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Oculus, Respawn bringing 'Medal of Honor' WWII shooter to virtual reality

The new title is a high profile effort from a division of Electronic Arts, one of the world's biggest game companies.

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Oculus is investing heavily in new games.

James Martin/CNET

Virtual reality promises to bring you anywhere. All you have to do is slip on a headset that puts a screen so close to your eyes that your brain is tricked into believing you're in a spaceship in some far off galaxy, or an underwater shipwreck, or a boxing gym.

But one thing VR doesn't do well is first-person games, where you see the world through the character's eyes and take control of the character's body. The first time I tried a game like this, "becoming" a deep-sea diver and seeing the world through his scuba mask, I felt ill, because my brain thought I was swimming through ocean depths when I was actually sitting in the middle of San Francisco.

That's why I was hesitant to put on a headset again when Respawn Entertainment, a division of game maker Electronic Arts, prepared to show off its first VR game. The new title, due next year and called called Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond, promises to be one of the first big-budget shooting games developed for VR. The game was announced Wednesday at Facebook's Oculus Connect VR conference in San Jose, California.

In it, you take control of a US operative fighting Nazis in France and Germany. And during the game, you see through the eyes of your character and use your actual body to make things happen. You move your real-life hand to your hip to grab a pistol. You push a button to eject a used clip when your ammo runs out. You make a throwing motion with your arm to toss a grenade.

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The logo for Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond.

Respawn

"We're hoping to be part of the next wave of software that redefines what VR means," said Respawn Game Director Peter Hirschmann, who headed up the project. The Medal of Honor series was originally created 20 years ago to help people learn about World War II in a new way, he added.

This game promises a new level of immersion "putting you in the boots allows you to see through the eyes of someone who was actually there," Hirschmannhe said.

The project is the latest effort by Facebook to bring attention to VR, which CEO Mark Zuckerberg says will eventually change the way we use computers, much like how phones changed the way we interact with technology. Since paying more than $2 billion for then-industry leader Oculus in 2014, Facebook has been funding new games and apps and striking partnerships with the likes of Disney's Lucasfilm to create new high profile titles, like Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series.

Hirschmann declined to say how much his Medal of Honor VR game cost to make, or how much Oculus put in to help fund it. The project has been underway for two and a half years, he said, and was created by a team of 180 people.

Much of the effort, he said, was in creating a rich world to explore. The game room features all manner of pots, pans, cups and notepads that you can pick up, examine and even throw at your enemies. 

Each character in the game is also designed to look different from any other, using a technology that randomly creates new faces out of millions of possibilities. And those people end up in uniforms that're so detailed, you can see the stitching when you get up close.

"Hopefully you step back from the game and think, 'What must it have been like in real life?'' Hirschmann said.

Playing the game

The good news is that in my roughly 45 minutes of playing the title, I didn't feel ill like I did with previous VR games. Walking around felt comfortable, and once I got accustomed to using the controllers to direct my character through the game's world, it was rather easy.

Handling the game's guns, where I ejected used ammunition clips and then slammed in new ones with my free hand, was harder than I thought it'd be.

What stood out was the detail in the game's worlds. There was a piano I could actually play, and when an enemy fell to the ground, I could bend down and see the seams on the inside of his hat.

Whether that'll mean anything to gamers when the title comes out next year is an open question. But Oculus and Respawn believe the title will make a statement about what's possible with this technology.

"The horror of war hopefully comes through in the things you experience," Hirschmann said.