A simian VR shooter so faulty it’ll drive you bananas.
The rebooted Planet of the Apes movies are a trilogy of thoughtful, morally complex blockbusters that pose serious questions about what it means to be human. By contrast, Crisis On the Planet of the Apes – a VR shooter that takes place between 2014’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and last summer’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – is repetitive, old-fashioned (as much as you can be in VR), and often all but unplayable, and the only question it poses is about your tolerance for pain.
The campaign runs about two and a half hours but feels 10 times that long – not a compliment, needless to say. Crisis makes familiar references to Caesar and the outbreak of Simian Flu, but in every other respect it has less in common with the new Planet of the Apes series than with the much-reviled Tim Burton film. It invites you to experience the world through the eyes of a nominally intelligent chimpanzee determined to escape the detention facility where it’s been confined under armed guard. I say nominally intelligent because it’s so difficult to get your primate avatar to do what you want it to do, and so awkward to perform even the most basic actions, that it’s impossible to believe you’re the astonishing evolutionary specimen the scientists you encounter insist you are. A random observer watching you struggle clumsily to pick up objects or walk forward would assume you’re nothing more than a regular monkey, and possibly a drunk one.
Granted, movement is a problem VR in general has yet to really solve, and Crisis offers a not-uninteresting and thematically appropriate take on it: walking is mapped to the Move controllers, which means you use motion control to lumber forward like a chimpanzee knuckle-walking around. In theory, this might make you feel more authentically simian; in practice, it simply does not work. Partly that’s because you can only walk in fixed lines to predetermined destinations, each set a few feet apart and indicated by an opaque monkey silhouette in the near distance. You click the silhouette, row your hands like you’re dog-paddling, and suddenly you’re drifting over to your target. It’s a poor substitute for the more common teleportation method of locomotion in VR and adds nothing to the sensation of realism.
There’s such little freedom that the action might as well be on rails.
Worse, the targeted knuckle-walking is painfully slow, likely a precautionary measure to reduce motion sickness that ends up making your ape seem vaguely enfeebled – and it’s not optional. This is maddening enough when you’re asked to move from objective to objective at your leisure, but when Crisis occasionally conspires to mount a breakneck chase sequence, the glacial pace of movement seems ludicrous — on multiple occasions I found myself gunned down by machine gun fire in a slow-motion getaway as though I’d inhabited not an ape’s body but a sloth’s. There’s such little latitude or freedom that the action might as well be on rails.
And Crisis On the Planet of the Apes does indeed feel like a rail shooter at times. More specifically, it feels like an arcade rail shooter from the early ‘90s, or one of those bargain-bin rail shooter ports that occasionally popped up on the Wii, such as Resident Evil Umbrella Chronicles or Dead Space Extraction. Here, enemies – all of them indistinguishable military types in feature-obscuring body armor who bark generic one-liners like “you damn ape!” – stand behind various walls and pillars before leaning out and firing at a rhythm that never varies. You shoot them, more identical-looking enemies rush in to take their place, and when the room is cleared you’re given the go-ahead to move on.
If your finger slips you will drop your gun entirely.
These enemies are predictable and easy to kill. Or rather they would be easy to kill, were you in full command of your facilities at any time. Instead you are left to wrestle with the ungainly controls, which require you to pick up weapons using the same button used to both walk and climb; you have to keep pressing this button as long as you want to aim and fire, and if your finger slips for even a fraction of a second you will drop the gun entirely. It’s so poorly configured that merely holding on to a gun for the duration of a firefight is an accomplishment worth celebrating. Likewise, ammunition is littered around the world in magazines that, in typical VR fashion, you pick up and snap into place – only these are similarly hard to handle, and if you drop them they instantly evaporate.
The act of firing them isn’t very interesting, either, since there are only three different guns available and there are no grenades, projectiles, power-ups, med kits, or other special items to speak of to add variety. Given how irritating it is to pick anything up, that is probably for the best.
When you’re not shooting in Crisis, you’re climbing, and over time the action sequences are so mind-numbingly monotonous that I came to yearn for these brief respites. The climbing mechanic feels somewhat intuitive at first: you reach out and grab certain objects, such as exposed pipes or protruding bricks on a wall, and pull yourself up toward the next one. But because back in the real world you’re standing on the floor, you never get any sense that you’re supporting your own weight, which makes the whole process feel strangely light and insubstantial.
Most of the times I died were a result of technical error: my gun was stuck in a crate, or my head was lodged inside a wall, or the camera failed to pick up my Move controller at a critical moment. Several times it outright crashed and I was forced to restart a stage from the beginning. I had to replay a 45-minute run-and-gun section no fewer than three times, owing to glitches and a cruelly conservative autosave system.
Of course, even if its minor problems were resolved, even if the tech worked flawlessly, Crisis On the Planet of the Apes would be a superficial action game lacking the depth and seriousness of the movies on which it’s based. It’s hard, after all, to ponder the philosophical implications of the scenario when you’re barreling through a prison with a machine gun, mowing down dozens upon dozens of faceless, nameless military guards. By the end of the campaign, when after yet another interminable stretch of shooting you’re asked to actually care about the fate of one of your ape compatriots, it starts to seem insulting that this game has the nerve to align itself with these films. This isn’t serious. It’s monkey business.