Boneworks Review: A Stunning Showcase Of Physical Interaction That Tests VR’s Limits

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Boneworks shows its hand about 10 minutes into its campaign. Midway through your introductory tour — a tutorial humorously fashioned as a history of VR interaction — it drops a key bit of advice: “If you physically imagine you are holding the heavy object, you will have an easier time moving it.”

Translation: “We’ve done 90% of the heavy lifting, help us out with the last 10%.”

This touch of pantomime is a necessity if you’re to enjoy Stress Level Zero’s physics-driven VR shooter, a game that wants each of its many interactions to be realistically weighted and considered. It’s a crude bit of role-playing; put your back into lifting thin air when picking up massive virtual boxes, swing your axe with the intention of cutting down a tree, even if there’s no weight in your arms. Don’t think your hands can phase through anything, but instead treat them as solid matter just like every crate, ladder and door. Put your body and mind into this reality and play along.

The more wholistically you adopt this line of thinking, the more you’ll enjoy Boneworks.

But what is Boneworks, other than its notable ruleset? Is it just a template, a Blade & Sorcery-style tech demo for technology that will be better served in future releases? Or is it VR’s first Half-Life level epic, the purest distillation yet of virtual shootouts and uncompromising immersion? The reality, as is so often the case, is somewhere in between.

Yes, Boneworks does come with a full six to seven-hour story mode, and a quite enjoyable one at that. Isolated within a deranged virtual metaverse, you fight your way through scores of rogue AI enemies and the holographic soldiers sent to clean them up (a scenario not terribly dissimilar to Half-Life 1’s Black Mesa incident). It’s as much a puzzle-platformer game as it is an FPS, with regular road bumps that ask you to haul, hoist and vault yourself towards a goal.

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Both its combat and those brain-teasers are best approached in the spirit of science. Boneworks might be a gun-nut of a game but its combat is thrillingly physical, with reload animations that find deep satisfaction in the pull of a charging handle or push of a magazine. Melee action is hefty, lagging behind your own movements to replicate the exertion you should be spending to deliver the crushing impact many VR scraps have been sorely missing. Above all it’s wonderfully playful; grab a leaping robot crab (or, you know, a headcrab) by its legs and you can victoriously lasso it above your head before bringing it crashing into the side of a wall or executing it at point-blank range with an SMG. I’m quite rightfully ashamed to admit how much fun I had holding an enemy’s head at arm’s length and then stabbing them with a broken bottle as they flailed about.

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The magic moments come thick and fast. There’s a SWAT-style slickness to nudging a door open with the end of your gun, summoning an ammo crate to your hand then unloading a full clip into an enemy. The more adventurous you get with the combat, the more fun you’ll have. On the other end of the spectrum it can’t always bridge the gap between physical weight and a lack of haptics, leading to some more awkward instances like being mobbed by a pack of enemies at close-range.

Perhaps the highest praise I can bestow upon Boneworks, though, is that it made me see virtual worlds as just that: worlds. If you have to reach a high-point in a level, there’s rarely one set way to do it. You could stack a bunch of boxes together and then clamber up them, or snatch the side of a ledge with the end of a crowbar (again: Half-Life) and then use that to pull yourself up. The game encourages you to treat it like an actual reality of its own as often as possible.

Comfort

Boneworks can only be played with smooth locomotion (there’s no teleport), but does offer both seated and standing configurations, complete with quick turn. However, the game’s demanding interactions can make it a physically exhausting experience that, in itself, will stir up sickness for some. It’s best played in short bursts, even if you consider yourself to have sturdy VR legs.

This can, at times, be exhausting. In one of the game’s final puzzles, I was trying to shift heavy wooden planks across gaps to swinging platforms, with very little feedback to tell me how the plank would rest and if it would hold should I attempt to walk on it. It was a painful half-hour devoid of any kind of enjoyment, more akin to fighting my way through an IKEA instruction manual. I just wanted to pick the thing up, chuck it down and be done with it, but Boneworks has no sympathy for the fatigue of virtual labor.

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The same is true of the action, where the simplest solution often trumps the coolest. The game’s lofty two-handed weapons are, in reality, often less effective than the pistols and knives that can be accessed and utilized in half the time. Add to that some inevitable technical flaws — though not nearly as many as you might fear — and you have something that’s best enjoyed in intense bursts rather than binged upon.

And yet, going back to more static worlds isn’t going to be easy post-Boneworks. Stress Level Zero just started barking up a very particular tree, one that, for perhaps the first time in VR, pulled my brain out of ‘game mode’ and brought more of myself into the headset. The further I delved into Boneworks’ campaign, the more I believed that I could pull off virtually anything I wanted to given the manpower and resources.

But it’s also a reminder that, at the heart of Valve’s most beloved campaigns is, well, Valve; a seemingly god-given talent to tame whatever unruly new concepts its dreamt up, from portals to gravity guns, into almost faultless game design. And that’s what this doesn’t have; a channeling of all of those possibilities into one seamless, flowing package of high production scenarios and diverse design. The game’s pacing and environmental design are largely one-note and rarely as inspired as the laws that make it work.

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Granted, these are impossible expectations to stack Boneworks against and it does often do an admirable job of serving them. It’s campaign occasionally flirts with that brilliance before turning to more trite scenarios like, of all things, a trek through some sewers or some more mundane puzzles. “I didn’t want Moving Simulator,” I proudly quipped to myself at one point as I wrestled to stack one box on top of another, just to watch it fall once more. Theater can only get you so far; at some points I longed for a touch of automated acceptance to finish the job when a jump was just a little far from reach or a plank didn’t quite bridge a gap.

Index vs Rift

We’ve tested both the Oculus Touch and Index Controllers and they both work great in Boneworks, but there can be a small sense of added immersion to fully release the Index Controllers when climbing, tossing a gun from one hand to the other or even releasing an ax into the air briefly to find a better grip on the handle. The Index Controller grip areas are very sensitive though and it is possible to falsely grab objects as well just by slightly touching the grip. Stress Level Zero recommends running Boneworks at a native frame rate rather than depending on something like motion smoothing and, given the varying number of enemies and objects which can be in play on different levels, you may need a real beast of a PC to take advantage of the higher frame rates (120 or 144) unique to Valve Index

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For all its intricacies, the game’s hordes of brainless AI enemies, forever shuffling towards you at a leisurely pace, are simply there to be toyed with and never to actually threaten. In fact, I think I only died twice throughout the game’s entire campaign. You can capture the effortless artistry of John Wick and still retain the challenge; look at Superhot or Pistol Whip. It’s hard to escape the suspicion that, when you unlock the game’s wave-based survival mode after the credits, Boneworks was conceived as a combat showcase first and a story-driven epic second – the Narbacular Drop to Valve’s Portal.

Boneworks Review Final Verdict

That need not be such a damning statement, though. Boneworks never sweeps you away on the same kind of rollercoaster ride its biggest influences charted, but you’d be hardpressed not to get carried away on its own journey; one of interactive wizardry, devilishly gratifying combat and stunning physical authenticity, even if that occasionally works against you. Ultimately it might not be the VR shooter to turn the heads of the masses, but if you want to see where that future lies, you can’t miss Boneworks.

Final Score: :star: :star: :star: :star: 4/5 Stars | Really Good

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Boneworks is available from today on SteamVR for $30 with support for the Valve Index, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Windows VR.

This review of was conducted on an Oculus Rift S using two Touch controllers. You can read more about the new five-star scoring policy here.

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