Onward is a well-regarded first-person military shooter that has made its way to Quest from Steam. It has, no doubt, braved barbed wire, killer dogs, and minefields on the way over. Will it clear the tangoes out from the LZ and chopper out to safety before cracking a cold beer back at HQ, or will it forget how long to cook a grenade for, blow its own arm off, and bleed out in the sand?
Before I get too far into enemy territory, a quick briefing. I won’t be describing, in detail, how a multiplayer military FPS works, or exhaustively describing all the modes that Onward contains, in this review. I’m guessing if you’re here, you’ll know a lot of this already. In terms of its feature set, the Quest version matches its PC counterpart, and the truth is out there.
What I am here to ascertain for you is if Onward is worth buying on the Quest. And I will tell you quite categorically that, as it stands now, it absolutely is not.
Onward positions itself as a serious FPS, based on the USA military. It’s so sure of its own place in the universe that it doesn’t feel the need to explain its setting. You know the drill; it’s soldiers in camo versus Russian terrorists in balaclavas. Hack the shit out of their systems and kill them all. Hoo-Rah. Dos Vedanya. Etc.
There are several different game modes, for both single, co-op and multiplayer, for up to five players per side. These will be familiar to anyone who’s played an online multiplayer before. Escort is a VIP-style mode where you must protect one of your squad against enemy forces. Uplink is a control point hacking game. And so on.
I suspect the most popular game mode, at least initially, will be ‘Hunt’. In Hunt, you can play either (co-operatively or solo) against a user-defined number of AI bots (4 to 128!) in any of the levels. Also impressive is the fact that Onward is cross-play with the Rift and other PCVR versions. The game offers a considerable number of weapons and gadgets, all of which have been well-modelled, and which require a bit more than a button press to reload. It’s not Hot Dogs & Horseshoes levels of realism, but it’s convincing. You have to practice with the different weapons to be quick at it, or even do it at all. You can also kit the weapons out with various accessories to suit your playstyle and make different load-outs. There are suppressors and scopes and foregrips and such to choose from. The variety on display here is considerable.
That’s where any praise I have for the game evaporates. Nearly everything else about it is unfinished, shoddy and broken. Let’s start with the graphics. I’m not the sort of person to beat up on something just because it isn’t cutting edge. We all know that VR, and in particular the Quest, has limits. It doesn’t stop the likes of Sairento VR: Untethered and Arizona Sunshine rising above. It’s all in how it’s handled. Everything about the Quest version of Onward feels like a PC version that has been forced gracelessly and ineptly to run on less powerful hardware. The texture work is dreadful, genuinely reminding me at times of the worst of the original PlayStation. Polygon models are basic, and they change shape, warp, and pop in as you get closer to them. Palm trees look like the sort of toilet-roll papercraft affairs my son brings back from primary school. Weapons fire looks feeble and flat; little flashes of white fondant with no impact.
Enemy combatants are spindly, simple, and almost impossible to spot amongst the shoddy texture work and pop-in, rendering tactical play almost impossible at times. They are also shoddily and basically animated, and close up are actually missing even flat polygons which makes them partially see-through. Fellow players look comically bizarre and idiotic, drifting around and moonwalking like Michael Jackson’s ghost. Stylised and retooled visuals should have been the order of the day here, not this awful mash of 1998-style graphical blunders.
BAND OF BOTHERS
It wouldn’t be so appalling if the game functioned well. Unfortunately, the technical problems aren’t limited to the game’s presentation. Bullets seem to pass through solid walls and objects, making it impossible to use cover effectively. On the Call of Duty 4-style tanker level, for example, there’s the opposite problem – there are no graphical effects to convey window glass, but bullets won’t pass through at all. Some objects, as well as looking like the work of an enthusiastic nursery school class, also seem to have even simpler hitboxes. Bullets don’t pass them for those headshots like they should and get stuck with bullet hole decals floating in mid-air.
The problem of directional sound also rears its oafish head. There’s not enough positional audio to play the game properly. Footsteps and bullets should be trackable to a keen ear, or your ‘mil-sim’ tag is worthless. On the subject of sound – what’s the ridiculous sound for dying enemies about? Thought we were meant to be taking this as seriously as Tom Clancy, not play-acting zombie death rattles for laughs.
CACK HAWK DOWN
The game starts by making you set your height, dominant hand and turning method. It comes with a grim caveat that it thinks that you should be turning your actual body, not using the controller to do so. Fair enough, except that the rest of the game doesn’t seem to conform to that ethos; loading screens appear too low, and the menus rarely seem to orient themselves relative to the player. So, you’re always forced to adapt to where the game thinks you should be standing and looking.
Even just basic functionality has been poorly thought through. Make a custom server, and you have to abandon it and start another one if you want to change the level. The tent which acts as the central hub for load-outs and readying up seems not to have been designed for VR, even though to my knowledge Onward has never been a pancake game.
It’s also pretty appalling from the get-go that there are times when moving between menus and loading screens, where it seems to make the Quest headset hang briefly. This leads to the sort of frozen screens with a black outline that can make you feel instantly queasy. How it passed Oculus certification in this state is a matter of some astonishment.
There is probably a battalion of people, who own nifty rifle-holder accessories for their Touch controllers, who are going to be baying for my blood on Reddit for this review. Honestly, chaps, save your money. There are far better experiences available on SideQuest (I’m quite sure Doc means Pavlov: Shack or Contractors – Ed) for free than this woeful display of technical ineptitude. It serves as a textbook example of how not to convert a game for its target hardware.
There are moments when you’re creeping forward with some friends, checking those corners, acting as a team when there are glimmers of the game Onward should be, but these are swamped by all the mistakes and deficiencies present, and it just is not good enough for a commercial release in 2020, VR or no. It scores an extra point for being fun with friends; but this is true of nearly any multiplayer game, appalling or no.