vent to a locked safe, which contains the off button for the vent’s forcefield. The solution is so simple it took us an age to work out – the key’s in a drawer on the desk above
LEFT Guards are either static or on fixed patrols – this one will eventually turn its back, allowing you to teleport behind it for the kill.
The demo features three gadgets: your Translocator, throwing arm and crossbow. Holmér says many more will feature in the final game
BELOW Vent hatches offer a speedy route away from trouble, though in our haste we’ve seen the Translocator bounce back off the edge
Joachim Holmér, co-founder, Neat