Arizona Sunshine is something of an elder statesperson of VR gaming. Originally released on Steam in December 2016, it was one of the earliest titles to showcase VR as a medium for long-form FPS storytelling, rather than just being fit for shooting galleries. Three years later, after countless updates, it’s landed on the Oculus Quest.
FREDDY OR NOT, HERE I COME
It’s a game about shooting zombies and moving forwards. Not particularly ambitious or original as pitches go, perhaps, but the proof is in the pudding. You play as an unnamed feller who’s making his way through a remote part of Arizona during a zombie apocalypse. At the start of the game, he wakes up in a makeshift camp. A zombie’s head, a victim of one of the traps he’s set to protect himself, rolls in. You assume control, pick up a gun, and away you go.
RETURN OF THE LIVING FRED
The gameplay beats are simple; you explore, scavenge containers and drawers for ammo, and shoot zombies. There are other limited interactions, like finding keys to progress, but nothing that might be construed as a puzzle. Every so often, something will cause a zombie horde to come running, and you’d better pray you’ve found all the bullets you’ll need to survive.
The simple plot is that the anonymous protagonist is trying to find some other human survivors, slowly making his way to a compound where an automated radio broadcast is claiming there’s an enclave of safety. Sound familiar? That’s because it is. Deliberately so. It’s carefully designed to inhabit many of the tropes of zombie stories we’ve become used to in recent years.
Where Arizona Sunshine excels, and why it continues to be popular and well-regarded years after its release, despite other VR titles having surpassed it in many ways – is in its execution. Not in terms of its disparate elements, but the way it coheres. It’s not a graphical showcase, the plot is simple, and there’s a layer of jankiness to the whole thing which betrays its age. But the gunplay is perfect, the feel is sublime. For all the lack of polish in interactions like opening doors and climbing ladders, the headshots feel just right. Reloading is a button press and a quick pull of the gun towards the belt – not Pavlov-style realism, but just enough interaction to feel immersive. There’s always enough ammo if you carefully scavenge; the zombies are a threat en masse, but individually they’re sorrowful things, and taking them out feels like a matter-of-fact, pragmatic gesture.
The overall click and feel of it is crucial; compared to the other zombie shooters on Quest, Death Horizon and Drop Dead: Dual Strike Edition, Arizona has by far a meatier and more convincing shooty-bang. It’s superior to most VR shooters that I’ve played, in fact.
PRETENDING TO BE FRED
The gameplay in Arizona Sunshine serves the straightforward narrative perfectly, and this is backed up by the pivotal central performance by Sky Soleil as the player. This gives the game its identity. The cheery everyman could be just another generic dudebro, but there’s real depth here. He cheerily refers to the zombies as ‘Freds’ and ‘Freddies’, talking to them as if they’re friends as he guns them down. He’s a guy who’s seen a lot by the time we join him in the game, but he isn’t a standard ex-military grunt. As the game goes on, his cheeriness evaporates, and it’s clear that his joviality has been masking clawing loneliness and despair at his situation. The voice work is excellent in a way that belies the simplicity of the narrative and sells the setting more than any number of contrived plot twists or a vapid supporting cast, could have done.
Arizona Sunshine is not a good-looking game, even in its original Steam incarnation. It’s quite bland and simple, with some less than stellar texture work – I’m looking at you, wooden doors that look like bacon! This is obviously true of the Quest version, too, with other factors like pop-in of scenery and objects factoring in now. The zombies look OK, with a nice variety of models, but the geometry is sometimes so simplistic it all seems a bit early Playstation 2. The upside of this though is that the game runs smoothly on the Quest, and in fact, the loading times are infinitely better than the PC and PSVR versions too.
Where the game comes alive is its brilliant use of audio. The guns all sound great, and there’s good positional audio which means you can hear quite accurately where the Freds are shuffling and moaning from. This, coupled with the lovely untethered freedom of the Quest headset, makes this version by far the best version of Arizona Sunshine you can play.
Jonathan van den Wijngarden‘s score is excellent too, with just the right amount of foreboding and atmosphere. It conveys the loneliness of our hero’s situation and the baking sun, without ever being invasive or overbearing.
FRED WITH FRIENDS
Online multiplayer is an excellent feature of the game and one which will give the title considerable longevity, above and beyond the roadmap of additional content which is on its way in 2020. The entire campaign can be played co-op with a friend, which works really well as a whole. There are some annoyances. There are a couple of sections where it rubber bands you together in a restrictive way, meaning you can’t entirely have one player sniping overwatch while the other runs among the Freddies. Items crucial to progress are ‘tied to the host’, meaning they can only be picked up or activated by the player hosting the game, which is a bit silly. But it’s great fun otherwise, and quite painless to set up. It’s great fun to play through the campaign with a friend.
VERSUS THE HORDE
Where it really shines though is the Horde mode, which can be played single or multiplayer. You know the drill; you have an arena in which you fight waves of Freddies of increasing numbers, and more ammo and weapons spawn in every so often. It’ll test your accuracy and grace under fire, not to mention your friendships if you’re playing co-op. Enormous fun and the two-handed weapon update that has just dropped is superb, adding rifles and machine guns to the game which are a joy to use.
FREDDY FOR THE BIG TIME
Arizona Sunshine is an early achievement for VR which stands the test of time, despite some technical shortcomings and dated visuals. It’s found its natural home on Quest, with a solid conversion that benefits greatly from being cable-free. It’s maybe a touch expensive, but I’d still recommend it as it’s the most solid and satisfying zombie shooter FPS in VR to date, and unique on the Quest. With quite a bit of content already and more to on the way, there’s certainly enough here to keep you going if you buy into it.