Sometimes porting a videogame to virtual reality (VR) may not be about enhancing immersion so much as improving mechanics. There are certain genres that would benefit more from the inclusion of head-tracking input than the feeling of presence itself. The tower defence genre, for example, enjoys precision control using head-tracking technology, as do other experiences such as gallery shooters and strategy role-playing games (SRPGS).
Perhaps the best showcase of this on the Gear VR head-mounted display (HMD), however, is Smash Hit, a port of Mediocre’s 2014 stylish mobile shooter. This is an on-rails shooter unlike anything you’ve seen before, putting players on a straight path that’s ever pushing forward. Panes of glass in all shapes and sizes will litter the course in front of you, and it’s your job to avoid taking damage by breaking them with a limited number of marbles that you throw out in front of you.
The challenge here is to keep a healthy stock of marbles. Certain glass structures will provide you with more ammo in increments of three, five and ten, but hitting an object in your path before clearing it out of the way will result in the loss of 10 marbles. It will also cost you your multiplyer which, instead of raising a score, concerns the amount of balls you’ll fire with one shot. For every ten refill objects you hit you’ll have one more marble added to a single shot, capping out at five per shot. These still only count as one marble fired, however.
While a perfectly competent on-rails shooter on its own, the joy of Smash Hit is really in the destruction you’ll cause as you tear the environment to pieces. It’s a particularly impressive sight for mobile VR, as glass will realistically smash into shards exactly where the player makes contact. It’s a physics funhouse that also plays a key role in the mechanics, as later trials will have you smashing specific areas to clear the path ahead. Structures also become more complex, as you’ll soon be taking out wireframe diamonds, mallet-shaped swinging hazards and even panes attached to rope that you’ll have to remove.
These core mechanics are easy to get a hold of and the title’s campaign gives you plenty of time to do so. The first handful of the 50 rooms in the campaign (most of which take around a minute to get through) are a breezy stroll in which you can acclimatise to the VR and also soak in the stylish, futuristic visuals. Smash Hit’s presentation looks like a cross between Rez and Minecraft; almost everything comes in blocks but they’re drenched in bright colours, looking almost robotic. Sticking with the Rez comparisons, the music is also synchronised with the action, which adds to the immersion.
It doesn’t take long for the title to step up and deliver a more demanding experience, though. What starts out at a slow pace, giving you plenty of time to adjust, soon develops into a more challenging shooter in which you must keep your wits about you. Negotiating later levels in which you’ll have to take down multiple structures while also keeping an eye out for ammo can be wonderfully tense, and throwing your head around to make well-placed last minute hits is one of the biggest thrills going on Gear VR right now. Make sure the Gear VR is strapped on tight, though, as some segments will require reactions so fast you might move the HMD itself off course.
Crucially Smash Hit mixes up its trials in ways that will keep you interested. Laser grids, in which you must hit a specific block to clear the path, are introduced early on, then later mixed with glass panels that will block their range. Smash the glass that’s in your way and you’ll let the lasers through, forcing you to take a much more methodical approach to the action, piling on the pressure. Ammo refills also start to dwindle in both consistency and worth, as leaving one on-screen for even a few seconds can reduce it from ten to five on the refill count and then down to three.
Once you’ve completed the campaign – which will take one sitting – Smash Hit seamlessly transitions into an Endless Mode for those that want to keep going. Here you’ll pass through room after room until you’re out of ammo, which shouldn’t take too long as some of the trials can be quite punishing.
All of this action does come at the cost of comfort to some degree. For the majority of the campaign gameplay Smash Hit is perfectly accommodating, but breaking objects into tiny pieces can result in a moment’s slowdown which, however slight, is a jarring experience. Oddly, this seems to happen more in the earlier levels when things are less hectic, but aren’t completely eradicated throughout. The camera also starts to spin through some rooms, which can really put strain on your ability to keep focused. Thankfully, this only happens a handful of times and doesn’t last for more than a minute or so.
Smash Hit is a stylish, unique experience for Gear VR that’s certainly worth experiencing despite some small setbacks. Mediocre has created a compelling, admirable showcase for the power of both mobile videogames and VR videogames that’s unlike anything else you’ll find on this young platform.