Note: Early Access games are subject to major changes and updates over time. This is a review of Raw Data in its current state as of 20/07/2016. An updated review of the final product will be posted when the Early Access period ends.
My mission is to extract some top-secret data from an abandoned room deep in the bowels of an enemy facility. Starting on what appears to be a floating elevator of some kind, I tap my feet impatiently until the walls surrounding me fall away and my platform reaches its destination: a large, dimly lit room with a single computer terminal located dead center. It’s clearly a trap and I know nothing good will come of it, but I don’t have a lot of options. I grudgingly pick up my hacking device and begin the data transfer. The moment I do, the whole room goes dark. I reach to my hip, pull out my trusty sidearm, and prepare for the worst as glowing-eyed figures begin to emerge from the blackness around me.
What follows is a tense firefight—unable to see enemies until they’re right on top of me, I find myself spinning around and firing uncertainly into the darkness wherever I think I see movement. Meanwhile, my enemies—crawling robot torsos, in this case—are maneuvering around me and trying to pounce onto my body, disabling my ability to move until I punch or shoot them off. Their unexpected attacks, coupled with the shrill computerized screams they emit as they leap, make this whole scenario a little unnerving, but I power through and make it to the end of the round, earning a brief rest before I have to re-engage the hack and begin the cycle anew.
This is Raw Data, a cooperative wave-defense FPS for the HTC Vive that has garnered a lot of press attention in these early days of
VR. As one of the most polished and fully-featured games shown off pre-launch, there has been a lot of coverage hailing the game as the poster child for what Roomscale VR can do for shooters. Now it’s finally out on Early Access (with a sizable $40 price tag), and I’m sad to say that while it shows a lot of potential to eventually become a fantastic product, what you’re getting for your money as of this writing is severely lacking.
That said, it does make a great first impression. When you first boot it up, you can immediately see why Raw Data would stand out in the crowd at preview events. There’s a level of style and visual polish to the game’s presentation that’s missing from all but the very best of VR games, and its menus and environments have a slick look to them. The basic mechanics are also solid, with weapons that feel great to swing and fire, and enemies that react satisfyingly when hit. There are also unlockable abilities for each of the 4 playable characters (though only 2 are available right now) that add mechanical complexity to the otherwise simple combat, with skills like sword throwing, force pushes, and slow-mo adding some fun tactical options. Skilled players can combine these in interesting ways, such as using the force push to pull enemies into a tight area, then laying into them with a ground slam to destroy a huge cluster of baddies with a single attack.
The basic conceit of the game is that you (and a friend, if you’re playing co-op) are a part of a group of cyberpunk warriors trying to take down Eden, a generic megacorporation that’s up to all kinds of nefarious stuff and needs to be stopped. The plot is thin and ultimately doesn’t matter—it provides an excuse to fight robots, and that’s enough. Each stage has you approach a terminal, begin a hack, then fend off increasingly difficult waves of enemies that attempt to destroy your Datacore, a glowing orange cube located near the terminal. Survive five waves and the mission is complete; fail and you have to restart the whole thing over again. The levels themselves start off small and see you fighting basic enemies, but by the fourth (and final) level in this build, you’re frantically teleporting around a large space while dozens of robots of all shapes and sizes attack from both land and air. There is also a rudimentary tower defense element in the latter two levels; each player can place a maximum of three auto turrets around the arena and repair them when needed. This feature shows promise, but the turrets get absolutely decimated by the AI in later rounds, making them useless when you need them most. Hopefully the team at Survios will continue to build on this idea and add more than one turret type (or at least some upgrade options) to make the structure-building mechanics a more worthwhile part of the game, but right now they’re more of a novelty than a serious strategic consideration.
"[The tower defense aspect] shows promise, but the turrets get absolutely decimated by the AI in later rounds, making them useless when you need them most."
Polished looks and good combat are nice to have, and are actually something most Early Access games lack. The problem is that almost every other aspect of this game drags these two things down in a way that almost completely ruined my enjoyment. Let’s start with the amount of content: four levels. Obviously it’s still in Early Access and the developers have a lot more planned, but we’re talking about a $40 game that’s up for sale right now. Even if you were to play through the entirety of what’s there as both classes, you could easily complete the game in under an hour. Well, if you’re playing co-op, that is. If you’re hoping to go through the game in single player, you’re not going to have a good time. Being the kind of player that prefers to roll solo, I started Raw Data on my own. The first couple of levels were simple enough and I got through them in about 20 minutes. The third, however, takes place in a much bigger area with a considerably larger enemy count, and proved to be an impassable difficulty spike that I couldn’t get anywhere close to beating, try as I might. After throwing myself against it for a couple of hours to no avail, I grudgingly decided to seek some help in the form of a co-op partner, figuring that they might be able to give me a few pointers on what I was doing wrong. This is where I made a discovery: the game’s difficulty doesn’t scale between modes at all. The reason the single player felt so insanely hard is because I was effectively playing multiplayer, but by myself. I found it laughably easy to breeze through the mission I’d been stuck on once I had a partner, but it’s downright ruthless if you don’t, which was a huge turnoff for me. I’d prefer that the developers didn’t include single player as an option at all instead of putting it in half-baked, since its inclusion had me waste a considerable amount of my time failing at something I wasn’t meant to be able to do alone.
"If you’re hoping to go through the game in single player, you’re not going to have a good time."
The nasty surprises didn’t end there either. Determined to complete the available levels, I resigned myself to play co-op and be social (the Vive has a built-in mic and Raw Data doesn’t currently allow you to mute yourself or other players, so I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter), but ran into yet another serious problem: connection errors. Roughly fifty percent of my partners would disconnect whenever the “Start Match” button was pressed, leading to a lot of frustration. Two disconnects in a row would result in the game locking up and me having to exit and restart via the SteamVR dashboard, a process that took multiple minutes. I also ran into a serious bug whenever I died: the entire game would freeze up for anywhere from 45 seconds to 3 minutes. In single player this was bad enough, but I assumed it was by design (or at the very least, an early access feature that would be replaced by a proper respawn timer at some point). In multiplayer, I found out that not only was this not supposed to happen, but that if it did I would be booted from the session upon respawn.
I eventually took to the game’s forums and found out that this was a known issue affecting certain AMD builds—just one on a long list of serious bugs the developers are aware of and plan to address in future patches. Thankfully, a few hours before I started writing this review a hotfix was released to specifically address this death glitch and a bug that was causing crashes for players with large friends lists, but even though this particular issue has been solved, the fact remains that there are a lot of technical problems plaguing Raw Data right now, and the number of known issues that are breaking/crashing the game is downright unacceptable, even for an Early Access game. Charging $40 for a product with only four levels, single player that can’t be beaten, and multiplayer that only works occasionally is bad enough. Adding widespread performance issues and bugs that result in crashes and disconnects is just downright rude.
I came away from Raw Data feeling conflicted. On the one hand, I’m very optimistic about what Raw Data will turn into in the coming weeks and months, but right now it just isn’t quite up to snuff. When it works there’s a lot to like, but more often than not it doesn’t work—and even when it does, there just isn’t enough playable content yet. It feels like it needed another month in the oven before being made available to consumers, and even then the price to content ratio would still be a problem. Sure, there’s some fun to be had with this early version of the game, but unless you’re absolutely desperate for a new Vive FPS, I’d highly recommend waiting a few months for the developers to smooth out the rough edges and add more things to do. I feel pretty confident saying that Raw Data will get to where it needs to be eventually, but it’s got a long way to go before I can recommend it in good conscience.