Hands-on: Battlewake Delivers Frenetic High-seas Mayhem with a Splash of Smart VR Design

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Survios, the studio behind Raw Data (2017) and Creed: Rise to Glory (2018), is getting ready to release their next big VR soon, a pirate-themed nautical combat game called Battlewake. The game is set to launch on Rift, Vive, and PSVR sometime this summer.

I got a chance to pop in not once, but twice into the Battlewake demo, playing at GDC 2019 in March behind closed doors, and again at E3 in June. My biggest take home from both of these demos: Battlewake is an arcade-style romp that—thanks to some smart VR design choices—will allow anyone to pick up almost immediately. It remains to be seen whether the game can keep up the frenetic pace for the full 20-chapter campaign while continuously delivering unique and interesting enemy ships and monsters, but from what I’ve seen it certainly has a good start.

Set aboard my pirate ship, I’m given control of different cannons, guns, ultimate abilities, and of course my trusty giant steering wheel. Standing in place at the helm, I’m alone on my ship (it’s also co-op, but the other player has their own boat), and have to blast my way through a number of objectives such as destroying defensive islands, shooting down enemy AI pirate boats of various strengths, and dealing with a gigantic Kraken—and all of it at once at certain points. You really have to keep your head on a swivel to properly prioritize targets, because as the large red dots begin to appear around you, indicating that an enemy volley is incoming, it easy to lose track of the little clipper ships nipping at your heels and knocking your health bar down.

Side note: Missions take place on bespoke maps, so if you’re hoping for a VR version of open world games like Sea of Thieves, you’ll need to look elsewhere. The game is also entirely set aboard boats.

Shooting and piloting the ship simultaneously is deceptively simple, however I have to admit that by providing a ‘convenient’ way of controlling two of the most important tasks, it does limit immersion somewhat in favor of more accessible combat. Those are arcade controls for you though.

On that note, you have what I call ‘automatic grabby hands’. They not only stick to your wheel whenever you hand is near it, but when you tear them away from the wheel they automatically engage targeting reticles of various types depending on where you’re aiming/what gun is automatically activated. In all practicality though, you’ll be keeping a single hand on the wheel as you fire left or right with your free hand. On the sides, you might have long-range cannons; on the front you could have machine guns. On the back, you might have mortars (all of them are configurable).

And while I’d prefer to have more object-based interactions, this all makes sense from the studio’s perspective. Battlewake isn’t just being built to serve at-home consumers, but it’s also being created to plug into the company’s growing VR arcade business, which has invariably informed their design decisions; it’s slated to serve up to 10 users in PvP mode at location-based facilities.

Survios (in typical Survios fashion) has admittedly created a pretty darn unique game with Battlewake though, and a comfortable one too. Many of their games tend to rely on basically new interaction methods, however Battlewake’s comfort relies mainly on the tried and true concept of providing the user with a cockpit to keep sim sickness at bay. And while your pirate ship, with its big mast and sails, is your rock solid point of reference, Survios has also found a way to make the sea toss and rock your boat without added discomfort. They call it their Immersive Vehicle System, and while I still need more time to figure out exactly which subsystems the studio has created to deliver its comfortable sea-faring experience, suffice it to say I walked out without needing a barf bag.

Tangent: the mast and sails do obscure your forward view to a great degree, forcing you to keep moving left and right so you know where you’re going and what’s in front of you. But that’s all a part of captaining a ship I suppose.

In the end, Battlewake is one of those games that I want to love. It has a cohesive art style, seemingly plenty of weapons and upgrade possibilities, and a clear understanding of why VR comfort is important—top wishlist items for sure. I was only given a taste of the solo campaign in the demos though, which each lasted about 15 minutes, so I still have to wait and see if it can consistently deliver a steady flow of new enemy types and objectives to keep things from getting stale. When it comes to the multiplayer mode, we also still need to see how the game balances between the four available captains/boats too.

We’re sure to have more time playing the game soon though, as Battlewake is heading into closed beta this summer. Check out the trailer below:

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