Like many kids, I entertained fantasies of becoming a marine biologist when I grew up. That may not have happened, but I still find the ocean fascinating. How cool would it be to tour marine biomes in the cockpit of a submersible? It’s something I sadly doubt I’ll ever have the chance to do, so I thought the next best option might be to boot up The Great Ocean VR from Actrio Studio on my Meta Quest 2.
Into the Blue
The Great Ocean VR is in early access and available via the Meta Quest App Lab. I’m reviewing that version, but at the time of writing, it’s also coming to PCVR via Steam in about a week. The current version offers three different dives with what the developers describe as about 60-90 minutes of content. The dives take you to the shoals of the Galapagos, a coral reef off the coast of Cozumel, and the frozen depths of Barents sea. Each dive offers unique missions and landmarks as well as flora and fauna to discover and document. The developers state that additional levels and content are planned as the game moves toward a full release.
Once you’ve chosen your dive, The Great Ocean VR drops you into the cockpit of a small submersible. You’ll see missions and points of interest indicated on a map on your HUD, but you’re immediately free to explore as you see fit. I was immediately distracted by a school of fish and decided to follow them for a while. The submersible moves at a leisurely pace perfect for taking in the coral formations and local marine life.
This is Mission Control
If you decide you’d like more directed objectives, each level has several missions for you to complete. The submersible has three arms–a grabber, a welder, and a scanner–that you use to complete different tasks. Missions see you picking up trash from the ocean floor, stopping oil spills by welding sunken oil barrels shut, and searching for submerged curiosities such as shipwrecks or landmarks. The scanner can also be used to document points of interest and marine life, and your HUD keeps track of what you’re discovered so far. Each scannable object has a short educational blurb explaining its role in the biome.
While the missions nicely direct you to different parts of each level, they don’t feel varied once you arrive. No matter the task you essentially point your submersible arm with the controller and press and hold a button. Everything is straightforward, and as a result I felt more like I was doing virtual chores than living the thrilling life of an oceanic explorer. I think The Great Ocean VR could make the missions more interesting without the need for additional mechanics by making use of more multi-part objectives or perhaps adding some kind of narrative to contextualize your tasks.
The Vast Expanse
The dive regions of The Great Ocean VR feel empty. It’s true that most of the ocean is empty, and the eerie solitude this creates when you delve ever deeper into the Berents sea is fitting and evocative. Conversely, I expected the coral reef of Cozumel to teem with life, and it feels just as barren as the depths of the Berents. I did encounter my share of sea creatures–from a green sea turtle to a sleeper shark–but even the fish seem to swim around stiffly and lifelessly. The Great Ocean VR lacks the choreographed beauty of ABZU or the living ecology of Outer Wilds. I felt less like a visitor to a vast marine world that continues whether I watch it or not and more like I was staring into a windup aquarium. To be fair though, it’s a lot to ask from an early access game that currently retails for $1.99.
The UI is well-designed and effectively presents relevant information without becoming obtrusive. I also appreciated the inclusion of a vision-tunneling effect during movement to help with motion sickness. In addition for allowing me to play for longer before needed a break, it creates a neat “flashlight” effect in darker areas as you sweep your eyes across the seabed. The controls are smooth for the most part. My one annoyance is that turning sometimes causes the submersible to roll, and there’s no easy way to counteract this beyond stopping and waiting for your craft to level out.
The Great Ocean VR is clearly still a work in progress and has a ways to go if it really wants to scratch that ocean exploration itch. That said, it’s still neat to strap on the headset and cruise around the dive sites, even if they are a bit empty. Given the budget price, I think The Great Ocean VR could be worth it if you’re particularly enthused by the idea of an underwater exploration VR experience. Otherwise, I’d recommend waiting to see how the game develops.
WAIT FOR SALE ON THE GREAT OCEAN VR
Many thanks go to Actrio Studio for an Meta Quest 2 review code for this title.
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A veteran of Oregon Trail and Battletoads, Wes has been playing and talking about games for as long as he can remember. He’s down to try almost anything, and he especially enjoys games with gripping narrative experiences.