It was around the third level that Boneworks clicked for me. Sure, there’s plenty to see and engage with in the first few scenes. The physics elevate the experience into new realms, for better or worse. But it wasn’t until the sandbox opened up and I started getting guns — lots of guns — that it all came together.
Is Boneworks perfect? No.
Is Boneworks the best narrative-driven VR shooter until Half-Life: Alyx comes around? Absolutely.
- What is Boneworks? A VR-only narrative-driven first-person shooter. It’s light on narrative, heavy on physics, and gives you plenty of toys to play with. And there’s “not-headcrabs” aplenty in case you had any doubt about their inspiration.
- Reviewed On: Windows, Steam, HTC Vive
- Price: $29.99
- Developer: Stress Level Zero
- Publisher: Stress Level Zero
- Release Date: December 10th, 2019
- Website: http://www.stresslevelzero.com/
- Multiplayer: No
Welcome to MythOS
The first fifteen minutes lead you though a leisurely tutorial to acquaint you with the in-game verbs and physics of Boneworks. And trust me, you’ll need every bit of the practice. Your digital body is fully simulated — meaning that your hands, head, and feet are all bound to the in-game physics engine. Even sans the Valve Index, you can control your index finger and thumb separate from the rest of your hand for high-fidelity interactions. Every object has a realistic weight and heft as you interact with it. Find a sledgehammer? Swing it with both hands to get work done. See a ladder or a set of monkeybars? Grab hold and start climbing, hand-over-hand.
All this incredible virtual presence is both the best and worst aspect of Boneworks. Even those with strong “VR legs” will likely find themselves queasy at some point. The game isn’t afraid to yank your view around as you climb, fight, and jump through the game. This creates an unprecedented level of immersion — as well as unprecendented levels of nausea if you’re not prepared. As Stress Level Zero wisely warns at the outset, Boneworks is for “Expert VR users only.” And they aren’t joking around.
The tutorial feels like a vertical slice meant to sell a publisher on the potential within. Stress Level Zero front loads the “What if this is just a tech demo?” question upfront. And without a doubt, it’s absolutely a tech demo. A glimpse into the future of VR. But fortunately for gamers craving meaty VR experiences, it’s so much more than that as well.
Instances, Physics, and Saves—Oh My!
Soon you’re traversing the streets and sewers of MythOS City. You’ll use all the skills you learned in the tutorial to explore and engage the rogue AI constructs trying to stop you. Make no mistake, it’s a remarkably tight experience. But while there aren’t any showstopping issues, several quirks reveal themselves in short order.
For one, each level is its own “instance.” Weapons you find in one level won’t come with you to the next one. Fortunately, the ammunition you find does — and it also serves as a sort of currency. Vending machines near the beginning of each level allow you to restock on gear by spending your hard-earned bullets. It’s a unique mechanic that comes off feeling like a flimsy patch for a lack of time.
Player movement can also be a bit iffy due to the physics. Since you have simulated legs, you may find yourself accidentally slipping off the edge if you don’t watch your footing while platforming. And yes, there are platforming sections. While awkward situations can be minimized with practice, it never becomes any less frustrating to lose progress to physics glitches.
And the lack of saves can lead to lost progress as well. Checkpoints ensure that you aren’t sent back too far when you die. Nevertheless, if you have to stop playing for any reason, when you come back you’ll be reset to the beginning of the level. The developer has confirmed that they’re investigating alternative save systems, but it feels like the sort of thing the game should have shipped with.
Running and Gunning in VR
The levels are serviceable and pay heavy-handed homage to Half-Life 2. You’ll find plenty of familiar crates to smash and even a playground early on that evokes memories of City 17. There’s a good number of physics puzzles, though they tend to lean into solutions that involve climbing. Great news if you love the climbing mechanic — but unfortunate if you’re already feeling queasy.
Gun handling really shines in Boneworks. Every weapon feels unique, even if it’s just thanks to the addition of a laser sight or scope. And it’s so buttery smooth and satisfying that it’s destined to become the standard all other VR games will be judged by. Gunfights are frantic, and the addition of slow-motion makes for some truly cinematic moments. At its best, it’s less like The Matrix and more like John Wick.
The sound design is top notch. Guns pack a punch, and there’s plenty of foley sounds to make melee feel weighty. The soundtrack also deserves a callout, with some incredible retro synth work that calls to mind 80’s action films. It’s the sort of soundtrack that rises to meet an action-packed moment then blends into the background when you’re solving a puzzle.
The narrative is paper thin but passable. Occasionally you’ll find monitors in the environment that characters back in the real-world use to move the story along. Each new setpiece brings more visual candy to admire as you make your way toward the Tower at the heart of MythOS. And the journey clocks in at a solid 8 hours, which makes this more of a full meal and less of an appetizer. A pleasant change of pace from the effervescent experiences that have dominated VR thus far.
The Best Tech Demo Around
After the credits roll, Boneworks presents you with an Arena mode so you can keep gunning to your hearts content. And there’s a Sandbox mode as well, if you can find the key to unlock it in the campaign. While the levels are fairly linear, there’s plenty of nooks and crannies to explore. But you may find that you’ve had your fill after a one-and-done run through the campaign. There’s plenty of value here for the price, if you’re willing to stomach a few frustrations along the way.
It’s the glimpse of the future and confirmation that VR “works” is what lingered with me most after putting my headset down each session. The VR industry is currently in its awkward teen phase, with growing pains aplenty. There’s several triple-A VR games on the horizon that forecast bright days ahead. And despite its missteps, Boneworks justifies its position among them. Rest assured, it’s far more than just a tech demo. It’s a great experience in its own right. Just don’t let the headcrabs — sorry, “headsets” — bite.
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Combat - 9/10
Puzzles & Exploration - 7/10
Narrative - 6/10
Audiovisual - 7/10
Controls - 7/10
BONEWORKS introduces new VR physics that deliver so much novelty it’s hard to take off the headset. It is more than just a demo, it’s a glimpse into the future of VR.
- Incredible combat
- Unrivaled physics systems
- Great retro synth soundtrack
- Frequently wonky physics around player movement
- No mid-level saves
- Nausea inducing even for hardened VR vets