How Asgard’s Wrath is making VR combat feel real

In virtual reality, holding a sword should actually feel like holding a sword. As simple as that sounds, it's a challenge that involves more than just tricky technical problems. In the case of Asgard’s Wrath, it started with a single question: What do players actually want? It’s a question Michael Doran, executive producer at Oculus Studios, asked himself and the team behind Asgard’s Wrath throughout years of rigorous play testing.

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“Gamers want basic actions to feel as real as possible,” says Doran, “so we started with accurately portraying how it feels to block and attack with a sword.” After years of iteration and research, and the slaughter of many virtual minions, the team felt it nailed sword combat and began layering additional mechanics to the mix. “We started adding breakable weapons, defensive parries, and so on, all using Sanzaru’s custom version of the Unreal engine.”

It all sounds complicated, but the payoff couldn’t be simpler: everything just feels good. There’s a moment in Asgard’s Wrath when it all clicks: it might be the first time you draw a virtual sword like it was dangling on your real belt. Or it could be moments later, when you slide the sword back into its sheath after cutting through a rabble of monsters. Maybe you’ve slain virtual villains before, but there’s a new sense of “I just did that!” all over this game that elevates the experience above your everyday virtual adventure.

Fighting monsters with sword and shield is nothing new, but using physical skill and real-world brawn certainly is. This sensation of physical accomplishment is what Asgard's Wrath is all about, and it’s only possible through technologies that Sanzaru Games has refined through titles such as VR Sports Challenge and MARVEL Powers United VR. So, while it's an old-school action-adventure role-playing game at heart, Asgard's Wrath is designed for immersive questing.

“The main difference between Asgard’s Wrath and traditional action-adventure RPGs like Skyrim is that Asgard’s Wrath was built for virtual reality from day one,” says Doran. “We can take full advantage of new systems and tools without having to port them from another platform.”

One of these tools is inverse kinematics (IK), which game developers use to animate 3D character models. IK helps game characters move through environments realistically — walking, jumping, and so on — by using algorithms to predict the accurate placement of virtual joints and limbs. While the games industry has used IK for years, developers today are rethinking IK in virtual reality, where the line between game character and human operator gets fuzzy. The difference between a VR experience with IK and one without is the difference between seeing your entire body in virtual space and seeing just your disembodied hands.

Getting a complete virtual body to mimic your movements in a way that feels right is tough. Bending your knees in reality should look like you're bending your knees in Valhalla, too. It’s a design challenge that required Sanzaru Games to roll up its collective sleeves and dig into its work on earlier games, like Ripcoil, one of the first Rift games to use a full IK framework. “We wanted to carry this experience forward into Wrath so we could show you where you were struck with arrows and daggers,” says Doran. “We wanted to make you feel like you’ve really become these mortal heroes.”

Next-level combat isn’t the only way Asgard’s Wrath is promising a fresh and compelling experience. It’s going to mess with your sense of scale by letting you shift perspective to that of a giant demigod, turning many of the game’s locations into Norse-inspired play sets for you to tinker with — the first time you pluck an eagle out of the sky with a giant, ethereal hand is a real treat. At first, playing as a god was the only way Sanzaru Games wanted players to experience the game, but that changed when the team threw in characters with a decidedly human perspective.

“Playing as a god was cool, but it was missing something,” says Doran. “Sanzaru tried a rough prototype that allowed you to experience the world we’d already built from a human point of view. It was instant magic, even in its rough state. We knew we had to make that feature work, no matter the cost.”

This introduced new challenges to an already complicated game world. “Should we let players switch at will, wherever they want?” asked Doran. “Should the god character interact with enemies and tear them apart, or just the human-sized ones?” Answering quirky questions like these is crucial if you’re going to make your target audience happy.

“We play tested and iterated a ton,” says Doran. “It’s still ongoing, and we’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘What would players expect?’” The process led to some visceral additions Doran hopes will strike players' fancy, “like being able to pull enemy daggers out of your shield and throw them back.”

“Action-adventure and RPG fans tend to be a very passionate crowd,” says Doran. But he thinks Asgard’s Wrath is up to the challenge. “We’ve tried to push beyond the limits of what’s been created in virtual reality. It’s very much a complete package that we think will wow people.”

Asgard’s Wrath, from Oculus Studios and Sanzaru Games, launches this summer on Oculus Rift.