Sony’s key launch title for the PSVR2 is a new spin-off from the Horizon series, but is it a proper game or just another tech demo?
The concept of the killer app is not something you hear much about nowadays. The idea of a game so good it makes you want to buy the hardware it runs on still exists but, compared to the days of Super Mario World and Halo, it’s less common for them to be launch titles. What you do usually get at launch is something that, regardless of its qualities as a game, acts as a technical demonstration of what the new device can do, and that’s very much the role Call Of The Mountain plays for PlayStation VR2.
Astro’s Playroom was the equivalent for the launch of the PlayStation 5, but while it was never presented as anything but a fun little introduction to the console, Call Of The Mountain is a proper game. Not an especially long one, at around eight hours, but this is a full-fledged single-player experience featuring a brand new story set in the Horizon Forbidden West universe.
It’s not an open world adventure though and playing this and other launch titles it’s clear that many of the limitations of VR gaming are not going to be solved simply by making the screens higher resolution. There is a decent amount of combat in Call Of The Mountain but if you were going to pigeonhole it into one particular genre you’d have to say that it was primarily a climbing simulator.
One of the strangest things about Call Of The Mountain is that it makes absolutely zero effort to explain the setting of Horizon. At no point does anyone say why you being a Shadow Carja is a bad thing, what Meridian is and why you should care that it’s under threat, or, most importantly, what the deal is with all the giant robot animals.
Seeing as everyone is running around like prehistoric tribespeople, against a background of a post-apocalyptic modern world, the lack of context is baffling and we’ve no idea what anyone that doesn’t know Horizon is going to think of it all.
Perhaps Sony assumes anyone that’s going to shell out for a PlayStation VR2 has probably already played one of the existing games, but this is clearly also going to be used as a demo for friends and family, who want to know what your new VR headset is all about.
The best way to show them is via a separate ‘safari’ option, which is a slightly extended version of the opening scene, which sees you being transported as a prisoner on a canoe, watching as various robots go about their daily lives on the riverbank. It’s all orchestrated exactly like a theme park ride and, naturally, involves them stepping over you and get into fights with each other at dangerously close range.
It only lasts a few minutes, but in those moments you’re shown exactly what the PlayStation VR2 is capable of and the vast difference in resolution and clarity compared to the original headset; that and the vastly better graphics possible on the PlayStation 5, compared to the Meta Quest 2. We’ve gone into more detail on the headset in our separate review of the hardware but while there is still a little softness to the image – exacerbated by some strange lighting choices in the game, especially the sections set around dusk – this is a real ‘the future is now’ moment.
Playing the story campaign, your boat trip naturally ends in disaster and you’re introduced to the main gameplay mechanic: climbing. Your physical presence in the game is indicated only by a pair of floating hands (which is extra disconcerting given your shadow is also just the two hands) and with these you must look out for ledges that have been sprinkled with a line of cocaine – or whatever the white substance is supposed to be – and which indicate they can be climbed on.
There’s also ropes everywhere, and porous rock and ice that you can skewer a climbing axe into, plus an expanding armoury of climbing gadgets that includes a grappling hook and a device that you stab into one conveniently placed cushion and fire at another, in order to create a zip line. It all works very well from a technical point of view, with the way you can lean out or down to grasp the next handhold requiring no tutorial or button presses beyond holding the shoulder button to grab.
We imagine most, if not all, future games are only going to use the PlayStation VR2 Sense controllers, rather than the DualSense, and here they are the only control system on offer. Their design is similar to most other modern VR controllers but while we never had any problem with their precision their battery life is perilously short and we frequently ended up pressing the screenshot or dashboard button by mistake.
It’s also very easy to become discombobulated in terms of your position in the real world, which means a constant danger of tripping over the cable that connects the headset to the console – which we managed to completely yank out on one occasion.
You can play the game in one of three positions: sitting, standing or using the headset in roomscale mode. The latter means you can walk and move around exactly as you would in real life, but this requires at least a 2m square space. Unfortunately, that’s not going to be easy for everyone considering that, unlike the Meta Quest, the headset has to be tethered to the console.
Standing works fine, and means you don’t lose out on any functionality, but you do always have less room than you think, before you’re warned that you’re going out of bounds or are about to put a fist through your TV. Although at least the headset is kind enough to warn you.
Call Of The Mountain doesn’t really need roomscale mode but there is one short stealth section, in the middle of the game, where you need to physically duck down in low grass, while waiting for the perfect moment to scurry to the next bit of cover. It’s incredibly simple, and over almost before it’s begun, but it’s a fantastic indication of how much difference literally being in the game makes to otherwise very familiar mechanics.
The flipside of that is when you’re handling objects – particularly recurring side quests where you’re stacking rocks or hitting gongs with a stick – where it’s offputtingly obvious that nothing has any weight to it. This seems to partly be a fault of the game’s physics engine, since even rockfalls, that you have nothing to do with, don’t look real, but it immediately spoils the sense of immersion and yet we’re not sure what can really be done to fix it.
The combat is just as simplified as the stealth, since you move at a snail’s pace and it would be too disorientating to be jumping and rolling out of the way. There’s a huge range of comfort settings but we found the default one worked perfectly, with no need to fine tune anything. We have had a lot of experience with VR, but it’s been a while since we’ve played it much and for the first few hours there was definitely a mild discomfort.
This disappeared by the halfway point though, as we regained our sea legs, and we never had a problem with nausea again. We say that with two important caveats, the first and most important being that everyone is different, based on their own physiology and experience with VR. The second is that, knowing how these things go, we made sure to turn using our body and not the right stick.
The minute you touch the camera controls you can feel your brain scrambling to escape out the nearest orifice, which is not a pleasant sensation. As long as the right stick isn’t used though, everything is fine, although, again, your mileage may vary. Although we do appreciate the fact that the headset’s new eye tracking system means you can engineer minor direction changes just by looking where you want to go, which also seems to limit the amount of nausea.
Combat is almost solely based around a bow and arrow, with multiple different warheads borrowed from the existing games (which, again, Call Of The Mountain makes no effort to explain). Using the bow works just like real life as you aim, put the arrow into its notch, and pull. For years now, bows have frequently been one of the most satisfying weapons to use in a first person shooter and it’s even better in virtual reality, especially as you can literally feel the arrow sliding across the bow, thanks to some super subtle haptic feedback.
Since you can’t run around wherever you want during a fight you instead end up moving along a pre-set circuit around enemies, as if you’re moving along a grind rail. It’s highly contrived but the problems it’s trying to avoid are real, so again it’s hard to know what else could be done. Fights do still look and feel very impressive, even if some of the creatures are repeated a few too many times. However, combat isn’t more than 20% of the game, with everything else just being climbing and a few simple, but enjoyably physical, puzzles.
The very obvious issue here, which you’re probably thinking to yourself as you read this, is that climbing is not really all that interesting. Apart from momentary uncertainty as to where to go next, it requires no skill and is by its nature very repetitive. It also means that despite all the amazing VR graphics you spend an awful lot of your time just looking at a cliff wall and pondering on the fact that the texture work isn’t quite as good as you expected.
Once you do get to the top of whatever you’re climbing the view is always magnificent, both in terms of scale and the unnerving sense that you really are standing at the top of a very tall mountain. (Sony seems to have a fetish for exploiting common phobias with its VR games. Farpoint is a waking nightmare for arachnophobes and we’d assume Call Of The Mountain is the same if you suffer from acrophobia.)
As a tech demo for PlayStation VR2, Call Of The Mountain works extremely well but while Astro’s Playroom was free with every console this most certainly is not. It’s very expensive for an eight hour adventure, that you’ll probably never play again – except to let curious friends see how it works. And while there is a headset bundle that reduces its price a little, value for money is a real issue.
At the same time, this is not something that anyone’s going to buy on an impulse. If you’re interested in Call Of The Mountain it’s because you’re already interested in PlayStation VR2 and know full well what you’re getting yourself into. You can see where the money was spent, and it does do very well at demonstrating the headset’s capabilities, but like all tech demos its entertainment value is fleeting.
Horizon Call Of The Mountain review summary
In Short: An effective tech demo but it struggles to be anything else, not least because for the majority of the time it’s just a fairly vanilla climbing simulator.
Pros: The graphics and sense of immersions are superb, especially the wonderful bow and arrow. Effective use of all the headset’s abilities, including the new Sense controllers.
Cons: Climbing isn’t very interesting and yet it’s most of the game. Stealth is underdeveloped and combat necessarily simplistic. Nobody ever bothers to explain the setting.
Formats: PlayStation VR2
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Firesprite and Guerrilla Games
Release Date: 22nd February 2023
Age Rating: 12
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