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Pistol Whip

Platform(s): Meta Quest 3, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Developer: Cloudhead Games
Release Date: July 28, 2020

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PS VR Review - 'Pistol Whip'

by Andreas Salmen on Aug. 26, 2020 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Pistol Whip is an unstoppable VR action-rhythm FPS where you journey through a cinematic bullet hell powered by a breakneck soundtrack to become the ultimate action hero legend.

Virtual reality is at its best when it translates somewhat complex scenarios into simple and impactful gameplay. Beat Saber and Superhot are excellent examples of this approach, making the player feel powerful while either re-enacting their own John Wick moments in slow motion or slicing through a myriad of blocks with stylish lightsabers. It's simple to pick up, has a high skill ceiling, and plays great. Pistol Whip is going down that same route of easy to pick up and innately satisfying to execute by combining what made Beat Saber and Superhot so much fun. While there isn't too much content to sink your teeth into yet, Pistol Whip has become one of my favorite VR games from the past few years.

I can't help myself when it comes to rhythm games. I've loved Guitar Hero, and I'm addicted to Beat Saber, so the news of Pistol Whip being ported from PC VR to PSVR was exactly what I needed to get excited for VR again. Pistol Whip can be described as an arcade rail shooter with a musical twist. The player is always stationary and is moved through a linear level as enemies pop up from all sides and angles and must be shot with your trusty firearm. Instead of awarding points based on where you hit enemies, it's more about when. The most points are awarded if you shoot on the beat of the current song. The further away from a beat you are, the fewer points you get. That doesn't mean you have to fire guns following the bpm of the song; you are free to treat the game as a common rail shooter, but you won't break any high scores. If you ever wondered about replacing a drum kit with a handgun, this is as close as you'll likely get.

Pistol Whip helps you pay attention to the beat via a highly aggressive auto-aim and pulsating environments. Pointing in the general direction of an enemy is a guaranteed hit, so you're free to pay attention to the music and surroundings. That's also what makes Pistol Whip such a blast to play; it's easy to pick up, and since you hardly ever miss a shot, you feel like the ultimate badass as you make your way through hordes of enemies with relative ease and some cool music to accentuate your dominance.

Every level genuinely feels like the final shootout scene of an action movie, and that core gameplay is enough on its own to carry the whole experience. It is fun with very few exceptions. You'll start with a song on easy, consciously aiming into the direction of enemies, but soon, you'll move in a much more frantic and awesome way. It's easy to nail shots over your shoulder, under your arm, or from whatever position you may need.

Pistol Whip isn't as difficult to master as Beat Saber with its expert+ mode, but it's far from an easy game. The 15 songs on offer provide three difficulty levels from easy to hard, and the difficulty dictates enemy count and placement, enemy armor, and number of bullets flying in your direction. Without touching on modifiers just yet, the game is played with a single gun as you stand upright and face the PSVR camera. (You'll need at least one Move controller.) Since movement is automatic, all you have to do is shoot, duck and pistol whip your enemies.

Enemies shoot at you, so you'll need to avoid the bullets that are aimed at your head. That's one of the few downsides of this type of game; it's not a natural way of moving, so expect to feel some neck and lower back pain after you spend some time dodging bullets while remaining otherwise stationary. There's also a variety of obstacles you need to swivel your head around. If you get hit, you'll instantly lose your armor, and with the second hit, it's game over.

Shooting a certain number of enemies replenishes your armor, so there are ways to get yourself back in the game. There's also the title-defining "pistol whip," which essentially means physically hitting enemies with your hand if they get too close. There are other benefits. Pistol whipping instantly restores your armor and ignores enemy armor. Foes may have either a Kevlar vest or a vest and a helmet, so they'd need to be shot twice or five times, respectively, to drop dead. A well-timed pistol whip, however, can make short work of them. Its simple gameplay mechanics and not needing to move makes Pistol Whip a good choice for VR veterans as well as those who are not used to VR.

Aside from a stiff neck, Pistol Whip sounds like a darn good game, but there is more to take into consideration. Pistol Whip takes a similar approach to Beat Saber in that it released with a relatively small set of songs that will be expanded later with DLC and updates. For now, the team has announced two major expansions: one this summer and a full campaign and additional weapon types later this year. We're not sure if these will release on all platforms at the same time, but it's good to know there's more to come. A downside of the closed ecosystem of PlayStation is the absence of a custom song importer, which is available on other platforms. This alone could have been enough to boost Pistol Whip to be a must-have title. It's already great, but the current bare-bones nature of the title is holding it back a bit.

Many of the included songs sound similar to each other as well as to the music that Beat Saber originally shipped with. Mostly synth and tech-heavy songs have a few standouts, but it's not as diverse as I'd like. With the absence of custom songs, PSVR owners must hope for a more diverse lineup in future DLCs and updates, especially if the style of the included music isn't appealing.

The same goes for weapons. There are 15 of them, and some are even intentionally similar to the handguns from the "John Wick" movies, but that's all that we have: handguns. Since the game is designed to be played with a single gun, heavier weaponry such as assault rifles — and Aim controller support, while we're at it — would be great to diversify the arsenal. This may be rectified with planned updates by the end of the year. There are diverse handguns and ways to customize their appearance and sound, but the differences felt so minor that I rarely interacted with it. There is untapped potential in customizations that the game could expand on in clever ways.

What I like is the use of modifiers. If the easiest difficulty is too easy and the hardest is too hard, there are a few modifiers to alter the gameplay. There are the obvious ones, such as removing armor of yourself or enemies, and then there are the ones that have a far greater impact. If you were disappointed that Pistol Whip is designed around handling a single gun, there is a dual-wielding modifier that makes the game easier but way more epic. It's a trade-off that I am sure a lot of players are willing to make. There's also the ability to turn off auto-aim, probably the most sobering experience you'll have in Pistol Whip as you discover that you can't aim to save your life. Using these modifiers is almost required if you want to make it onto the online leaderboards. It isn't quite as difficult as Beat Saber — but just barely. For rhythm games aficionados who are interested in high scores, Pistol Whip offers plenty of gameplay possibilities.

The last thing to briefly touch upon are the visuals and tracking. Pistol Whip doesn't look like it lost any of its low-poly art style in the transition from PC. It looks sharp and colorful, so it's comparable with Superhot except with a more colorful palette. It's a minimalist look that works great since you're unlikely to pay close attention to your surroundings once the bullets start flying. The stages may be different in layout and environment, but the simple style and nature of the gameplay make a lot of it look the same as you glide through the stages. That's OK because seeing the bodies drop around you with every beat makes up for that in spades. Luckily, the controls rarely get in the way. We've had almost no issues with tracking, and if so, it was mostly due to our setup and distance from the camera. The quality of the Pistol Whip port is high, as it didn't cut any corners that might have had a detrimental impact on the game.

Even though Pistol Whip has a small musical offering at the moment, it's one of the best VR experiences I have played on PSVR and in general. It's easy to pick up, great to play, and tough to put down, and ultimately, that's all it's about. It isn't rich in features yet, but with a content roadmap in place, this potentially looks like "the next big thing," although it's marginally held back by a lack of content and song variety for now.

Score: 8.8/10

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