Boiling Steel REVIEW: Halo Meets Portal In VR Robo-Smashing Mayhem
Intuitive gameplay and an engaging progression system define this VR shooter, which could just end up a sleeper hit for developer MiroWin.
Reviewed by Liam Noble Shearer
(NOTE: Although Boiling Steel developer MiroWin provided a game-key for this review, all views expressed are my own.)
Delving Into Boiling Steel...
For a platform as popular as virtual reality (VR), it's shocking how relatively unexplored the first-person shooter (FPS) genre is. Sure, there are a fair few multiplayer VR FPS titles (POPULATION: ONE was Oculus' most popular multiplayer game last year, after all), but narrative FPS titles like Boneworks - with a solid movement system, amazing gameplay and an engaging story - are a lot harder to come by.
For this reason, I'm always on the lookout for unique FPS experiences to review for VRFinal. So when Ukrainian developer MiroWin got in touch with a free review copy of their second full-length VR title Boiling Steel, saying yes was an absolute no brainer.
By the time they pushed Boiling Steel into Steam Early Access in December 2019, MiroWin were already experienced VR developers. Their first title, Guns'N'Stories: Bulletproof, was received positively by fans and critics alike after it released back in 2017. In fact, the game was so well received that MiroWin now offer a bargain bundle pack with both Bulletproof and Boiling Steel on Steam.
So, having learned about the developer's history and past work, I was ready to delve in. I decided to consider the game's performance by how it lives up to my three facets of a great single-player, narrative-driven VR FPS: a solid movement system, amazing gameplay, and an engaging story.
So how does Boiling Steel shape up? Without further ado, here's what I found:
Robots & Avatars: AI and All...
Great controls and fun gameplay are essential in any single-player FPS, but developers often forego the engaging story. More often than not, developers will just slap "arcade" in the description somewhere and any expectation of an immersive single-player narrative flies out the window. In Boiling Steel, I was delighted to see that developer MiroWin takes no such shortcut. The narrative premise is fairly simple, so I'll let the game's description speak for itself:
They promised a good job and a bright future. But advertising posters always lie. Instead of a quiet life - war. Instead of a body, a steel shell. Instead of weapons - tools. Thousands of light years from home. You are alone. Nowhere to run. Good luck, my friend...
The story for Boiling Steel is the brainchild of one of the authors of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, so it's no surprise that it is very evidently well-versed in the annals of Sci-Fi history. In fact, the developers seem to wear their influences on their sleeves. The 'futuristic paradise turned dystopian nightmare' is science fiction gospel, and other strands seem to have been pulled from across the spectrum of contemporary fiction - the artificial embodiment of Avatar and the robots-gone-rogue motif that runs through everything from I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream to Terminator. But even when these facets can be linked directly to their literary or cinematic influences, it's incredible how much Boiling Steel makes them feel like its own. You're not "trapped in robot body", rather you consciously upload yourself into various shells. Boiling Steel is by no means an "unconventional" Sci-Fi shooter, but that doesn't mean it doesn't start up with an evidently comprehensive narrative that is authentically its own.
The opening tutorial sequences, which last around seventy minutes, are certainly slower than the rest of the game - but they are also a masterclass in building engaging and entertaining lore. Central to the presentation of the narrative are a number of voices that speak to you remotely, helping to direct you through the opening few levels. The "spoken at" narrative style almost feels like Portal 2 at times, where without the narration of Wheatly, GLaDOS and Cave Johnson I'm sure the title would have been far less engaging. One of the first voices that greets you is a charismatic Cowboy-type, and this will be the first of a few robotic narrators who will guide you through the adventure. The voice acting was incredible and had me really excited to delve deeper into the game.
The story is there, to be sure, but the execution falters slightly as the game takes a dramatic turn after the introductory sequences. We quickly lose the charming and original narration of the Cowboy-type in favour of a couple of text-to-speech sounding narrators who are not nearly so entertaining. This is accounted for in the lore, of course, but one can't help but wonder why it was decided such a fantastic aspect of the first part of the game was lost so quickly. The more robotic narration isn't any less helpful, but no matter how good the writing is, the jokes and nuances tend to fall flat as they're failed by the awkward execution.
Although the narrative is key to explaining why you are doing things the whole way through the game, after the story pushes you several years in the future and we lose the charismatic narration, the story also seems to lose the spotlight. Partly the reason for this is that the shift in story occurs basically alongside the point you're let loose to start developing your own play style - I can only speak for myself, but I started paying less attention to the story as I became more engaged in the progression system. But it would have been nice to have it run front-and-centre throughout the entire ten-odd-hour narrative, rather than have the first couple of hours doing most of the heavy lifting.
RUN AND GUN!... or, rather, WALK and TOOL.
Boiling Steel certainly feels like the product of a developer who has been through the development process once before. Their first title, Guns'N'Stories, was a pretty charming shooter, but compared to Boiling Steel was substantially less ambitious. The game follows through marvellously, living up to its premise and offering a whole lot of everything to get you stuck in.
Part of the story is that you don't have guns, you only have tools. This plays out very well in practice, and the unique weapon handling system is honestly one of my favourite things about this game. You don't pick up weapons throughout the world, rather you customise your robot before each level with weapons and bonuses. How do you get your hands on weapons in your loadout? That's the best part: with some Doctor Strange-style hand movements, you digitally conjure weapons and pull them into reality. This is central to combat, as weapons never seem to last very long. Furthermore, you'll need different types of weapons for different types of foes: red weapons tend to be short range, which blue tend to be long. This is unlike any other game I've played, and helps to consulate the originality of Boiling Steel.
But these tools really aren't good weapons. Some ranged weapons have only four shots, meaning that you'll be conjuring weapons basically all the time. The game allows you to level up your favourite weapons relatively quickly, which helps to make sure you don't get frustrated with just how poorly these weapons act in combat. But, more than anything, you'll quickly need to implement strategy to surpass these limitations. And... then you'll unlock the Halo-style holoblades.
Yeah, they certainly switched things up a bit.
That being said, the fact you're bringing tools to a gunfight just compounds the fact that this isn't an easy ride. There are four levels of difficult (which basically translate to easy, medium, hard & very hard), but none of them are a complete walk in the park. If you die, you need to start the level all over again - and while these levels are entertaining, some of them are long and fairly massive. Furthermore, a certain amount of signal (health) doesn't naturally regenerate, adding to the challenge - particularly as the hardest parts linger towards the end of the levels. You can, of course, unlock a regeneration ability later down the line to bolster your robotic avatars.
But all of this challenge is actually bolsters the entertainment factor, even becoming integral to the game's aesthetics. A bit like Fallout, different types of damage can have different effects on gameplay: hurt your hands and you'll drop your weapon, take damage to your head and you'll see cracks appear in your visor. The gameplay is certainly a bit dry to start off with, but it rewards commitment with an engaging progression system that keeps you invested even as the story falters.
Movement in the game is also fantastic, with an impressive number of customisation and comfort options. You can play seated or standing, you can enjoy smooth turning or snap turning, and I have it on good authority that it works well with Oculus Rift room-scale technology - although I didn't test it myself. Great attention has been paid to making this game as accessible as possible, even allowing Left-Handed play. The game plays phenomenally and isn't held back by anything technical.
However, you do walk exceptionally slowly. It's probably a nit-pick, and not really unique to this title. But particularly when these maps are so well designed, expansive and inspire variation from playthrough to playthrough, it can become particularly frustrating. There is a dash ability which can help users speed up locomotion, but this gets used up rather quickly. It's not a game-breaker to be sure, rather just a footnote to play.