Virtual reality is here, and holy crap is it awesome. Anyone with their finger on the pulse knows that VR is going to be the next best thing, with three major players looking to enter the market in the next six months. The Oculus Rift has been consistently dropping jaws ever since it entered the scene in 2012 and Sony’s Project Morpheus is aiming to corner the console VR market. The latest challenger, however, is the HTC Vive.
HTC are best known for their smartphone business, and many may dismiss the Vive as a mobile gimmick. Don’t be fooled, though – you might know it better as the first Steam VR device. Valve are throwing their full weight behind HTC’s headset, with all that that entails, including access to Steam’s marketing machine and monolithic distribution platform.
That faith is well founded – the HTC Vive is incredible. It is impossible to put across just how amazing VR is in words, but even having previously tried the Oculus Rift and its various mobile competitors, I was absolutely blown away. The main draw, and the thing currently setting it apart from competitors, is the fact that not only does the Vive have motion control, it also allows for movement in the physical world.
Thanks to two base stations in the corners of the room, the Vive maps out a 15x15ft playing area, which users can move around in at will. The head-tracking – which is by now standard issue for VR headsets – is cool in and of itself, but being able to move around in ‘meatspace’ (the real world) and to have the game actually recognise it is unbelievably awesome. We’ll get into the meat of the Vive’s technical stuff later on, but as with any gaming hardware, the real stars of the show are the games. The awesome Bossa Studios, creators of Surgeon Simulator and I Am Bread, were kind enough to show me their Vive development kit, which they’ve been using to develop some cool VR stuff. More on that later.
First up was TheBluVR, a multi-platform tech demo that first appeared on the Samsung GearVR. It was a great first demo for familiarising new users with VR: an underwater seascape set on the deck of a sunken ship. Initially, you’re surrounded by little fishies, which can be scattered by waving your hands through them. Cool, I thought, but nothing especially groundbreaking. I was more interested in being able to actually walk around. I was busy exploring the small area of deck, until I turned round to discover a blue whale staring at me straight in the eye. It was at the same time a trouser-browning surprise and an awe-inspiring moment. I watched it swim back into the depths with what I can only assume was an expression of slack-jawed wonderment.
There’s no real interactivity in TheBluVR, but that’s forgivable – it was designed for the primarily visual GearVR. It is a superb introduction to VR landscapes, though. Creators Wemo intend to use it for educational experiences, and you do want to just sit there absorbing the sights and sounds.
One experience which lit up the internet when it was shown off was the Portal VR demo. As with both previous games, it’s an exercise in instruction-following, except in this case, it’s in the interests of familiarising yourself with the Vive’s motion controllers rather than furthering the story.
As you’d expect with the Portal franchise, it’s superbly written and the small environment you’re in is dripping with personality. You’re first tasked with opening drawers, one of which contains a stale, mouldy cake (because meta-humour), one which contains blueprints for Portal 2’s Atlas and Peabody, and another which contains a ‘pocket dimension’ full of the little cut-out people from Portal’s employee training videos, who then immediately panic and worship you as a god.
You then open the doors, upon which a heavily damaged Atlas lurches in for you to fix. You can pull out, rotate and interact with various bits in an undefinably pleasing way, but the real standout comes later. After I failed to fix him, the floor opened up and swallowed him, leaving a gaping chasm that gave me an actual sensation of vertigo. I got as close as I could, but even though I knew it wasn’t real, my mind just would not let me step out over the edge.
I’m loathe to spoil the final section of the demo, because it is fantastic beyond words. It was gripping, intense, and honestly better than the endings of some actual games I’d played recently, so if you want to experience it fresh – which I highly recommend you do – look away now.
After Atlas is gone, the wall falls away, and you hear the familiar voice of everyone’s favourite Rogue AI/Potato Clock GLaDOS. Then, all of a sudden, she actually emerges, peering into the room from outside, and Holy bellydancing Jesus, is she creepy. For a start, she’s a damn sight bigger in real life than she seems: her ‘head’ seems to be about four and a half feet high alone.
She’s also much, much more sinister when she’s making thinly veiled threats from six inches in front of your goddamn face. At one point, she abruptly jerks forward, and I literally jumped back. I may or may not have also made a noise. GlaDOS in VR is outright fucking terrifying, and I cannot wait to see more of her.
Spoilers over; you may now resume reading.
Special mention goes to the visuals. The temptation must have been huge when making the Portal VR demo to simply save time by setting it in one of the sterile testing labs, but thankfully it’s densely packed with detail, all of it beautifully rendered and supremely immersive.
On the other hand, it’s a slight victim to its own success – the immersion is so great that I immediately wanted to pick up and dick about with everything, only to find that I couldn’t. I can’t really fault the game for not letting me; it’s only a tech demo, after all, and they can hardly be expected to program interactions for every little doodad. Still, it’s so engaging that you can’t help but try, and having your controller pass ineffectually through a pot plant or control panel is an oddly jarring experience.
The Portal series is inevitably going to get a VR-focused entry of some kind, partly because of course it is, but also because the stuff in that demo is just too good to waste. It would be a perfect fit for VR gameplay (for reasons that we’ll explain later), but for now, suffice it to say that I cannot wait.
While I was most looking forward to the Portal Robot Repair demo prior to my session, the one I ended up having the most fun with was actually Bossa’s own Surgeon Simulator. The company is developing a VR-enabled version of the hit absurdist medical sim, with plans for release on every major VR platform, and it is absolutely superb. It’s worth pointing out at this juncture that I’m a big fan of the original Surgeon Simulator. I am objectively awful at it, and to this day have never got further than the kidney transplant, but I love it nonetheless. I love the tone, I love the humour, I love the janky physics, and above all I love the control scheme, which is more unwieldy than a six-legged pig stuck in a revolving door.
If you’re not familiar with the game, it essentially involves performing cack-handed surgery with a range of laughably unsuitable tools and a byzantine control system, wherein you control each individual finger of your surgeon’s hand with a different key, managing the elevation and rotation with the mouse. It’s exactly as difficult as it sounds, but the insane challenge is partly what makes it so compelling.
For this very reason, I had some initial fears going into the Surgeon demo. It made full use of the Vive’s motion-control wands, but the main difficulty of the game for me was just getting my bastard hand to do what I wanted, like it was possessed by a particularly recalcitrant poltergeist. Would letting me actually control the movements of my hand directly remove that challenge and thus spoil my enjoyment of the game?
Thankfully, it turns out that these concerns were totally unfounded. The game is pretty much unchanged, other than the aforementioned controllers and the fact that first-person VR means you can now look around your surroundings. It’s also still heaps of fun.
Yes, being able to control the movements of the hand directly made the operations a lot easier, but the physics engine still appears to be operating on a totally different level of reality, which means that wrestling with it still provides ample challenge, and it retains enough of the original’s teeth-grinding frustration to remain immensely satisfying. There are other challenges to contend with, too. The demo I was shown was one of the ‘alien autopsy’ sections, set in a zero-gravity environment. One of the perils of the original was that if you dropped a tool on the floor, it was gone forever and the zero-g imitates this by having tools fly off into far-flung corners at the slightest provocation.
A full range of motion control also made it a lot easier to mess about with your patient/victim, which was endlessly hilarious. I spent more time than I’m proud of grabbing my alien patient’s arms and playing an extended game of ‘Why Are You Hitting Yourself’. One slight quibble I had with it was that in adapting them for VR, the controls have lost some of their finesse. The twin Vive motion controllers consist of symmetrical palm buttons on either side of the wand, with a trigger on the back, a trackpad on the front and two small buttons below it. The demo I tried used one-button controls, so holding any button on the controller would close the whole hand, releasing to open it again.
Sure, controlling every single finger individually was a pain in the hole, but it also allowed for precision manipulation of some of the smaller utensils, and I feel like removing it entirely is a missed trick. I’d have much preferred to see the trackpad controlling the thumb, the index finger activated with the trigger, and the other three using the palm buttons. It’s a very minor issue though, and one that I can’t see causing many problems. Overall, Surgeon Simulator in VR was an absolute blast, and the best possible showcase of the Vive’s motion control capabilities. It may well end up being among the first VR titles I pick up. Bossa is planning to have a demo available at launch for whichever headset launches first, with the full game coming in the first quarter of next year.
Now, we move onto the tech specs. I’m aware that this is some gamers’ bread and butter, but frankly, I couldn’t care less. It works, and that’s all that anyone really needs to know. The display, while not retina-level quality, is more than sufficient and it’s so immersive that the minor flaws there are simply get glossed over by your brain. If you’re that psychotically concerned about resolution, the Vive has a 1,200 x 1,800px per-eye resolution, but trust me when I say that it does not matter. It works fantastically now, and the visual quality is only going to get better when the thing actually launches.
The real issue is the latency and framerate, which I can confidently say that HTC have nailed. None of your paltry 60 frames per second here: the Vive dev kit runs at 90 fps, which, believe it or not, is currently on the low side for a VR headset. Because of the nature of VR, devices need to be running at least around this figure – its high latency and low framerates that have consistently contributed to motion sickness in earlier attempts.
In practise, it works superbly. There was zero noticeable lag, and everything functioned as smoothly as any VR experience I’ve had, despite the amount of data being processed. It’s also one of the more comfortable devices I’ve used, and the actual weight of the unit is becoming less and less of a problem as this technology develops.
What is an issue is the cable. Technologically speaking, VR just isn’t currently in a place where that amount of information can be pushed to the visor wirelessly at low latencies. This unfortunately means that users are forced to trail a cable after them, connecting them to their PC. If Vive users were seated, this wouldn’t really be a problem; it could simply be tucked away behind their chair and forgotten about.
However, this is not the case. The Vive’s main selling-point is that you can actually get up and haul your carcass around your living room to move about in the virtual world, and this means that you are going to run into problems of entanglement irritatingly quickly. In my experience, it wasn’t a total disaster. It was flow-breaking and required deliberate effort to avoid or undo getting caught up in the wire, but it wasn’t something that would put me off. Where it could prove a serious danger is in any future games that emphasise quick movements or reactions – it’s frighteningly easy to see someone tripping over their own cable and going headfirst through a wall.
The controller use is great pretty much across the board. It does require a little mental retraining, though. For example, since I’m used to traditional button inputs, I instinctively tried to use the trigger to interact with the Portal demo. Instead, it used the two palm buttons on either side of each controller. In hindsight, however, it’s obvious, and once I worked it out, it felt a lot more organic. Being able to move around in meatspace is a complete game-changer, too. It’s impossible to fully convey how much deeper the immersion is when you’re able to both move around and manipulate objects in a manner that’s within spitting distance of real life.
The inherent limitations of virtual reality mean that developers are going to have to totally rethink the way that they make games. For basically the entire history of gaming, creators have been pushing the boundaries, trying to create ever bigger and more expansive worlds, but that simply won’t work with the Vive.
Instead, the focus needs to be on small but densely packed environments, with relatively slow-paced action, but multiple layers of detail. Anything with a small, detail-oriented environment is going to be good – Surgeon is great example. Adventure and puzzle games like The Room would also pair well with VR, letting you explore independently at your own pace. RTS games are also something that could succeed well, particularly when paired with motion controls. Essentially, it’ll turn strategy games into the virtual equivalent of tabletop gaming, and really, wasn’t that what they were always meant to be? Think of something like Command and Conquer, where the battlefield is laid out like a war room map, and instead of manipulating units via keyboard and mouse, you physically pick them up and move them to where they need to be.
Too much movement is the main problem. It’s the disconnect between virtual acceleration and being stationary in meatspace that causes motion sickness, and due to the Vive’s finite playing area, anything with a lot of travel is a no-no. Unfortunately, this means that traditional first-person shooters are definitely out.
That doesn’t necessarily mean a complete lack of action games, however. Putting a stationary reference point within the player’s field of view largely negates the motion sickness issues, and as such, anything in a cockpit will work superbly – as amply proved by Elite Dangerous. Racing games could work, but they could also suffer from a lack of G-force and subtle changes in the center of gravity that could throw players off. In particular, I’m expecting a resurgence in flight sims and space games. For example, I’d love to see a balls-out Top Gun spoof done in VR.
Furthermore, it means that mech combat is a great way to do first person shooters in VR – you’ve got all the action of a Call of Duty, but you’ve also got a virtual cockpit to ground your brain. Rigs for Morpheus is the first example of this, but expect a slew of Mechwarrior-type titles to emerge once the hardware launches fully. It may not be able to make fantastic use of the Vive’s positional tracking in particular, but it should prove to be an excellent compromise between action and immersion.
Virtual reality may once have seemed like a far-off space dream, but it’s almost on our doorstep. The VR arms race is only getting hotter, and very soon the revolution is going to be in full swing. Personally, I can’t wait.
I’ll see you in the future.