As a storied franchise, Wolfenstein games serve as undeniable vehicles for kicking Nazi butt, the most recent of which have taken on alternate history narratives that place resistance fighters in the heart of a prolonged Nazi occupation. And while Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot does this with gusto, it’s hard to think that this is the Wolfenstein game VR deserves.
Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot Details:
Developer: Arkane Studios, Machine Games
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Available On: Steam (Vive, Index, Windows VR), PlayStation Store (PSVR)
Reviewed On: Vive (Rift compatibility confirmed)
Release Date: July 25th, 2019
Note: Although not listed as a supported headset, users with Oculus Rift should have no issue playing. All controls are mapped correctly, although the in-game schematic that explains the controls shows it as a Windows VR controller.
You awaken to find that you’re a member of the French resistance, and you’ve infiltrated a strangely empty Nazi control point where you’re given access to some interesting and deadly tech to help liberate the streets of 1980s Nazi-occupied Paris.
If you’ve played any of the recent Wolfenstein games, you’ll recognize all three mech-machines available to the player. There’s the Panzerhund, a big dog-like tank that can lunge forward to do more damage than its face-mounted flamethrower can on its lonesome. There’s a stealth drone for hacking into computer terminals and electrocuting Nazis to dust (active camouflage helps you evade guards). And there’s the Zitadelle, a hulking bipedal affair with a machine gun, rockets and a temporary force field for when thing get hairy. Each has their special ‘panic’ move, unlimited ammo and unlimited capability to heal themselves.
Instead of scrounging for dropped supplies, lurking for rare and powerful weapons, or doting over you dwindling health, Cyberpilot is conversely a pretty low stakes game. If you die, you simply reappear at your last checkpoint without any penalty, making it feel less like a game and more like an extended cinematic experience with a few more moving parts. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I tend to think that if a studio decides to go that route, it necessarily puts more pressure on the narrative to deliver where the action can’t. Cyberpilot however goes the well-trodden route of a single NPC who is pipped into your head via radio, giving you continual mission instructions and a few bits of story to go along with it.
Although voiced by a talented actress, you never get a chance to create a bond with anyone or anything, as you’re either strapped to a chair back at base or out on the streets piloting vehicles.
The game’s vehicles are impressive bits of kit, and while shooting with the Zitadelle uses one of my least favorite tropes—floating crosshairs—these sorts of abstractions are forgivable considering you’re actually piloting the mechanical beasts remotely from the safety of your pod back at base.
Much less impressive though is Cyberpilot’s insistence on presenting the player with a paint-by-numbers pathway through the game. Your hand is held at every conceivable turn: you’re instructed on how to repair each machine, do a short tutorial, go through a single mission in each vehicle (a simple game of navigating through a metaphorical one way street), and you move on to the next until you reach the end. More on that below.
The machine repair, something that precedes each mission, is more of a simple task than a puzzle per se, and requires little more thought than is necessary to open the little battery door on the back of your TV remote. On the flipside, the repair sequence gives you a good opportunity to inspect your vehicle, something you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.
In the missions themselves, there’s a good range of baddies to be found, although since you’re on a one-way trip through the level, there’s very few surprises outside of the occasional blast door that opens to reveal an enemy, or a reinforcement pod that drops out of the sky to reveal a small cadre of weakling ground troops. On normal mode, I only died once, and that was during a drone mission where a single shot can kill you. Even on the hardest game mode, you’re given ample opportunity to heal yourself between areas. Bigger baddies, such as rival Zitadellen and Panzerhunde (that’s German pluralization for you) are the hardest things you encounter here. No bosses, no one-off enemies of any kind. There are three difficulty tiers; normal, hard, and challenge.
It’s not all shooting and lighting Nazis on fire through the streets though. The stealth drone mission was by far my favorite, as your perspective is shrunken down to fit the Power Wheels-size flying vehicle. Since the stakes are slightly higher (a single shot will take you down), you have to tactically use your ten-second active camouflage to get around Nazi officers and other drones, as you’ll be quickly dispatched if you’re going around corners too recklessly. Your other motion controller acts as an input so you can hack computers. Unlike the lock-picking mechanic in Skyrim and the computer hacking mechanic in the later Fallout games, you simply need to hold one of your motion controllers in the right physical orientation to get through three locks before the computer is considered open.
Although I have my gripes, I didn’t entirely dislike my time with Cyberpilot. The game works flawlessly, and I was never left scratching my head on how to accomplish any given task. I didn’t encounter any game-breaking bugs, and when I dialed in my settings (more on that below), the game looked actually pretty darn good. If anything, you might accuse Cyberpilot of being too simple, too low stakes, and too thin in the narrative department to leave a lasting impression even an hour after you’ve finished the game. It also wasn’t Wolfenstein-enough, although I understand why they went with the cockpit motif instead of the franchise’s standard first-person shooter gameplay style. I’ll talk more about that in the Comfort section below.
My personal playsession lasted one and a half hours. While that’s on the extremely short side, even for a $20 game, what frustrated me the most wasn’t the dollar to playtime ratio calculation we all do in our heads, but that there’s genuinely a real game sitting under all of this. Stealth missions could be teased out into something more complex, more rewarding. Hacking terminals could be—again—something more complex and rewarding. Shooting could have been more of an exercise in smart tool selection, and less about jamming on the triggers until everything goes ‘bang’. Almost all of the game’s basic elements are serviceable as jumping-off points that should ideally lead to something more in-depth and meaningful—something I just didn’t find here.
Without spoiling it, the end is extremely anticlimactic, which I think might actually leave a possibility open for another Cyberpilot down the road, although there’s an equal chance that it was just an abrupt and unsatisfying ending. There’s really no telling.
Some of the best bits about Cyberpilot is the attention to detail, both visual and in some unexpected places too. I’d guess much of this was the result of clever repurposing from the franchise’s bigger budgeted sibling Youngblood. Although I refuse to believe that Nazis in an alternate timeline would be listening to a weirdly patriotic version of German New Wave, the effort to create an atmosphere that really exists outside of the dystopian bunkers and locked-down city of Nazi-occupied Paris is something you can’t help but appreciate. Although the mechs themselves don’t feel weighty, the visual aspect of their design can’t be denied.
Object interaction was par for the course, although it’s important to keep this in context; Bethesda’s VR ports like Skyrim VR and Fallout 4 VR present the player with gads of items you can’t pick up with your hands. Here you’re given the agency to pick up and inspect every item presented to the player in the bunker.
Performance isn’t as solid as I would have liked. Strangely enough, my rig features the exact recommended specs for the game, and even still I found there was some slight judder when settings were put on medium. In fact, all of my settings were put at low automatically to begin with, so I had to play with the various toggles (particle effects, texture quality, etc) to get some better visual clarity of it. One way of accomplishing this is by dialing forward the game’s fixed foveated rendering setting to allow my entire field of view to be rendered at max quality; the edges of where the scene is rendered at its highest quality is painfully noticeable otherwise. I would say Cyberpilot is still in need of some optimization so that more modest systems below the recommended spec can get an acceptable graphical experience without having to toggle everything to low, which is pretty blurry and unattractive.
By default, the user is presented with hand-controlled smooth locomotion (not based on stick movement), which for many users can cause discomfort. There is a variable snap-turn available though, making it a very comfortable experience overall if you can’t handle smooth turning. I’m not a big fan of smooth locomotion, however the game’s cockpit helps you stay grounded in your near-field, something that makes racing sims and mech games one of the most comfortable genres despite fast and constant movement.
There are moments of intense forward acceleration (Panzerhund’s bum rush), but these seem to be handled well enough to be an entirely comfortable experience.
My last, and most minor gripe: as an entirely seated experience, I would have liked to see variable desk heights for the surfaces back at base, like how Owlchemy Lab treats any table in Vacation Simulator (2019)—simply readjust the table to your desired height. I live in a small apartment, and I play seated VR games at my desk. When the virtual desk is slightly lower than the physical counterpart, you can end up losing tracking as you need to put your motion controller under your actual desk to grab items. Most people won’t encounter this issue, but if you’re in a small area you may need to consider backing up and giving your office chair plenty of room.