Virtual reality is without doubt the biggest talking point coming out of EGX 2015 this past weekend, and you only had to see the two-hour queues to book stand-by appointments for both PlayStation VR and the HTC Vive to see that the general public is buying into the hype.
As somewhat of a VR cynic going into the event, I was keen to experience what all the fuss was about for myself. After previewing Battlezone for PlayStation VR on Friday, I was an instant convert, and couldn’t wait to shove my hard-earned pounds in the developers’ faces. And while that demonstration was eye-opening, my experience the next day with SteamVR and the HTC Vive was honestly mind-blowing – and that’s not a term I use lightly.
Despite being tremendously oversubscribed – appointments were fully booked within an hour of going online pre-show – the kind folks at HTC managed to squeeze me in for a 20-minute demonstration of its tech, which has been developed in conjunction with Valve as part of the latter’s SteamVR project.
Power Up Gaming staff writer Adam Shepherd has already done a stellar job of giving you the rundown on the Vive’s technical capabilities, so I’ll summarise here. In terms of specs, the HTC Vive’s head-mounted display provides a 2160 x 1200 resolution (1080 x 1200 per eye), which matches the Oculus Rift and trumps the PlayStation VR’s 1920 x 1080 resolution. It has a refresh rate of 90hz, which is again identical to the Rift but slightly behind PS VR’s 120 frames per second.
Honestly, as I’m not a huge hardware enthusiast, I couldn’t tell the difference between the three in that regard: to me, all three were more than capable of providing smooth, high-definition images with an adequate field of view (100 to 110 degrees), to the point where I felt suitably immersed within their game worlds. This, along with zero noticeable input lag and the relatively high refresh rate of each unit, helped prevent the feelings of motion sickness that are typically associated with inferior specs.
Where the HTC Vive stands apart from its competitors, however, is that it allows player movement in the real world to be directly translated into the VR world. Through its Lighthouse room-tracking technology, which consists of two base stations positioned in the corners of your entertainment space, the Vive is able to effectively map your playing space into the game. The sensation of being able to actually move and walk around in a game – rather than just look around – adds a whole new dimension to virtual reality, and was my first genuine ‘Holy shit!’ moment in experiencing the tech. Where there was a certain degree of disconnect when using the Oculus and PlayStation VR, due to using a standard controller to input movement while your head was in the game world, now my whole body was, and it created a much more fluid and genuine experience.
While I’d be interested to see how this actually works in people’s homes, where your average living room isn’t the perfect 5m x 5m square that was used for the purposes of the demo, the experience was nonetheless a game-changing one. An HTC rep explained that you can calibrate the base stations to track the proportions of your own room, but how this will account for furniture and other potentially hazardous obstacles, I’m not sure.
Even in the confines of an empty room, moving around without any spatial awareness of your real-world surroundings is a potentially dangerous one; you don’t want to run headlong into a wall. The Vive solves this issue quite ingeniously by placing a translucent blue mesh on-screen when you’re close to the boundaries of your play space. As the overlay only appears when you’re right next to the walls, it thankfully ensures that your immersive experience isn’t broken up during normal gameplay.
One issue I did come across involved the Vive’s rather cumbersome connectivity wires. Due to the vast amount of data being sent to the HMD, it isn’t possible, at this stage, to transmit it wirelessly. As a result, users are left with a hefty cable trailing around behind them, which not only adds a certain amount of weight to the visor, but also presents a trip hazard when you’re moving around with no knowledge of your real-world surroundings. On several occasions throughout each demo, I found myself getting tangled up in said cabling, and it was a little bit of an immersion-breaking experience to have to reach out behind me and physically free myself.
Although this will hopefully be solvable in the future when VR goes wireless, perhaps in the meantime in-game visual cues, along the lines of the wall delimiters mentioned previously, could be used to ensure users are directed away from getting themselves in a jam.
On the whole, however, this is a forgivable issue, and once I became familiar with the acceptable methods of movement, it didn’t detract from the overall experience too much.
As with any hardware, as impressive as it may be, its ability to achieve greatness lies with the applications people find for it. While the technology behind the HTC Vive and SteamVR is still young, I was presented with a couple of tech demos that were specifically tailored to demonstrate the hardware’s potential and provide the user with a particular experience.
During the loading sequence, I was introduced to the Vive’s control system. While it supports standard PC gamepads, HTC and Steam also have innovated their own much more impressive dual-wand set-up, which sees the twin controllers being tracked by Lighthouse in a PlayStation Move-like fashion. As well as allowing you to bring your hand gestures into the game world, each stick has a circular trackpad on front that provides tactile feedback, while a trigger on the back is used for most of your physical interactions.
The way these controllers appear in-game can be tailored to the game you’re playing. For example, they might appear as your hands wielding a weapon, or, as in the case of the demos we played, their appearance might be identical to how they appear in real life. During the aforementioned loading segment, the trackpad was transformed into a colour palette, and pressing down on a particular segment would blow up a balloon in that colour, which you could then bat away exactly as you would in the real world. Subtle vibrations from the controller recreated the sensations of actually hitting the balloon, which drew yet another astonished response from me. That’s right: I was even mesmerised by the Vive’s loading screen mini-game.
The first of our tech demos was WemoLabs’ TheBluVR, a game which is touted as a ‘virtual reality marine entertainment experience,’ and builds on the success of 2012’s TheBlu: Ocean World, itself an impressive 3D ocean simulation. TheBluVR, which has been available for Samsung’s mobile GearVR for some time already, sees you transported to a sunken shipwreck at the bottom of the ocean as a whole manner of sea wildlife swims around you.
My first couple of minutes with the game were spent simply taking it all in. Although I was physically confined to moving around a rather small section of the ship’s deck, the depth of the ocean world around me was like nothing I’ve experienced in any form of entertainment before. With graphics so pristine and breathtaking my suspension of disbelief was easy to achieve, and I allowed myself to get fully immersed in the experience being presented to me. Shoals of fish of all varieties and sizes swam about, starting off as infinitesimal flecks in the deep blue distance before becoming much larger as they approached, allowing me to flick them away with a jab of the left controller.
The demo closed with a gigantic whale coming in closer to take a look; so involved was I within this world that I physically ducked to avoid its giant fin taking my head off.
DOTA 2 Secret Shop
Next up was the Secret Shop, a newly added demo that allowed for much greater environmental interaction. At once, I found myself in a rickety, wooden shop, which played host to a number of supernatural and magical-looking items for sale. Again, I spent several moments simply exploring my surroundings, interacting with some of the magical items and picking up objects to investigate by using the Steam VR controller’s trigger.
When I was interrupted (and startled) by the arrival of a rather familiar looking and rotund shopkeeper, I realised I was in the fantasy world of DOTA 2, and one of its mysterious Secret Shops. After a brief interaction, the friendly warlock handed me his magical light, which appeared as a flame in-game on top of the controller. Using this light to explore the dark corners of the shop was where the VR magic really happened. By shining it on a mouse hole, I was able to shrink down into it; the room and all of its objects magnifying in size instantly and seamlessly to create the illusion. When a spider over twice my size started terrifyingly scuttling towards me, however, I didn’t spend much longer in that state and promptly returned back to normal with the click of the trigger.
During this demo, I was rewarded for making the most of the 360-degree head-tracking the Vive provides. Look down, and I saw a small, rather cute monster escape from a cage embedded in the floor, jump up and escape out of the window. Look up, and I was able to disturb a number of bats before plucking a book off of a shelf that promptly grew spikes and a monster-like face! I could even pull back the curtain to look out into the forest surrounding the hut, where numerous pairs of eyes stared back at me through the abyss.
While both the DOTA 2 Secret Shop and TheBluVR served to perfectly illustrate the potential of the Vive to create potentially mesmerising and fully immersive situations, I was left wanting something I could sink my teeth into; a fully realised video game rather than the rather passive ‘experiences’ the tech demos had been billed as. As it turned out, I wouldn’t have to wait all that long.
Enter Crystal Rift, a grid-based dungeon crawler created by Psytec Games, a dedicated virtual reality studio headed up by industry veteran Jon Hibbins. The experience of playing Crystal Rift with the Vive’s HMD was a little different to the demonstration offered by HTC themselves, as a standard game controller was used for inputting movement rather than the room-tracking technology and wands I had experienced earlier in the day.
As Crystal Rift was played standing up, this created a little bit of the disconnect I mentioned earlier that can be found across many VR titles: my head movements were translated to the in-game world and allowed me to look around as I pleased, but my feet were firmly fixed to the floor.
However, it only took a few minutes for me to adjust to this initially disorientating setup, and I was able to progress through the game without any further motion sickness symptoms. As an explorative adventure game, Crystal Rift tasks your sword-wielding daredevil with solving a manner of puzzles, avoiding death traps and fighting off all kinds of enemies to traverse through the delightfully eerie dungeons on offer. Being a grid-based game, movement is a little bit unorthodox; the right bumpers are used to rotate 90 degrees in the given direction, while the left analogue stick is used to move forwards and backwards. The face buttons serve as your interact and attack options, although Crystal Rift can track SteamVR’s wand and accurately marry your hand gestures to your in-game sword.
The premise is a refreshingly simple one, clearly inspired by classic titles such as Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder. Thankfully, though, it’s not over-simplistic, as the short demo I played contained a variety of different gameplay mechanics that lent themselves perfectly to VR. Whether it was riding a minecart on a rickety track, tip-toeing across a perilous ledge (while determined not to look down), or solving basic physics-based puzzles, I felt both exhilarated and a little apprehensive at how captivated I was by the game. The sense of vertigo I felt while peering down into the dark abyss that awaited me should I make the smallest of errors was genuinely frightening (and awesome), and one that is only made possible through the use of virtual reality.
Of course, no dungeon crawler worth its salt would be complete without a host of monsters and creepy goings-on, and Crystal Rift doesn’t disappoint. The game has an optional scare level, which can be set to off, normal or extreme. Naturally, Pystec must have heard I’m of a squeamish disposition, because mine was set to extreme, and contained more jump-scares than your average Five Nights at Freddy’s let’s play. In my hands-on, I dispatched a fellow sword-carrying skeleton, ran the hell away from an unidentifiable monster that peered up at me from the darkness below, and had a maniacal demon pass right through my body; my suspension of disbelief (and terror) only broken at several moments by the laughter coming from the spectators behind me at my apparently hilarious reactions.
Equipped with five lives (though a perma-death mode is also available), I made it approximately two-thirds of the way through the dungeon being showcased before I got caught out by a pressure plate and plummeted to a spiky death-pit below.
Crystal Rift is already available on Steam Early Access with Oculus Rift DK2 support, and will support HTC Vive/SteamVR from launch. Hibbins also confirmed that the studio already have PlayStation VR development kits, and plan on making it available as a PS4 title as soon as the tech releases at retail. Excitingly, the game also comes complete with a fully-fledged dungeon editor, allowing users to share their creations with the game’s ever-growing community via Steam.
Overall, while I was impressed with all of the virtual reality units I tried out during the course of EGX, the HTC Vive was far and away the most awe-inspiring from both a technical and experiential standpoint. Although its specs are comparable to competitors such as PlayStation VR and the Oculus Rift, the Vive’s room-tracking technology, along with its intuitive control scheme, provided a much more immersive and interactive experience than its rivals.
The unit will be available in ‘limited quantities’ in time for the holiday period, with a full launch planned for Q1 2016. Its retail price point has yet to be confirmed, but expect it to be considered a premium product for a long time yet.