Disclosure: This game was provided to us for free by BigBoxVR for the purpose of review.
Multiplayer games in VR tend to struggle due to a combination of a lack of adoption of the software, hardware or both. Aside from the one or two most popular online experiences, this has been the case for pretty much every other virtual reality battle royale title to stumble out on Steam’s VR platform. Population: One is not the first VR battle royale to garner interest among the VR community. However, it is now the most popular “VRBR” game due to its exemplary polish and execution, minus a few niggling foibles.
For the uninitiated, a battle royale game is to an online shooter, as MMOs are to RPGs. You’ll have 50 to 100+ online players dropping into a large map that spawns various weapons, armour, consumables, buffs or even spells. The goal is to survive, either alone or with your team (or if you’re like me, most of the time die trying). What keeps matches consistently short and action-packed is a safe zone that will deal damage to players who venture outside of its ever-shrinking borders.
Players are funnelled into each other organically because of this, and it creates many emergent moments of white-knuckled competitive gameplay. It’s these concepts that caused Pub-G, and Fortnite to rise to the level of popularity that they rose to in their respective times. I’m happy to report that these concepts, while limited in nature, are alive and well inside of Population: One.
BigBoxVR knew that VR games tend to struggle to find audiences for online-only experiences. So they smartly limited the number of people, and teams per match down to 18 and 6 respectively. This also meant they didn’t have to waste time making a map half the size of GTA V. Pop: One’s map is indeed smaller, but it is by no means lacking in places to explore for excellent loot. Every nook and cranny of the map is full of buildings, towers, natural cover, open windows, walls, ledges, hills, cliffs, streets, cars and tombstones. No matter where you drop, there’s a good chance you’ll find the right gear to stay alive, almost every time by design.
There is one singularly large blemish in Population: One’s map, and that’s the dark, brooding tower. This behemoth of a structure, lying smack-dab in the middle of the map has no interesting features, doors, windows, functions, or even loot to make climbing it even remotely worthwhile. Did I not mention the ability to climb anything and everything? Back to that in a minute though, because this giant tower still bugs me. I climbed all the way to the top, using my own two hands only to find absolutely nothing. Imagine the top part of a “Rook” piece from the game of Chess, except that it has the width of an American football field and no loot.
I know the developers will do a lot more with the map, so I’m secretly hoping they turn this intimidating centre-piece into something a little more engaging.
You did hear me right when I said climbing with your own hands. You can grip anything with your hands, and with a motion, you’ve known since birth, pull yourself up to any surface with no limitations! For a VR game this is fairly commonplace depending on the genre, but for a battle royale game being able to climb anything to re-position yourself outside of the confines of the ground and chest-high walls are essentially unheard of. Now combine this innovative climbing mechanic, with the ever-enjoyable action of being able to glide through the air at any time by striking a T-pose, and you’ll experience the magic that has caused this game to explode like it has.
If you thought that was enough innovation, then you may be surprised to know that Pop: One also has Fortnite-Esque building mechanics! You can create walls, floors and ceilings in the same way you can in Fortnite, however, the resources that allow you to do this are far more limited. So you won’t have to worry about trying to finish someone off, blinking, and then seeing that they’ve already built the in-game equivalent of the Taj Mahal.
Since the game is available on the Quest, Quest 2, Rift S, and any Steam VR headset, it is worth noting that the visuals scale very well with the Quest headsets, but does leave a little to be desired on higher-end hardware like the Index. Don’t get me wrong, even on the Quest the pop-in is minimal, textures and clarity are impressive, and it is very little in the way of framerate issues. Population: One isn’t an ugly game, but it’s not Half-life Alyx either; there just isn’t any form of eye-candy outside of good texture-work and decent draw-distance.
Am I disappointed? Not really. Are the mouth-breathers who populate the game’s community tab on Steam disappointed? More than you’ll ever know, with some equating the lack of graphics to match their new Nvidia 3080’s as some conspiracy centered around downgrading the game to work on the Quest platform. When in reality, it’s those very same Quest users that are a majority of the playerbase for Population: One. So to them I say, be thankful!
Finally, there’s the gameplay, the thing that has me coming back time and time again. If climbing and flying set this game apart, then the gun-play is what grounds it. Pop: One takes a unique approach to VR-gunplay by giving you an on-screen reticle so that hip-firing is viable. While also letting you aim down the sights of the gun for increased accuracy. This is a pretty ingenious way to keep the skill ceiling-high, while also lowering the skill floor for accessibility!
The only main complaint I have is with aiming down sights, and how nothing provides any extra zoom outside of the sniper rifle scope. This is where the strangest design decision comes into play for me; your entire visual perspective becomes a low resolution, zoomed-in scope straight out of Halo 2. I would have much preferred having the scope itself zoom in on whatever I’m looking at while keeping my surroundings intact. I know this is likely due to performance due to the Quest 1 but I’m fairly certain the Quest 2 could handle that with some optimization.
At the end of the day, my nitpicking is mostly just nitpicking, I mean there aren’t even that many bugs either. Population: One is the de-facto standard for VR battle royales going forward, and in a lot of ways, VR multiplayer as a whole. From the climbing to flying, to gunplay, to visuals it’s just as fantastic as I’m making it out to be! It’s also incredibly refreshing to see a huge player base that keeps queue times to less than 30 seconds. If you have a VR headset then you owe it to yourself to try Population: One, even if you aren’t necessarily the biggest fan of shooters or battle royales.
Population: One is currently available on Quest, Quest 2, Rift S and Steam VR for $29.99 or £23.79.