Damaged Core: Getting Away With It

Damaged Core is one of the highest reviewed VR experiences to date. But would it have been as highly praised were it not a VR experience? Spoilers ahead.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Damaged Core is an innovative VR FPS that leverages a clever teleport mechanic in aid of a frantic, intense experience. It’s as good a futuristic shooter as we’ve seen for the medium, and will no doubt inspire a number of titles to follow.

Now, let’s take the “VR” qualifier out of that sentence. Does it still ring true? Would Damaged Core, one of the highest rated VR games to date, hold up on the strength of its own mechanics, story and gameplay, were it not a VR title? If not, what does that say about the state of VR gaming in general, and its expectations against the more traditional gaming medium? The honest answer, sadly, is no.

Damaged Core starts strong - it quickly sets up its universe, its characters, and its story, and within a couple of minutes you’re already pivoting frantically, firing in all directions and teleporting from foe to foe. The core mechanic (no pun intended), whereby you’re a software entity that can “possess” enemy robots in order to dispatch their brethren, actually does a fantastic job of folding a restriction of VR locomotion (teleporting is more comfortable than walking) into a logical plot point: as soon as you teleport into an enemy robot, you’re soon told, their defences kick in and disable its ability to move. The result is a standing 360º shooter with the ability to move between enemies’ points of view.

And this core mechanic works exceedingly well. Putting aside for a moment whether gamepad-driven “gun face” (the requirement to aim with your head instead of tour hand) works for VR shooters in general (it does, but not as compellingly as motion controlled gun play), Damaged Core puts the player in the middle of some compelling battle set pieces driven along by a semi-coherent linear storyline, with each encounter proving more difficult than the last, and new enemies (and potential hosts) being presented with each level.

But this is where the cracks start to show. It soon becomes apparent that Damaged Core is little more than a wave shooter, a Gears of War "Horde Mode” without the environmental play, locomotion, or team work. Except for a few under-utilised stealth levels, progress difficulty is increased not with fundamental new mechanics, but by the constant ramping up of rather cheap bullet sponge enemies, or the ramping up of the number of waves of enemies to be dispatched in yet another “protect your squad” level.

The final levels are almost egregious in their cheapness. At one point, the frantically expressed phrase “The Core is sending another wave!” coming over your intercom undergoes such repetition that you’ll be dreaming of it for days. Wave after tedious wave of enemies frustrate your efforts at progression while your team shelters under an ever weakening bubble shield, while you re-live your failures over and over.

The action then progresses to a penultimate level populated by multiple instances of the Core AI, your ultimate enemy, itself shielded behind the cheapest bubble shield ever to grace mankind. Your only task is to shoot at it for what feels like an eternity (with almost no visual feedback as to whether it’s actually doing any good), only to finally see the Core burst out of existence… Only to reappear a little further on. Rinse, repeat.

Damaged Core ultimately reveals itself as a textbook wave shooter reliant on the arcane concept of arcade-style bullet sponges

It’s like the level designers just gave up at this point, throwing one, than three, then three-small-and-a-big-one versions of the same Core AI avatar on screen for you to liberally pepper with volley after volley of fire in what soon becomes not just repetitive, but boring - as by then you will have figured out the obvious trick to avoid their fire and will have entered into a mechanically repetitive fugue mode, just brainlessly pressing the trigger button over and over again until finally, with little fanfare, you realise you’ve won.

You’re then teleported into a final level that’s more like a weird interstitial, some odd transition in which I am almost certain dying would be impossible, and before you know it you’re up against the most abrupt and unsatisfying ending to a game ever to grace a screen since Psygnosis’ Shadow of the Beast.

Once you get past the novel mechanic, the colourful (yet relatively basic) graphics, and the frantic pace, Damaged Core ultimately reveals itself as a textbook wave shooter reliant on the arcane concept of arcade-style bullet sponges, plagued by repetitive enemy encounters, and and let down by a weak ending. It’s enjoyable despite these flaws, but by no means a great game.

none of Damaged Core’s key faults have anything to do with it being a VR game

It’s also important to note that none of Damaged Core’s key faults have anything to do with it being a VR game: in fact, Damaged Core actually nails the VR-specific aspects like scale, an effective and logical locomotion system, and a good aiming mechanic. It’s simply its use of some bad gaming tropes (repetitive waves, bullet sponges, re-use of increasingly cheap instances of the same boss characters) that lets it down.

Damaged Core is more a reflection of how early we are in the VR space, and how low the medium’s bar to success. It’s a game that, were it not part of the early crop of virtual reality experiences, would have gathered a mediocre-to-poor reception and been scolded for its lazy final hours, weak ending, and reliance on repetitiveness. Damaged Core’s critical success is, in large part, a result of low expectations, combined with the need for quick reviews resulting in many reviewers not having completed the whole game.

That said, I would still enthusiastically recommend this game. It may not be much in the context of videogames as a whole, but it’s still one of the more polished VR experiences we can choose from today. The game represents a significant investment in the VR medium, a move away from the 10 minute “VR experience” and towards a full-fledged combination of story, setting and gameplay. Damaged Core is far from perfect, but it’s at least a move in the right direction.

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