Reviewed on: Playstation 4. Copy supplied by publisher.
Normally I’d say launching The American Dream within 24 hours of US students protesting legislative inaction following a mass school shooting was maybe a bit tactless, since audience’s may not have been in the mood to have a laugh about guns. But when you think about it, given the alarming frequency of mass shootings in the US, any date Melbourne developers Samurai Punk picked would probably coincide with one.
Then again, given The American Dream is a satirical takedown of the gun culture in America that is fighting against such legislation, perhaps it was the best time for it to arrive. Its lampooning of the Second Amendment and its fans may not be as devastating as I would have liked, but its humour certainly highlights the farcical nature of the pro-gun crowd. And it definitely lives up to its subheading “a virtual reality trip”, for better or worse.
The American Dream is a VR game that places players on a roller coaster ride designed by the American Rifle Association which simulates the life of a new “American Patriot” growing up in a world where guns are safe. The ride takes you through a series of life events, from being a baby, to playing catch with your dad, going to the carnival, getting your first job flipping burgers, starting a family and much more, all of which you experience via way of guns.
Players are guided by the adorable Buddy Washington, a statue of an adorable golden retriever with the voice of a mid-50s radio host. Buddy is the main narrative device of the game, always right by your side and spouting propaganda about why guns are great and why every American should have them. The sense of propaganda creeps into all the other characters as well, as every other individual is a cardboard cutout painted to resemble eerily smiling people straight out of post-WWII duck-n-cover posters.
Now, the idea of doing such mundane life activities but with various firearms instead of hands certainly sounds incredibly strange, and you’re probably wondering exactly how on Earth you do that. And while I’d love to go through them all in detail and share the many crazy, silly, and often hilarious experiences I had in my three-ish hours with The American Dream’s 20 plus levels, I am wary to due to spoiling it. Being surprised by exactly how I would be using the game’s arsenal to do something was a core part of the experience, both in its comedic moments and more sinister ones.
Each activity generally begins with your roller coaster cart trundling in to a new area, where Buddy Washington will pontificate about the significance of the particular event in life you’ll be experiencing and also shoot off a few gun related zingers. Buddy will then instruct you to do something, say clean your bedroom floor, and then it’s up to the player to decipher exactly how to do that with the firearms they’re equipped with. Shockingly, the answer is almost always SHOOT EVERYTHING.
At the end of the stage you’re rewarded with money based on how well you performed against different criteria, such as overall shooting accuracy, how many targets you hit etc. You can also lose money for doing, or failing to do, certain things as well. As I progressed through the game it became more apparent that these results are relatively meaningless, as regardless of how little money I had, I was still able to progress through to the end. I got more than a few chuckles out of the strange metrics the developers judged me on.
Since The American Dream is a VR game that requires tangible hand movements, it requires the use of motion controllers. So if you’re rocking a Playstation VR (like I am), you need to use Playstation Move controllers with this game, same goes for Oculus Rift users and the Oculus Touch controllers. Thankfully The American Dream has no requirement for player controlled locomotion, so the lack of joysticks on Move controllers is not a major drawback, although it did mean I missed on on the cool sliding-back-the-pistol-chambers-to-check-ammo feature I discovered when I first played the game at PAX 2016.
Overall though, the PSVR version performs fairly well. Visually the game looks great on Playstation 4 thanks to its cartoon anesthetic not being overbearing on the limited VR rendering power. Unfortunately, PSVR’s long standing hardware limitations do result in some clunky tracking, particularly when using two handed weapons.
Players wield two handed weapons by holding the gun itself in their dominant hand (you can change to be left or right handed in settings) and holding a “Hand Gun” in their other hand. The Hand Gun is Luger pistol with fingers coming out of it, and it allows you to grip the barrel of rifles and submachine guns for better aiming and to reduce recoil. As a method of simulating using larger firearms with separate motion controllers, it’s great for the most part. When the tracking works, it works. I must commend Samurai Punk on this design, as cocking the bolt action rifle was one of the most satisfying feelings I had in the game given how natural it felt.
However, as soon as I had to do any really specific aiming, the PSVR’s tendency to confuse the headset’s tracking lights with the Move controllers made things really tough. The American Dream often requires some down-the-sights aiming, but holding Move controllers that close to your face causes your rifle to glitch all over the place. Most of the time I could get by shooting more from the hip and going by feel, but when you’re trying to impress your date by smashing a round of “Dunk the Communist” at the 4th of July carnival, a glitchy gun really gets in the way.
Other than that, tracking issues were fairly minor. Reloading your pistols by catching flying clips doesn’t feel as smooth on PSVR as it does on the Rift, but it isn’t a deal breaker. And I did find myself getting turned around a bit in more frantic moments, suddenly facing 45 to 90 degrees to the left of where I should be, but I found sitting closer to my Playstation Camera helped alleviate the problem. I also spoke to the devs, and they’re aware of the issue and working on a fix, but it doesn’t happen often, so it’s not major.
Motion tracking issues aside, my only major issue with the game is some of its pacing, and its incredibly weird final act. Buddy Washington is a hilarious and adorable narrator, but he certainly has a tendency to waffle on for far too long. Sitting around and listening to exposition can already be pretty trying for some people in regular video games, but I feel in VR that frustration is amplified. Buddy’s dialogue mainly comprises of puns relating to gun legislation or gun culture, and once he’s made a few great gags I’m ready to get back into doing mundane things with guns. But then he keeps going, and sometimes it was just too much.
As for the final act, I won’t spoil anything, but the narrative just suddenly takes a really strange left turn that feels incredibly out of place. And I’m saying it’s out of place in a game where you’re literally living in a cardboard people theme park led by a dog statue where you feed babies with pistol barrels, so you know it’s really out of place. The world just suddenly gets really strange, moves into an incredibly long and slow exposition cutscene, before culminating in a weird boss fight, and it just felt like the narrative had nowhere to go so it just went apocalyptic to get things over with. It was by no means a bad twist, but it left me a little disappointed there wasn’t something more poignant.
But having said that, the journey up to that point was fantastic, filled with a lot of laughs and some genuinely confronting notions.