‘Boneworks’ Review – A Rich Sandbox with a Side of Game Design

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Boneworks, the highly anticipated physics-driven VR shooter from veteran VR studio Stress Level Zero, is finally here. The game is underscored with a rich, physics-based interaction system which aims to make VR more interactive and immersive.

Boneworks Details:

Developer: Stress Level Zero
Available On: Steam (Index, Vive, Rift, WMR)
Reviewed On: Valve Index
Release Date: December 10th, 2019
Price: $30

Editor’s Note: Boneworks is pitched as a “narrative VR action adventure” by its developer, but also contains a substantial sandbox mode (unlocked by playing through the narrative component). This review is primarily about the title’s ‘game’ elements (the ‘authored experience’). Accounting for the game portion alongside the unlocked sandbox mode would bring such a broad scope that we don’t feel the review and score would be meaningful for players primarily interested in the raw sandbox experience. We encourage those players to seek out other analyses which explore the game from the sandbox perspective specifically.

Gameplay

Boneworks’ fundamental gameplay consists of physics-driven puzzling and combat. Though the developers call it a “narrative VR action adventure,” the narrative turns out to be extremely light—bordering on mere lore and setting—with tidbits delivered as brief but well produced live-action videos that play on monitors in the virtual world.

A minimal narrative wouldn’t be a bother if gameplay had its own compelling arc, climaxing in a fusion of mechanics and concepts taught throughout the course of the game. But it’s here where Boneworks stumbles; despite a rich and often quite immersive set of underlying systems at work, the game struggles to find its stride.

It wouldn’t be fair to call Boneworks a mere tech demo considering the length of its campaign mode (it took me about 9 hours to complete) and the addition of the Arena (waves) and Sandbox (playground) modes, but it’s clear that the game’s core tech got most of the attention, while the actual game on top came by way of necessity.

The game serves up something of a meta-narrative, mixing concepts from today’s non-fiction VR with a heaping dose of fictional VR wrapped up in a company called Monogon Industries, makers of the virtual world ‘MythOS’.

Boneworks is heavily influenced in style and structure by Half-Life 2 (2004) and Portal (2007), right down to the inclusion of an orange crowbar, motion sensing turrets, and cryptic text scrawled on the walls by an entity of unknown intention. And it starts out strong; a significant portion of the beginning of the game has players walking through a “museum” which is a thinly veiled (but entirely effective) introduction to core mechanics that’s suitably engaging.

Here you’ll learn to move around, jump, shoot, interact with objects and more. By the time you start to get the hang of the idea that almost everything is interactive (thanks to a deeply physics-driven foundation), it can feel refreshingly immersive to find that most things act like you expect them to at a glance. In far too many VR games I’ve had my reality shattered when reaching for an object with an obvious real-life function that doesn’t live up to that expectation in VR. In Boneworks I was delighted when I found a small hanging bell with a rope dangling from the ringer, and by God it not only moved when I smacked it, but it actually freaking rang.

Not every object holds up to this much detail, but more often than not I found my interaction expectations satisfied rather than disillusioned. While not everything does what you expect (non-functional vending machines were a bit of a miss), pretty much every object in the game that looks like it can in fact be moved, leading to strong bouts of immersion. When things go wrong though—and they definitely will—the physics get wonky fast, leading to frustrating moments where the physics system feels far more encumbering than freeing (more on this in the Immersion section).

The shooting and gun mechanics in Boneworks have clearly received a lot of attention. You’ll need to insert a magazine with a fair degree of accuracy, charge each weapon in a slightly unique way, and holding guns with two hands for optimal recoil control. If you pull the bolt back when a mag is loaded, an unspent cartridge will pop out of the chamber; if you fire a round, a spent case is ejected (as the bullet itself has gone down range).

These great details and solid interactions are unfortunately put to poor use against a rather small and bland set of contemporary weapons: AR, SMG, and pistol. There’s a few permutations (a laser pointer here, a scope there) but all ultimately boil down to ‘long range’ or ‘short range’, with the choice of single fire of automatic for each. Boneworks introduces some much more interesting physics-based weapons and gadgets (like a gravity gun) but not until the game is almost entirely over, giving them hardly any playtime in your first campaign run.

The bland guns are compounded by bland enemies which in the latter stages of the game feel more like a nuisance than a fun challenge. There’s but three enemy types—zombies, headcrabs, and dudes with guns—and they all die just the same when you point your gun at them and pull the trigger a few times; none of them demand any real thought from the player, not even so much as what gun to use. The only half-interesting enemy was one of the zombie types which shoots a slow-moving projectile at you which at least gives you the option to physically dodge with your body.

Boneworks combat can be fun, but only if you make it fun. On top of the nondescript weapons and enemies, the game fails to set up interesting scenarios for the player. This leaves it up to the player to be creative and stylish with their weapons to add some intrigue to the combat. This is made much easier with the unlimited-use slow-motion button, which otherwise unfortunately doesn’t actually synergize well with the overall gameplay (in fact, it makes basic combat far too easy).

That’s especially true for the game’s melee weapons which include blunt weapons like bats and hammers, and short weapons like swords and daggers. In slow motion they can feel quite satisfying, but at normal speed it often feels like you’re swinging sponges around because of the way the weapons tend to slop around against enemies rather than connect and transfer force or dismember. Stabby weapons, which can penetrate enemies with enough force, generally fare better at doing what you hope than the blunt weapons, but (just like the game’s guns) they aren’t very compelling to use unless you’re just going for overtly stylish slow-motion kills.

The state of melee combat makes it that much more perplexing that an important part of the game is presented out as a wildly anti-climactic and wholly unsatisfying fist fight.

Boneworks unfortunately doesn’t transcend the sum of its parts; it fails to find any compelling interplay between puzzles and combat, and misses the opportunity to build a set of core concepts which lead to a climax in mechanics, gameplay, and story. Instead it feels like piecemeal gameplay scenarios strung together atop a novel technical foundation with a sprinkle of narrative.

For those that are compelled by the technical foundation, Boneworks will make a fun combat and physics sandbox; the game clearly has this in mind with its Arena and Sandbox modes, both of which are unlocked only after finding hidden items in the campaign. Arena serves up wave-shooter like scenarios, including Survival (which tasks you to live as long as possible) and Trials (which challenge you to kill enemies under certain conditions or with certain items). Sandbox makes the game’s objects and physics-tools available for freestyle play and experimentation. Anyone who enjoys Blade & Sorcery or messing about in Garry’s Mod will feel right at home here.

Considering the scope of its technical foundation, it’s a shame that Boneworks does nothing out of the gate concerning user-generated content; the door is clearly open for the game to become something like Garry’s Mod (which has hundreds of thousands of user-generated maps and add-ons) for VR; not pushing toward that end feels like a missed opportunity.

Immersion

Image courtesy Stress Level Zero

Boneworks’ physics-driven gameplay is a double-edged sword. When everything is working, it can be downright magical and offer a rich sense of immersion that few other games achieve. When it isn’t working, it can be a nightmare of clunk and frustration.

Boneworks is a game for hardcore VR players, and Stress Level Zero makes no question of it, stating right on the game’s store page: “This game demonstrates advanced VR mechanics and concepts, players are recommended to have previous VR experience and understanding of common VR gameplay principles before proceeding.” Indeed, the key here is that you need to learn how the game wants to be played in order to find those magic moments, otherwise you’ll get only the nightmare side.

Because Boneworks aims to rely so heavily on physical simulation, it pushes the player’s body around a lot. While most other VR games are very good about maintaining a 1:1 connection between your real body and your virtual body, Boneworks considers your virtual body just another part of the world and this can lead to significant disconnect between your real-world pose and your virtual pose. The game attempts to rectify this disconnect with corrective forces which often lead to a feeling that the world is made entirely of springs.

For instance, if you pick up a large object and try to lift it over your head, it’ll waggle its way there slowly as the game attempts to simulate a certain amount of strength in your arms and the weight of the object. This approach makes sense, and looks fine from the perspective of an observer, but the mismatch between the player’s actual movements and their virtual movements can be, at times, very unsatisfying and also quite uncomfortable.

There was more than a handful of times in the game where frustration sets in due to the game’s commitment to physical simulation over satisfying gameplay. Figuring out the solution to a puzzle is supposed to be the challenging part, but some of the puzzles in Boneworks had entirely obvious solutions that were exceedingly tedious to execute—Index’s finger-tracking capabilities were put to good use as I occasionally extended my middle finger to the physics-gods responsible for my plight. Frustration was exacerbated by distant checkpoints which sometimes required of minutes of sprinting in order get back to the location where I died.

Objective interactions in Boneworks generally feel pretty good; guns in particular are satisfying and responsive to the way you grab and interact with them, though they can be oddly picky about the exact way that you insert a new magazine.

Though the inventory system (which offers shoulder, chest, and back inventory slots) brings strong design fundamentals to the table, a few missing details leave it with a degree of frustration that need not be present. The game makes no effort to tell you when your hand is in the right position to holster an object, nor to alert you if the reason you keep dropping an object is actually because there’s another object already in that holster.

Accidentally dropping important items in Boneworks is all too easy, and while a largely successful force-grab system helps a lot, it’s still frustrating to reach for your chest slot only to mistakenly grab the item from your back slot, or to find that you accidentally dropped your pistol on the floor three rooms ago when you thought you had holstered it.

An optional ‘inventory view’ can be called up fairly quickly to see all of your slots and their contents right in front of you, which is nice, but it feels like a band-aid for a holster system which, with a bit more attention, could be very good.

Comfort

Boneworks clearly prioritizes its dedication to physical simulation over player comfort; from big freefalls to roller coaster-like slides down sewer pipes, this is an intense game and those who are among the highly sensitive may want to skip it outright. For those in the middle of the sensitivity spectrum (where I seem to fall) you should be able to get by as long as you don’t push yourself too hard and take breaks if you start to feel discomfort creeping in.

The game is built entirely around stick-based movement and expects players to make regular springy (virtual) jump motions (even over minor edges and curbs). Comfort options are minimal; no alternative to smooth locomotion is available, but there are options for smooth or snap-turning, seated or standing, and head or stick relative movement.

Though it regularly moves the player in ways that are aggressive compared to other VR games, I found that climbing in Boneworks constitutes the worst combination of functionality and comfort. When you grab onto a climbable surface, there is a persistent springy-shakiness to every part of your movement as you slop your way up the wall. Especially with the wall right in your face, this shakey movement is particularly unsettling to the proprioceptive system. The clip below only barely captures how significant this shakey movement feels when you’re actually in the headset.

After laying down to sleep following several extended sessions with Boneworks, I could actually still feel the shaking motion in my head in a very similar way to feeling the motion of waves when laying in bed after spending the day on a sailboat. I’ve never experienced this lingering sensation from other VR games. Definitely pay attention to how you’re feeling when playing Boneworks and take breaks the moment you feel off.



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