The name Arizona Sunshine provides ideal contrast against the darkness of a super-powered killing machine. Arizona’s arid heat, oppressive isolation, brilliant red rocks, and clear blue sky create a setting unjustly wasted on tales of the Wild West. Why not employ the Canyon State to exhibit a survivor searching for sanctuary in the waning days of a zombie apocalypse?
Arizona Sunshine opens as advertised. The expected presentation is outlined by a promised scenario. An unnamed, dallying man is awoken by the sound of a steel trap and a severed head rolling toward his makeshift bedside. He comments unfazed; “Freddys,” as he labels every member of the zombie family, are merely troubling obstacles. The man finds his pistol, assumes a bit of target practice, and then sets off along the river to explore a campsite he found the other day. There are zombies in his way. There will always be zombies in his way.
Originally released for the HTC Vive late last year, Arizona Sunshine is the most recent PlayStation VR game to take a crack at extreme-but-warranted handgun operation and target obliteration. With two Move controllers it operates through the popular “point and teleport” method best known from Batman: Arkham VR. If you’re unfamiliar with this method of stilted locomotion, this process is disorienting until it isn’t. Making sure you’re in front of the PlayStation Camera while rotating through selected angles and facing different directions opens up the margin of error to dangerous degrees. It’s not perfect, but it works more often than it doesn’t, which, unfortunately, seems to be what we’ve settled for with PlayStation VR.
Gunplay is where Arizona Sunshine starts covering lost ground. When depleted, the cartridge of any gun must be ejected from its case. The player must then bring the gun close to their virtual belt, “touching” remaining stores of ammo. Contrary to most other games out there, ejecting an unspent cartridge will also discard any remaining bullets inside that cartridge. Arizona Sunshine is hardly an accurate simulation of operating a pistol, but it carefully constrains basic mechanics in order to create tension. There is no melee option to be found and, while you can carry up to four different guns, ammo feels precious for the greater portion of the game.
When working as intended, Arizona Sunshine’s aiming and shooting feels neat and tight. It’s tough to learn and nothing like real life—control is too unwieldy to align your shots with true line of sight—but with practice comes a subconscious ability to take aim and pull off headshots. It took me a quarter of the game before I could do this but, before long, when I was backed into a corner I became capable of pointing two hands in two different directions and squeezing out reasonably accurate brain blasts. On easy mode—and this is something I was dismayed to discover after I finished the game—a laser sight is added to both guns.
The zombie opposition in Arizona Sunshine revels in simplicity. There will always be a path from A to B and it will always be populated with wandering congregations of flesh hungry fiends. Once alerted, they will close on your position. De facto classes—most shuffle, some run, a few are wearing head armor or chest places—work their way to your position. Opening fire opens up unexpected possibilities; hits are location specific, meaning if a zombie’s hand waves in front of its face, you’ll shoot the hand clean off. Likewise, taking out their legs forces them to crawl. In high population centers, this creates a predictable but threatening cavalcade of undead chaos.
Weapon variety is small but potent. A standard pistol gives way to a long-barreled revolver. Soon they’re joined by a variety of small machine guns to which I couldn’t discern any reasonable difference. Grenades and a tiny grenade launcher soon come into play. I made my way through most of Arizona Sunshine with the revolver in one hand and machine gun in the other (an emergency for when things got out of hand). Ammo is refreshed by scavenging abandoned cars, picking through filing cabinets, or inside specially marked surplus containers.
Environments provide sufficient space to craft your own strategy. While you’re usually not allowed to ascend a nearby staircase, there is plenty of space to create makeshift bottle necks and make a last stand. Arizona Sunshine’s panic button deploys waves of zombies in areas designed to handle that kind of chaos, but it does kind of feel like it’s only real trick. Escalation is Arizona Sunshine’s only means of expressing and testing player progress.
With so few available actions—you can only teleport and shoot—Arizona Sunshine struggles to come up with engaging tasks. It seems like you’re always searching for a key to unlock a door on the opposite end of where you found the key. The middle of the game is highlighted by a decent into darkened mines, which requires a flashlight, which is briefly interesting. Near the end, Arizona Sunshine mashes the quantity button in hopes that your ability to create a body count evolves with Arizona Sunshine’s need to throw scores of bodies at you. This is mostly correct, as combat felt trivialized by the time the credits rolled.
Checkpoints range from fair to unbelievable. There were a half dozen instances where I died experimenting with something stupid and then stood befuddled with how far back I was sent. Other times I died for no reason due to control issues (that will be detailed later) and found I had to repeat the previous ten minutes. Yeah, sure, we’re engulfed in a culture that neither wants to make a mistake nor wants to pay for mistakes it doesn’t make but a certain measure of forgiveness would have done wonders for Arizona Sunshine’s shortcomings. When you have all of this equipment attached to your head it’s less a penalty and more of a waste of time.
The story, or what can be assumed about the story, operates in conventions but still manages a bit of fun. The nameless protagonist starts as a peak Matthew McConaughey and ends as less articulate Ash Williams. The dude honestly doesn’t seem to mind he’s in the zombie apocalypse until he’s teased by hope. He pursues hope through myriad false ends, becomes incredibly frustrated with the process, and soon punctuates every soliloquy with conspicuous, unrefined profanity. This path isn’t especially interesting, though it is likely accurate of my own path through a zombie apocalypse. My (perceived) wit would eventually be defeated by bad words and desultory screaming.
Arizona Sunshine’s simplicity keeps it intact for a five hour run time. This is either short when compared to a normal game or very impressive if you’re used to other one-to-two hour VR experiences. A horde mode and a cooperative option give it a little more life. Sharing ammo sounds like another way to build tension, although not one I was particularly interested in.
Arizona Sunshine’s interpretation of Arizona is pretty, if not empty. Despite your presence in a virtual world, there isn’t a lot to do with any of the environment. You can throw tennis balls, eat meat discs to restore health, and walk in motel rooms but, outside of people who died in the midst of a hasty escape; there don’t seem to be many stories to tell. There’s also quite a bit of fog, which, while not endemic to actual Arizona, felt linked to my launch model PlayStation 4. In any case, Arizona Sunshine is provides a trip to an exotic locale, but there isn’t a lot to look at once you get off the plane.
All of this still sounds like a fine way to spend an afternoon because I haven’t spent sufficient time dealing with Arizona Sunshine’s nightmarish shortcomings. Control is the chief offender. Pushing a door open is needlessly futile (and the end of the game is doubly challenging because of the insane frequency doors). Throwing switches is also tough, especially during one instance where you need to flip a switch to close a giant door, all while hordes of zombies are heading your way. Looking left, struggling to pull the lever, and looking back toward oncoming swarms created plenty of tension, but I have doubts that any of it was intentional.
Sometimes my in-game hands would often drift away. This, along with the “I can’t open a door” problem suggest PlayStation VR has issues tracking depth, which is probably correct. X and Y movement is on point, but the Z axis is a mess. On normal difficulty this was only a problem when I couldn’t shoot the zombies crawling at my feet, or I couldn’t teleport a few steps back and look in the correct direction. Arizona Sunshine thrives on putting the player in a tight spot but doesn’t discriminate between intended and accidental. It feels like it needs the Vive’s room scale options, or at least I can imagine it making the game more fulfilling.
There are also control options that no reasonable person would use, and very little instruction on what to do with them. Playing Arizona Sunshine with a DualShock 4 is every bit as miserable as you can imagine; teleportation movement is entirely given to the right stick and aiming is handled through moving the actual controller. As best I can tell, you only have one hand and can only fire one gun. Somewhat related; every loading screen arrives with information that a settings can be accessed through your watch (which typically relays a health reading), but doesn’t tell you how to access your watch. I still have no idea how to do this. These instances suggest Arizona Sunshine’s trip to PlayStation VR is more compromised than one might expect.
It’s possible my experience with Arizona Sunshine was shaped by a failure in my personal PlayStation VR setup. Despite hearing of numerous anecdotal problems with hardware fidelity, my experiences (Arizona Sunshine is the seventeenth PSVR game I have reviewed) have been mostly error free and, when the content merits it, positive. Job Simulator, Windlands, Polybius, Resident Evil 7, and Rez Infinite behaved well. Arkham VR had problems, but none that it couldn’t overcome. I don’t think it’s just me with Arizona Sunshine’s behavior issues. I tried playing sitting down, standing up, and in a variety of room lighting configurations. No adjustment made a difference.
More often than not, Arizona Sunshine feels like you’re fumbling through a zombie apocalypse instead of surviving it. You sound like a fearless rogue mastering his environment but you look (and feel) like a hapless rube juggling guns and bungling his own mortality. This can all be hand-waved away by the nature of first-generation virtual reality or it can be evaluated in actual reality. Arizona Sunshine is disappointing. It’s fine, but either the medium or the hardware prevent it from being great.
Arizona Sunshine’s appearance on PlayStation VR splits its time between posturing as an inarticulate calamity and performing as capable virtual reality shooting gallery. Simple luck appears to be the dividing line, leaving the player to decide if a lengthy campaign, vivid environments, and zealous gunplay are worth putting up with fussy controls, hostile conduct, and anemic hardware.