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Pistol Whip review: The year’s freshest VR game—and oh-so close to greatness

Pistol Whip review: The year’s freshest VR game—and oh-so close to greatness
Cloudhead Games

A review of the 2018 virtual reality sensation Beat Saber can be boiled down to one or two sentences: wave lightsabers to the rhythm of intense, catchy music. It’s a thin elevator pitch, yet all of its pieces add up to something addictive, inventive, and—based on what I’ve seen from other recent VR apps—hard to replicate.

That changes this week with Pistol Whip, which both evokes the simple genius of Beat Saber yet actually delivers on that rare combination of familiar and fresh. Its single-sentence pitch is just as fun: pretend you’re John Wick and get into gun-fu battles against hypercolor hitmen to the rhythm of thudding techno. (No, this isn’t a licensed John Wick game, but rather an obvious homage to the house that Reeves built.)

In its current state, on PC-VR systems and the standalone Oculus Quest, Pistol Whip is already an impressive trip of a “rhythm shooter,” and it blends some of VR gaming’s best qualities—tracked hands, body presence, and quick reactions—to deliver a body-filling sensation of badassery. Yet in its current state, it also sits on the boundary of an “early access” game, in spite of not being advertised as one. The issues are a bit annoying, but I’m having too good of a time to not otherwise recommend this gem of a 2019 VR game.

Guess the tragic acronym between kills

In Pistol Whip, you stand on what is essentially a virtual motorized sidewalk—the kind you might find at an airport terminal—and slowly glide through trippy, distorted environments. An underground bunker. A city celebrating Dia De Los Muertos. A seemingly random explosion of geometric shapes. We never quite learn why we’re in these places, nor why they’re full of pistol-wielding men in suits. LSD? PTSD? Some intense acronym is probably at play.

No matter: your job is to survive a given level’s motorized sidewalk by shooting every baddie down, all while bobbing and weaving to dodge their slow-moving bullets. The catch is, randomly shooting the bad guys gives out fewer points. To maximize your score, you must shoot your gun to the beat of the insane music being piped into your ears. (Again, what’s going on here?)

Equipped with a single pistol, unlimited ammo, and a point-down-to-reload mechanic, your primary goal is to stay on the song’s rhythm while noticing and shooting every enemy in your field of view, particularly the ones who pop out of cover or run through random hallways. Should an enemy stand directly in front of you at any point (they occasionally find themselves on your automatic path), you can get more points by whacking them with your gun as a blunt instrument. (Right, Pistol Whip, I get it.) All the while, you have to keep an eye on enemies’ guns, which flash red when they’re about to shoot a bullet. That’s a good hint, for example, of whether you should wait to melee-strike a nearby foe or shoot him down a few paces away.

Pistol Whip‘s secret sauce is its clever level design, since enemies constantly pop out from left to right and from top to bottom while you automatically glide forward. Cloudhead Games proves its VR development chops with Pistol Whip‘s levels. For one, they’re grounded with what I like to call “anchoring” geometry at all times, with a sense of a central horizon point and a high-contrast color palette that favors bold-yet-cool colors. You won’t get sick auto-moving through these worlds, and it’s a remarkable feat.

Additionally, that forced-movement perspective lets the designers telegraph each upcoming threat. It quickly becomes second nature to read certain block and cover formations from a distance. A floating block next to nothing else? An enemy will probably spawn on that and start shooting. A sharp break in geometry near the floor? That’s a good hint of an exposed basement section below to come, which will almost certainly hide a few easy kills. There’s a neat choreography to how a good Pistol Whip level works. Its geometry organically forces your gaze to scan rapidly yet smoothly, as opposed to all over the place in a dreadful hurry.

The result feels more like a top-notch ’90s arcade shooter than pretty much any VR fare that has launched thus far. When an interesting Pistol Whip level element unveils itself, often with a surprise reveal of gun-wielding goons, I get the same rush I remember from turning a crazy corner in a classic House of the Dead shooting sequence.

Rhythm fun, but also rhythm questions

Yet unlike ’90s on-rails arcade classics, which copied each other ad nauseam, Pistol Whip carves out a unique identity by combining the open, wide shooting possibilities of VR with a rhythm-matching tweak. The game tracks any song’s rhythm in double time, so you can even get away with some rapid-fire ammunition percussion in a pinch and still get maximum points per shot.

Unfortunately, in my week of pre-release testing, I’ve struggled to match my shooting rhythm with any of the ten included songs on both a Valve Index and an Oculus Quest. I can’t put my finger on what’s wrong with my timing. Maybe I’m just trash at the narrow gaming niche that is rhythmic-hitman simulations. The trouble is, neither the game’s tutorial nor any of its on-screen messaging makes clear exactly what it takes to match the music’s rhythm. Heck, the tutorial doesn’t even mention this shoot-to-the-rhythm system; if you’re lucky, the right loading screen tip will inform you of its existence.

I’d love to see a patch with some sort of calibration or testing room, where you can hear a loud, clear beat and see how well your shots line up with the music’s timing. Instead, all we get thus far is a “vibrating metronome” option, which makes your controllers vibrate to the music’s beat. Thus far, on both Index and Quest, I have noticed an itsy-bitsy delay between that rumble and its matching percussive beat.

That seems fixable, whether by adding a vibration tweak, a new tutorial, or clearer visual information. Heck, why not add the option of rapidly closing circles over enemies’ bodies, a la Virtua Cop?

Pistol Whip‘s menu system also screams “early access” in terms of font sizes and other elements being weirdly sized, and the presentation, or general lack thereof, doesn’t help matters. You come to life in what looks like an abandoned B-movie studio. You aim a gun to pick some random movie poster, then combat begins. The results feel surprisingly slapdash from a team who made such ornate, beautifully detailed worlds in the VR-puzzle series The Gallery.

Worst of all, at least as of the game’s launch, is the unoptimized state of the Oculus Quest version. Will this game get up to a smooth 72fps refresh in the near future? The game’s three-tone palette and simple geometry seem to favor Quest’s weaker hardware, but Cloudhead apparently still has its Quest work cut out for it.

Please patch in a narrator

Pistol Whip launch trailer (which includes a hint of how the soundtrack sounds, if you want a hint.)

I hold out hope that my above nitpicks are addressed soon, because the core experience of gliding through Pistol Whip‘s brand of VR combat is already a really striking one. I’m even cool with how the game somewhat auto-aims your shots, so you can point your weapon in the general direction of a foe and score a clean shot—and thus focus on the bigger-picture issue of so many enemies swarming your position (not to mention syncing your shots with the song’s rhythm). Focus on speed and tempo, not precise aim. You’ll still get punished for terribly aimed shots, so something in the aiming system is trying to evoke a sense of effort and deserved hits.

It feels very, very John Wick in action, and the level design, enemy patterns, and aesthetic intensity add up to double that Wick-ian feeling. I’d love to see a plot added to this game to match, since we’re dealing with an arcade game whose foes are all anthropomorphized guys in suits. Can’t we get some hard-boiled narration befitting the tone, at least?

Pistol Whip could be great. Until then, it’s mighty good and arguably the year’s best new VR action game. After all, 2019 has mostly been the year where people finally bought headsets and discovered 2018’s killer games. For the VR faithful starving for something fresh, this is it.

The good:

  • We’ve seen other recent VR games try to ignite a Beat Saber-like spark. This one actually does so.
  • Color-soaked combat arenas evoke Superhot while also feeling entirely new and unique.
  • Level design rivals the most thrilling moments of classic ’90s arcade shooters—while also keeping VR comfort in mind.
  • Auto-aim system does just enough legwork to let players focus on speed without completely dumbing the game down.

The bad:

  • Cloudhead promises more levels to come, and we hope they come soon. There’s only 10 for now.
  • If aggressive, decay-effects techno with sick drops isn’t your bag, Pistol Whip‘s stellar gunplay might not be enough.

The ugly:

  • Until the game implements a testing or calibration sequence, I have no idea why my shots often don’t match songs’ rhythms (which is needed for higher scores).

Verdict: PC-VR headset owners should buy. Quest owners might want to wait for a performance patch.

ARS T

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