Release Date: January 6, 2017
Genre: Action, third-person shooters
Game Modes: Single
Control: Gamepad required
Fun fact: the Chinese characters used on the developer site for this game’s name directly translate to “GRAND THEFT AUTO CITY”. I’m going to venture a wild guess and say they probably had to change the English name to City Avenger for copyright reasons. The developer makes this comparison right up front, but don’t expect anything close to GTA. Serious Sam might have been a better comparison, although not as instantly recognizable. Comparisons notwithstanding, the Gear VR is lacking in shooters that aren’t stationary or on rails, and I welcomed City Avenger with cautious optimism. Unfortunately, while the action is engaging at times, a number of flaws keep City Avenger from being a must-have title.
City Avenger is all about fast, non-stop action, hence the Serious Sam reference. You blast your way through a series of 12 stages, each one presenting you with a single objective; basically go in and fill a kill-quota on a specific enemy type to end the stage. It’s dead simple, but the action is remarkably satisfying. You can shoot boxes to reveal weapons like shotguns, assault rifles, and rocket launchers, which offer new and satisfying ways to deal destruction. Health is available in the form of pain killers and beer, and cash, gold, and jewels are strewn about the level as collectables. You can use this cash to unlock what are essentially cheats for the game; infinite ammo, invincibility, and more powerful weapons. The game isn’t particularly difficult, and just keeps getting easier with every cheat you unlock, but levels remain satisfying, at least for a little while.
One of the coolest things about the game is the destructible environments. From boxes to vehicles to buildings, nearly every single item can be blown up or knocked down. It’s not especially realistic when you manage to demolish an entire city block with only your basic pistol, but it will put a smile on your face. There seems to be a wild inconsistency in how things explode though; cars explode as video games have taught us, but shooting a tree or fire hydrant often causes a massive chain reaction taking out all trees on the block and brings down the buildings in the process. It’s like the developer just said “screw it, make everything explode”.
The ability to commandeer vehicles was likely added specifically to mirror Grand Theft Auto. Sports cars, police cars, trucks, buses and tanks are all available, but there is ultimately very little motivation to do so. Even if you ignore the abysmal vehicle controls (I’ll get to that in a moment), there’s really no benefit to driving around. The stages are big, but not so big you’ll need a car to travel across them, and you can’t use your weapons from inside the car, severely limiting your attack options.
The controls have some pretty serious issues. A gamepad is required to play, and your forward/back/strafing motions are controlled by the left stick. Turning is controlled by your head, which is a normal countermeasure for motion sickness, but the more advanced VR players will miss the ability to quickly turn with the right stick. Triggers fire guns and throw grenades, and the buttons handle the HUD/map/menus. There’s no jump or climbing buttons which wouldn’t be a big deal, except for the fact that the developer has specifically placed items and power-ups in places that clearly require a jump movement. It’s maddening when you see it, and it’s a major oversight on the part of the developer.
As for the vehicle controls, they’re damn near unusable. Car controls use the stick to accelerate and brake, but force you to look-to-turn, leading to entirely unrealistic driving dynamics. So not only is there no reason to get into a car, but when you do, controlling it is a pain. The tank is slightly better since movement is entirely controlled by the stick, and the turret is head-controlled, but it seems the developers aren’t familiar with how tank treads work. It’s impossible to turn the tank when it’s at a dead stop, and turning speed is proportional to your forward speed, making low-speed maneuvers infuriating. Overall, the vehicle controls are frustrating and confusing, and copying the GTA vehicle control scheme would have been a much better option.
The graphics are unpolished, but mostly decent. The human and vehicle models are nicely detailed and textured, and the red gauge on the back of your character acts as your health meter, which is a very cool touch. The buildings are less detailed and textures repeat a lot, but they make an okay background, and they can be destroyed. The road textures get very blurry at very short distances as a result of mip-mapping, which must be have been done to keep the game running at a high frame rate. Again, it doesn’t detract from the gameplay, but it is very noticeable. The human models have minimal animation states; run, stand, shoot, and get shot. When an enemy dies, however, he jumps straight up into the air about 10 meters, hangs there for a second, and then disappears. I don’t know what effect the developer was going for here, perhaps all enemies are being taken to heaven? Falling down and fading away would have been fine, or even exploding (since everything else explodes), but this is just extremely odd.
And while we’re talking about graphics, why is this a third-person shooter? This is VR, and first-person offers far more immersion. I could understand if it was a comfort issue, but you usually just see the top of your character’s head, so it has the comfort factor of a first-person shooter anyway. Same thing with cars; a perfect opportunity to increase immersion with first-person driving, missed because… who knows. And that’s really the story of this game; missed chances and wasted potential.
The sound design is similar in quality. There’s one MIDI-esque rock-and-roll track playing loudly throughout the game, and it actually prevents you from hearing enemy noises. Enemy gun shots are super quiet to start with, so you’ll often find yourself losing health and unable to locate the shooter, when 3D sound effects would have handled this perfectly. Your gunshots, on the other hand, are plenty loud. They’re not very realistic, but they’re at least in sync with the actual shots. Beeps and chirps made when you pick up an item or eliminate an enemy/car/building are also very audible, though not entirely necessary.
If this was a small or solo indie developer, some of this might have been excusable; sound design is usually a weakness in small teams and is either outsourced or minimized. I understand that. But this is a studio that claims to specialize in VR game development, and qualiy 3D sound is just as important as the graphics, for both immersion and player feedback.
Comfort & Immserion
There aren’t a lot of first/third-person shooters on the Gear VR, so it’s hard to compare it to something regarding the level of comfort. Panzer Panic and Minecraft (don’t forget Quake!) are probably the closest things, but comfort in City Avenger is also comparable to any of the cockpit/flying shooters. Movement is kept at a constant velocity and turning is handled by looking. As I mentioned, it’s great for comfort, but some of us would like to turn with the controller, and the option would have been nice.
Immersion-wise you’re always looking over your character’s head, which breaks the sense of presence quite a bit. Other than using your head to look, there’s no reason for this game to be in VR. A third-person shooter would have been just as convincing on a PC or tablet, and I repeat that not making this a first-person shooter is a big missed opportunity. There’s actually nothing quite like this game available on the mobile VR scene, and first-person shooting and driving would have catapulted this game into Gear VR stardom.
This game has a fair share of problems. The graphics are a lacking, the death animations are weird, the sounds are mediocre, the vehicle control is awful, and there’s no way to reach the locations of certain items. There are a bunch of small issues that, if addressed properly, would significantly increase the polished feel of this game. But in it’s current form, it appears to be quite unfinished. Not game-jam unfinished, but like the developer stopped when they had something that matched about 60-70% of their vision. I really think this game could have been amazing.
Yet despite all of that, I did enjoy this game. And that’s what makes this even more difficult to understand. Even in this unfinished state, the game is loads of fun, and I want to keep playing to unlock all the cheats; the gameplay loop is solid. The 12 stages are over quite quickly and the difficulty level should have been higher, especially in the later levels, but it’s still a blast to take on the police or army by yourself. It’s the closest thing to an old-school first-person shooter on the Oculus store, and for $3 you mostly get your money’s worth. It’s definitely not Grand Theft Auto in any way, but it is surprisingly fun, despite it’s flaws.
- Addictive gameplay loop
- Destructible environments
- Fast-paced action is entertaining while it lasts
- Absolutely terrible vehicle controls
- Sound design sabotages gameplay
- Generally unfinished feel to the entire game