Onward VR Quest Review — Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
Onward VR has been a multiplayer VR staple for over four years now. While it's great to finally have it on Quest, the result is lacking.
There’s a minute left to go on the clock. A single bead of sweat is dripping down my brow. I reach over my shoulder and produce a tablet computer with a seven-digit code listed in bold print, smack dab in the center of the display. Aside from the rhythmic beeping of the objective sitting before me, I hear nothing at all. Just the cold, dead air on a quiet summer’s eve.
My hands shake noticeably to the beat of my incantations: “7531122. 7531122. 753112.” A single gunshot ricochets off of a nearby wall and I leap out, landing flat on my stomach in the middle of my living room carpet. Of course, by this point, it’s already too late. A second round lands squarely in my avatar’s head, ending the match.
This is Onward, the most prominent hardcore military-sim in VR, and certainly one of the tensest games I’ve ever played— in, or out of virtual reality.
Onward VR has been a staple of multiplayer PC VR gaming for at least four years now, and with patch 1.8 and Onward‘s subsequent release on the Oculus Quest, it’s certainly more accessible than it’s ever been. It’s unfortunate then that it’s taken the development team at Downpour Interactive so much of its time to make this port happen, only to revert the PC version of Onward VR backward into a state that is, technically, far closer to its original 2016 release while ditching the sweat-inducing hyperrealism that it had slowly worked in over the past four years.
Don’t get me wrong, however. As of this moment, the multiplayer Onward experience is exactly what I described in that first paragraph; tense, even terrifying at times, and bound to make you leap out of your skin— or at least out of your play area.
The mode that I’ve described above is Onward‘s bread and butter, Uplink, which pits two teams of five players against one another; one team defends an objective while the other team attempts to either kill each of the defenders or hack into the uplink by manually tapping in and setting off a seven-digit code right next to its access point. There are no respawns, maps are designed with several lanes and many open areas (and complementary vantage points), and it only takes one well-placed round to end an opponent’s life or vice versa. This is still as fantastic and gut-wrenching as it has ever been, regardless of whether you’re on a PC VR headset or an Oculus Quest, but thoroughly downgraded graphics and effects add a level of unbalance that I delve into further down below.
That’s not the only thing to see in Onward VR, which now boasts plenty of fun game modes and even a modding framework, which is something I’d wanted to see for a long time since Onward‘s original release. Social (read: casual) game modes include Spec Ops, a sort of cat-and-mouse between super speedy knife-wielding Volk and limited ammo-clutching MARSOC survivors, and classics like Gun Game and One in the Chamber, all of which are intense, well-balanced, and still very fun to play. And if you simply want to mess around with one of Onward‘s many extremely varied and unique weapons or tactical toys, there’s always the Shooting Range, which now features moving targets and a very cool multi-story killhouse-style practice course.
Speaking of Onward‘s weapons, the ‘gun feel’ has always been one of its strongest points. The rattle and simulated kickback of each weapon feels unique and personified, and adding to the fact that you need to literally operate and reload each weapon by hand with VR controls, there’s a satisfying learning curve associated with each weapon and tool. Even still, the PC version has experienced something of a backslide in its move from 1.7 to 1.8.
Dynamic lighting has been added with the new update, giving characters and weapons a more pronounced feel meanwhile stripping them of their subtlety in a way that doesn’t seem appropriate for the darker, bleaker visual tone that Onward was previously characterized by. It doesn’t help that night vision goggles haven’t quite caught up with this new system, making them extremely difficult to see through clearly when moving through certain night-time locations. Granted, weapons are still far punchier in the most recent PC version than in the Quest version, which features overly simplified graphics and sound effects to the point where its visuals and sounds convey something far closer to a VR-ified port of Nintendo 64’s GoldenEye 007 than a modern VR game.
Further, Quest players have an unfair advantage in some cases where areas of a map are better lit or less detailed at close-range on the Quest version— whereas PC players have an unfair advantage at long range overall— which gives Onward‘s crossplay multiplayer an asymmetric feel, and not in a good way. All of the maps now have issues with pop-in and objects appearing and/or disappearing at weird angles. It’s often too dark to clearly see the models of your own weapon and armor loadout in the lobby tent on the Quest version of Onward VR. This is all just completely jarring and weird, given how graphically tight things were even as recently as 1.7.
Multiplayer still works as well as it ever has, however, and it’s to the latest version’s benefit that thanks to crossplay I can now find tons of open online game matches at a single time, rather than the minuscule 10-20 that I had often found during peak hours before the update. I’m also pleased to note that there is finally an option to mute other players inside of the lobby tent, the location where you choose your loadout. There’s been word of some match-ending bugs here and there, but I’ve found nothing to jar me out of any online matches in a way that’s been noticeable. What has been noticeable, on the other hand, is the greatly reduced microphone sound quality. This is a huge issue in a multiplayer-focused game where clear communication is so important.
As usual, the single-player continues to be Onward‘s weakest point. Enemy AI is still as rough as ever, with enemies just rushing you in one congealed mass or magically auto-aiming at you from across the map, mowing you down before you can get your bearings. Weirdly enough, they’ve added the option to face off against 200 or so AI opponents at once, which is something I tried (and immediately regretted trying) after I learned that the AI is still as broken as it’s been for the past few years. Luckily, its single-player is certainly not the main attraction here.
Regardless of which mode you play in, Onward‘s control scheme has never been as customizable as it is right now. There’s still no teleport option or even any type of arm-swinger option for the squeamish, but I’ve waited literal years for the ability to finally set my controller movement to track the direction that my head is pointing. Of course, when in the Quest version, you can now simply turn in the direction you’d like to move in, which works and feels absolutely fantastic in practice. Playing on Quest without cables pinning me to a certain location or position in my room, an entirely new world of interaction opens up within this hyper-tactile, hyper-detailed mil-sim; giving way to moments like the one I described before, where I attempted to leap out of harm’s way.
In all, this new update feels like a clear move to make Onward more accessible to more players. It’s commendable, especially given that playing it without tethers adds a whole new dimension to gameplay, and also given that the influx of new players has clearly filled in Onward‘s online community. It’s just a shame that the experience has been watered down in other ways, introducing a new slew of problems that Downpour will inevitably need to fix— or risk alienating its most loyal contingent of fans.