Coming shortly after the launch of PlayStation VR, Ubisoft has continued their tradition of supporting new platforms. In this case, because Eagle Flight is not quite the size of a fully-stocked game, it has been priced accordingly.
The setup is simple: after mankind has left our beautiful planet for reasons that remain unexplained, animals have conquered the big cities, in this case Paris. We assume the role of an eagle who is preparing to take over the skies, and against the backdrop of our narrator's voice we are born into virtual reality, emerging from a digital egg and gliding through the skies from then on, soaring majestically over the overgrown skeleton of the French metropolis.
The controls are very easy to pick up, as the direction of your flight is controlled by head movement, with tighter curves achieved by tilting the head as opposed to turning it. You can see that the developers have put a lot of thought into this and into avoiding motion sickness. The fact that one is forced to mimic turning motions with the head helps to prevent nausea, and in the case of fast twists and turns, the edges of the field of view are darkened. This is invaluable in enabling enjoyment without dizziness and sickness, and it works well, allowing you to explore Paris intuitively and without the feeling that you're going to hurl.
The graphics are cartoonish, and the world design is reminiscent of games such as The Last Of Us and Crysis 3, at least in the sense that everything is overgrown, animals that once lived in captivity now roam around town, and the buildings that populate the city have many points of access that you can use to navigate the world. The eagle, however, can only land in its nest, and a collision immediately sends it flying to a black screen and a reboot, which can be a bit annoying. In addition to free exploration of the city, in which collectable objects such as feathers are hidden, there are of course missions, and these consist of fetch quests, races, and later on even aerial battles.
In the races you need to fly through rings, which isn't exactly original game design, but it works. Since the days of the Commodore 64, titles such as Master of the Lamps and Aliens have entertained us in this way, and later the Nintendo classic Pilotwings made this approach even more popular. In Eagle Flight it works similarly well, but the learning curve is quite steep. Quite early on in the metro tunnels of Paris we found that slapping against a wall with the big bird is almost physically painful in VR, and when this happens near the end of a run, forcing a restart from the very beginning, it can be frustrating. There are no checkpoints, but successful completion of each challenge is rated with up to three stars.
Aerial battles are all about taking out other birds using "eagle sound waves". These are pretty much slow firing missiles, and opponents defend themselves using air mines and, later on, protective shields. This is all very far-fetched, granted, but it's a lot of fun, and landing a hit can be very satisfying. There are also plenty of nice sound effects in these air battles; sometimes these even remind us a little of the Tie-Fighters from Star Wars.
But here, too, frustration can take hold, as opponents can also shoot sideways, an ability that's unlocked only after completing the story. In addition, the collision detection felt a little inconsistent, so a shot you think went just past you can end up killing you. In addition, you might be audibly warned of enemy shots, but their position can only be guessed at. On top of that, during the heat of battle, you'll sometimes fly into a tower or crash into an air mine that you've seen too late. All of this isn't a problem once you've practised a bit, and even the harder missions can be mastered eventually, but the learning curve is rather steep.
The story is fairly rudimentary; a typical ring race is romantically described as courtship between potential life partners, for example. The sequences that sometimes appear before these missions are, unfortunately, strangely blurred, and the crisp in-game graphics look so much better. Of course, because of its origins, the game contains certain marks of the "Ubisoft formula", and Paris and its iconic landscape immediately reminded us of Assassin's Creed: Unity.
The story takes about three to four hours to complete, and that's not including the optional challenges and collectables. There's more meat in the multiplayer mode which offers exciting multiplayer dogfights... or eaglefights. In this 3v3 mode, players battle for prey that needs to be picked up and brought into the team's nest in order to score. To be successful here, you have to fly dangerously low, through the streets, and in between trees, which is no easy task. This offers a lot of excitement, but the potential for motion sickness rises with the faster action.
The peaceful feeling of flying above Paris, along with the background music and the sounds of the many animals around you, is great. Once you have internalised the controls, it's fun to dive like a real eagle from high altitude onto a fish jumping out of the water, or to glide at breakneck speed through the various buildings, which also vary depending on the chapter, with different atmospheric and weather effects changing the mood.
There is a design decision that we don't understand, however. In the "Free Flight mode", which is available from the beginning, you can look around freely by pressing the X button, all the while maintaining the direction you're flying in. In the story, however, you get this only after you have finished, although it would have been very useful to have had it unlocked beforehand.
All in all, Eagle Flight is an enjoyable game that makes very good use of VR and its possibilities, while avoiding some of its problems. It's good to see that Ubisoft has invested some valuable development time into this new realm of virtual reality gaming. We even found ourselves going back more often than we thought we would, if only to collect more feathers, claim some Trophies, and just relax into the feeling of flying freely to a soothing soundtrack.