Ubisoft's Space Junkies sets the groundwork for a great competition-ready zero-G VR shooter, but a lack of content and character dulls its shine.
The announcer in Space Junkies, Ubisoft’s brand new VR shooter, is trying his best to do an impression of Fred Schneider from the B-52s. Through an overblown, slightly mocking Sprechgesang, he welcomes new players into the tutorial and beyond, a persistent unseen voice goading and guiding, attempting to establish some character to feed the resultant hi-jinks of this zero-gravity FPS, and while it’s a kind of admirable energy, there seem to be more than a few essential qualities missing from this new PlayStation VR game that somewhat under-delivers on its potential.
That tutorial is a good one, though. You’d think that moving around in all directions with a headset on would be frustrating at best and nauseous at worst, but Space Junkies makes that movement enjoyable. Through a combination of directional actions that utilize most of the buttons on the DualShock 4, players can hover vertically, move and strafe around, and even speed-boost straight ahead. The movement is strongly tied to a player’s head-tracking, a system which has seen similar use in other games and works well here, though it may take some time to get used to. Without boosting, character movement is a little on the slow side, but feels stable and sensible, and a few camera tricks help prevent players from losing their lunch, like darkening edges of the screen during lurching turns.
By the end of the tutorial/boot camp level, you’ll feel quite confident in dashing around, taking tight turns, and firing weapons, of which there is an interesting but limited assortment. The Ricoshaker rebounds bullets off of walls, making them excellent for taking out opponents in tunnels or tight quarters, and the Plasma Rifle is a hearty sniper-like weapon which requires charging for maximum effect. Even the simple pistol, dubbed the Sunblaster, has its own quirks, including a snazzy reload action unique from the others. What’s more, any weapon depleted of ammo can be quickly thrown, which transforms it into an incidental grenade, making for hilarious hail-Mary ends to heated fights.
Determining how best to use available weapons in live play will take considerable time, as well as memorization of their spawning locations while you loop around an arena in search of the best picks. In one of Space Junkies’ most original mechanics, players can not only dual-wield these firearms, but actually use both of their hands to manipulate them in certain ways. The Plasma Rifle is a great example of this, where the left trigger primes it and the right trigger fires, though careful use of a limited-energy shield can protect players from crafty campers from an insta-kill headshot.
So that’s the good news: the basic armory and movement abilities are pretty much five stars across the board, particularly for a VR shooter. Unfortunately, though, Space Junkies suffers from a severe lack of content at time of launch, with a small handful of arenas and essentially two simple game modes: 1v1 and 2v2. Furthermore, team play is specifically gated to friends, so there’s no random 2v2 matchmaking available, and if you don’t know anyone else with a PlayStation VR, you’re stuck with straightforward 1v1 deathmatch. The reason for this seems apparent — it’s to avoid potential griefing with strangers, where playing duos means a single teammate could ruin a match for their side — but with a smaller possible player-base due to the tech involved, you’d think Ubisoft might see fit to just let us roll the dice, rather than put up another barrier for entry.
That being said, this sensibility seems to have fed into the reason for the game’s robust pre-match active lobby. Here, players can goof around in a space station and also use the mic to speak to their upcoming opponent, and maybe even possibly make a PlayStation Plus friend in the process. If you want to team up with strangers and experience the fuller and more interesting 2v2 mode, this represents your only method to make it happen.
Matchmaking seems unreliable at the moment, and facing a much higher-level player in your first matches will likely occur. Again, this is probably due to an overall dearth of players who own modern VR tech. Additionally, Ubisoft saw fit to implement cross-play functionality, which is a surprising feature on consoles these days (or, at least, on the PlayStation 4), but it comes at a heavy price in this particular circumstance: Oculus/Vive players have the clear leg up over their PS VR brethren. Since they'll be using actual dual controllers like the Oculus Touch, they can dual-wield and aim in different directions and even emote with each hand. Sure, the 1v1 and 2v2 match varieties mean this is more understated — an 8v8 match, for example, would give dual-wielders a much greater range of targets to shoot at — but it’s still a glaring imbalance for a game that intends to be played with a competitive mindset.
Still, the DualShock 4 does the job, and using it to aim is certainly functional, and there’s a fair amount of possible precision that, through practice, can feel rewarding in high-tension play. Gameplay will send you spinning around in circles as you hug sharp turns to get the drop on your opponent, and the sense of improvement with each completed match feels righteously satisfying. Space Junkies has a genuinely well put-together sense of mechanics, and there aren’t an enormous amount of games that have unified full-3D movement and gunplay to this high standard.
Graphically, Space Junkies looks about on par with many games downgraded for PS VR. Sacrificing texture detail for higher frame rate was the right move, just don’t confuse PC screenshots for the actual PlayStation results (note that this version was tested on a standard PlayStation 4, not a Pro). For the soundtrack, there's a catchy bit of music that will inevitably start to grate, as well as that B-52s announcer that just seems like a lazy fill-in to add a somewhat “wacky” feel to the proceedings. Neither audio aspect fits quite right, and feel a little like try-hard additions to inject character where there really isn’t any to be found. Maybe if there were additional modes, like teams battling alien hordes or playing some kind of futuristic sport, these details could feel well-rounded but, as they are, they feel arbitrary and disposable.
Regardless, they also don’t get in the way of the central gameplay, which is genuinely strong and absorbing. There’s reason to believe that more features will be added to Space Junkies as time goes on (there is word that PlayStation Move controllers will see eventual integration in a future patch), and the basic combat is strong enough that it could potentially support a competitive and passionate community. What’s damning is that Ubisoft is asking for $40 for a limited amount of content, and presumably expecting PS VR owners trapped by limited options to simply plunk that money down. If they indeed continue to support and expand upon the game in future updates, they could certainly have something special here, but absent of any promises for a stable community (or AI bots, at the very least, please), consumers should be a little wary when committing to this one.
Space Junkies is available on Oculus, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR. A digital code for PlayStation VR was provided to Screen Rant for purposes of review.