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World of Diving: Hands-On with the Scuba

Previews By Gareth Harmer on September 18, 2014

World of Diving: Hands-On with the Scuba

There are some people that travel the world, diving into exotic waters to discover the wonders of the ocean. They explore incredible forests of coral, or the slowly decaying wrecks of lost ships. They come back with tales of adventure, or incredible photos of the sights that they’d seen. For me, I’m lucky if I make it down to the local swimming pool. But, after going hands-on with underwater sim World of Diving, I’m beginning to understand the allure of the big blue wet thing.

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While at Gamescom last month, I managed to meet Richard Stitselaar, creative director of Rotterdam-based Vertigo Games and one of the driving forces behind the title. Surprisingly though, the idea for a diving simulator didn’t even crop up until the team first set eyes on the original Oculus Rift devkit.

“It started with the Oculus actually. Vertigo funded the Kickstarter campaign, and when it arrived at the office we were really excited. I did some diving myself in the past, and I put the goggles on, and I was ‘this is like a scuba diving mask. We should make a scuba diving game. At some point, somebody is going to make a scuba diving game, because it feels like the goggles.’ We did some research from there, did some prototyping, and actually put the video of the prototype on Steam Greenlight.”

It worked out well, as World of Diving is now one of a growing number of Oculus-ready titles on Steam Early Access. The headset isn’t mandatory though, as it also runs without it on Windows, Mac and Linux. Multiplayer is also supported, with up to 16 divers able to group up on a single map.

I’ll admit, I was a little dubious about the idea, but getting in the water actually sold me on the concept. With the Rift headset on, I did actually feel like I was in the ocean, with light streaming through to weave patterns on the sand-covered floor. Schools of fish would swim past, and a nearby dolphin came in for a curious look. The area I swam through was based on an actual real-life wreck named the Hilma Hooker, and is one of a number that Vertigo has added.

Even so, the immersive effect was limited by the classic Rift devkit used for the demo, due to the ‘screen door’ mesh effect that’s caused by its inferior LCD. Once I returned home, I shelled out for a copy so that I could try it on the updated DK2. With the improved visuals, the seascape looked much more impressive. The improved motion tracking also helped significantly, as my head movements were more accurately mimicked in the underwater world. Getting around was also fluid, especially when paired with a gamepad – I just pointed my head in the right direction and pushed the analogue stick to move around. It’s all very relaxing.

Grouping up also felt natural. Communicating underwater is hard enough in the real world, which is why hand signals have been implemented for divers without voice chat. Even so, it felt natural to follow someone around a diving site, taking in some of the views and even discovering treasure.

Getting in the water is all well and good, but World of Diving is more than a basic interactive experience. The most common challenge at the moment is to capture photos of objects and treasures, although this will be expanded in the future. More locations are also being added, with Vertigo working on a way to procedurally generate oceans based on NASA data, including the water depth, sea life and so on.

If that’s not enough, it’s also possible to build your own undersea lairs with the built-in scenario builder. This still involves swimming underwater, but with a set of tools to add, drop and scale objects. Steam Workshop is also being considered as a way of adding further custom objects from the user community. Objects aren’t currently influenced by physics, but this is also a planned update.

In fact, those planned updates are a recurring theme, with the community heavily influencing the direction of development. As you complete a scenario, you’re asked what feature the studio should focus on next. A companion iPad app, featuring an aquarium of discovered sea life, also started as a community idea. Longer term, Vertigo’s also planning to add a customizable diving base, complete with submarine docking station and a way of showing off all the treasures you’ve discovered.

Ultimately though, development on World of Diving is unlikely to drag on. Even with the heavy community involvement, Vertigo is aiming to switch from Early Access to full release by Q2 next year. And, while it might be a tougher sell on the regular desktop, this is one title that’s definitely worth experiencing on the Rift. As VR headsets become more commonplace, and with the consumer Rift launch due sometime next year, this may end up becoming a niche must-have.

Gareth Harmer / When he's not blasting or fireballing his way through a virtual world, Gareth "Gazimoff" Harmer can be found dissecting the mechanics of online games. Chua at heart, he's also our resident columnist for all things WildStar.