After a barnstorming launch bursting with software, PSVR2 is experiencing something of a post-release lull. The games have largely dried up, and enthusiast discussions have transitioned to whether the hardware is looking like a flop or not. The only way to reverse that narrative is with major software releases, and Firewall Ultra from First Contact Entertainment is the sole currently announced first-party PSVR2 project under Sony’s publishing umbrella.
It’s no surprise the platform holder has recruited the services of the Californian studio for a second time, as the original Firewall Zero Hour was a surprise hit. Utilising the PSVR Aim Controller to excellent effect, this tactical Rainbow Six-style first-person shooter enjoyed a long lifespan, buoyed by a live service model that spawned several seasons. Returning to the release as recently as late last year, you’d find a vibrant and committed community all still playing the game.
We were lucky enough to be invited to PlayStation late last month to get a world-first demo of the sequel on PSVR2, where we played on demo stations in London against members of the team in Santa Monica – including the iconic YouTuber PSVR Frank, who some of you may know now has a role at the developer. All of the presentations and questions-and-answers took place within the game, in an interactive lobby area known as the safehouse, which made for an entertaining approach.
We also spoke to strategic communications manager David Jagneaux immediately after our demo, this time in real life, and we were eager to understand right off the bat whether Firewall Ultra is a sequel, remake, or remaster: “It’s a brand new game built from the ground up in Unreal Engine 5,” he said. “We consider Firewall Ultra to be the next evolution of the franchise. We have some of the same characters, but this is five years later in the universe’s lore.”
We were able to experience two maps, both of which will be familiar to fans of the original: Oil Rig and Social. The former is an industrial location at night, with towering scaffolding and alleyways between containers, while the latter takes place in the dilapidated office of a social media company, complete with rows of computer terminals and large staircases. The team was eager to make a big point of the fact that the level now has a working lift – and yes it plays chirpy music when you get inside it.
“As you saw, the Social map was in the first game, but it’s been totally redone and everything’s changed,” Jagneaux noted. “It’s been ransacked, raided – a lot of the lights don’t work anymore. And you’ll see a similar vibe in a lot of the maps, they’ve been totally redone. The same applies to the Contractors as well. Visually they’ve been redone, so some of them might have new tattoos or different hairstyles. Things have happened in their lives.”
PSVR2 doesn’t currently have an analogue to the PSVR Aim Controller – although some accessories manufacturers are plotting shells you can snap the PSVR2 Sense Controllers into – but we didn’t find this to be a problem. In fact, pantomiming holding an assault rifle feels great, and the gunplay is sharper than ever thanks to the addition of an aim down sights mechanic which allows you to further fine-tune your shots. Close one eye and the weapon will zoom in further, using eye-tracking to transformative effect.
It’s not the only unique mechanic that PSVR2’s cutting-edge tech has enabled: flash bangs will only impede your vision if you see them, meaning you can either cover your face with your hands or close your eyes entirely to avoid being affected by them. And you can change your weapon by simply looking at the other options in your inventory! “There’s a lot of stuff we can do on PSVR2 that we couldn’t do on previous hardware,” Jagneaux beamed. “So I think it really elevates everything and really makes it feel like a very robust game.”
Our biggest criticism of the original game was its single round format. You could spend several minutes trying to find a team and loading into the game, only for the action to be over in a flash, and that’s something the developer’s worked to rectify. But why was this obvious addition never added to Firewall Zero Hour? “I don’t know,” Jagneaux admitted. “I do know one of our other big changes is that Firewall Ultra is on dedicated servers now, so the original game was peer-to-peer and if one of the hosts left then the whole game would crash, and that’s not the case here.”
The actual gameplay is very familiar. Working in squads of four, you’ll be asked to either defend or hack a laptop in a key location within the map. Die and you’ll be out of the round, so firefights are high stakes affairs. You need to move in groups and cover each other, and use your abilities to gain a tactical advantage; defenders can install jammers, for example, to prevent the attacking team from hacking the laptop directly. This all leads to a tense dynamic that’s elevated by the presence enabled by virtual reality, but rounds are short and snappy enough to make them moreish.
It obviously looks incredible on PSVR2 as well, running in Unreal Engine 5. In the Social map specifically, there’s a gorgeous corridor where light is filtering through the tower block windows, and you can see the skyline off in the distance, populated with tall skyscraper buildings. There’s still a fair amount of jank – your teammates will contort in all kinds of unnatural ways when you look at them – but this doesn’t really impede the gameplay experience.
One thing that marked Firewall Zero Hour’s ongoing success was its continued content pipeline, and we were eager to understand how challenging it is to keep a live service game interesting and engaging over long periods of time: “With Firewall Zero Hour, the live service model was a pivot that happened after launch,” Jagneaux revealed. “But the pivot we have with Firewall Ultra is that it’s being designed from the very beginning to be a live service game.”
He added: “Something that you didn’t get to see in the demo today is the progression system we have. So you’ll earn reputation by completing missions with different traders and market dealers in the game, and then you’ll go to them to purchase upgrades for your weapons, like grips, magazines, and optics. All that is built into the game as a good progression system to give you things to do and unlock as you play. And then after launch we’ll add new Contractors, new maps, new cosmetics, so the game is built in a way that can scale.”
One other way the game’s scaling is with its safehouse. This lobby area serves as your starting destination in the game: it’s an interactive environment where you can test different loadouts at a firing range, meet friends, customise your character, or goof about with soccer balls on the ground. This location will also be getting some TLC over the course of the game’s lifespan: “[The safehouse] will see updates, like new decorations for seasonal things or themes for new content. So that will fit into the lore of these Contractors working out of the safehouse together.”
The ongoing popularity of Firewall Zero Hour, plus the huge breakout success of titles like Pavlov VR, proves there’s probably going to be a big built-in audience for Firewall Ultra at launch. The game is largely what we expected it to be: it’s got that same fraught, high-stakes dynamic as its predecessor. But the gunplay feels strong, despite the lack of the PSVR Aim Controller, and we really enjoyed all the ways the developer is using eye-tracking to meaningfully elevate the experience in a way that’s impossible outside of virtual reality.
If this is the kind of content we can expect to come in later phases of PSVR2’s lifespan, then the future is brighter than recent criticism may have led you to believe. First Contact Entertainment knows its way around the technology now, and while it’s not reinventing the wheel here, you get the sense it’s more confident in its vision for what Firewall can be. If you already enjoyed the original, then you’ll love what’s on offer in its successor – and even if you’re new to the franchise, we suspect you’re going to be pleasantly surprised by what you find.
Thanks to Sony for inviting us over to be among the first in the world to try out Firewall Ultra, and to the team at First Contact Entertainment – specifically PSVR Frank – for saving our ass on several occasions in-game. Are you excited for this upcoming tactical shooter? Hack the laptop in the comments section below.