Boneworks review: An absolute VR mess—yet somehow momentous

It's not <em>Half-Life</em>, they keep saying. But maybe <em>Boneworks</em> shouldn't have leaned so freaking heavily into the obvious visual similarities, considering how this week's new VR game doesn't quite hold up compared to its Valve inspirations. Still, it's a remarkable VR achievement.

It’s not Half-Life, they keep saying. But maybe Boneworks shouldn’t have leaned so freaking heavily into the obvious visual similarities, considering how this week’s new VR game doesn’t quite hold up compared to its Valve inspirations. Still, it’s a remarkable VR achievement.

For years, an ambitious game called Boneworks has hovered in the periphery of the VR enthusiast community, inspiring equal parts drool and confusion. It’s made by a scrappy-yet-experienced VR team (makers of quality fare like Hover Junkers and Duck Season). It revolves around realistic guns and a complicated physics system—thus immediately looking more ambitious than other “VR gun adventure” games in the wild.

And it so strongly resembled Half-Life in its preview teases, both in aesthetics and in physics-filled puzzles, that fans wondered if this was the oft-rumored Half-Life VR game after all. (It’s not.)

Now that Boneworks has launched for all PC-VR platforms, does the gaming world finally have an adventure game worthy of an “only in VR” designation? The answer to that question is a resounding “yes”—but that’s not the same as saying it’s a good video game.

The trouble with “git gud” in VR

At its worst, Boneworks had me bellowing in agony. The game, which has you escaping and battling your way out of a mysterious research facility, revolves around a philosophy of “realistic” physics interactions. Everything you see can be touched, pushed, lifted, and manipulated by your hands and body according to their real-life size and weight.

But the results can be an utter mess of virtual body parts glitching through or getting stuck on top of stuff in the game. Since your real arms and legs are not so constricted, the disconnect of game and reality is some of the most severe I’ve ever seen in VR software.

To break this down, I’ll start by addressing a brief, “experts-only” notice which must be clicked through upon every boot of the game. Now that I’ve played the game, I would’ve rewritten the notice to be more specific:

WARNING: Boneworks operates with the assumption that you’re comfortable with VR experiences that push the limits of comfort and nausea. You must walk using a joystick, as the game doesn’t offer any “teleportation” options for comfort’s sake. You must press a button to virtually “jump,” and your virtual perspective will fling and fall great distances throughout the game. And you must press against firm virtual objects, which will thus “push” your apparent grounding point in VR while you remain still in real life. If you’ve never played a VR game before, this should not be your first VR rodeo. Maybe not even your second.

The above issues are no accident. Boneworks‘ battles and puzzles revolve around intentional movement and the position of your body and hands. If the developers at Stress Level Zero had their way, they would’ve built a massive, real-life amusement park to emphasize gunplay, melee, running, jumping, and climbing—in ways that can’t be replicated in a flat-screen video game.

But this means you’re doing things like looking down and jumping between platforms—a first-person traversal system that sucks enough in traditional games, let alone VR ones that yank your virtual perspective wildly. You’ll also occasionally use your hands to push through massive objects or climb and clamber over complicated geometry by lifting yourself with your hands. Both of these can result in some bizarre glitching, especially since the game renders your virtual arms and legs at all times, which can get caught in the game’s risers, ladders, and other geometry for no good reason. And sometimes, these glitches mean you’ll fall a great height, which is both uncomfortable from a VR perspective and annoying from a gameplay one. The game forces you to walk, climb, and jump at a real-life pace through large zones and puzzles, and a single fall can drag your progress down enormously.

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