Over the Christmas break I had a number of turns using a HTC Vive full-room set up VR kit, which was nice. I played a number of games and generally mucked about in the world only occasionally tripping over furniture and being terrified by people touching me when engrossed in a title. Jump to the cut for my thoughts on a number of titles, including but not limited to : Star Trek Bridge Crew, Superhot VR and a Portal Vignette.
Firstly, a soupscon of technical background. The set-up of the Room-based system involved the positioning of two sensors in opposite corners of the room. You then map out the game-area (luckily this was in a large room) and can go as far to highlight protruding obstacles such as desks or cabinets, and then you’re largely away. The boundary then appears in-game as a faint blue grid as you reach the end of the play area letting you know you’re about to walk into a wall. It’s a subtle and elegant solution to one of the main fears of VR. Hurting your shins or face.
Once set up correctly (and I have massively glossed over the amount you need to do to do this), you can then don your VR headset, pick up your two controllers and you’re away. Loading through Steam you’re greeted with a VR lobby that is set on top of a large mountain. It’s a very pleasant area and there is a huge screen in front with a wall to your left that has, in effect, a scrollable Steam library for you to select what to play. Now, a number of free tech demo’s exist out there (such as the Portal one mentioned above), but there are also paid titles (Star Trek Bridge Crew) as well. I found the experience to be very immersive, across all the titles (and even in the lobby), and it was all very intuitive. You really do get lost in the games and the environment.
It wasn’t all great though. The focus was slightly out on my face, and this particular set up had very limited scope for adjustments- but this seemed to matter on some titles more than others. Also, I found the resolution on most titles to be much below what i’d expect .Don’t get me wrong I wasn’t going in there expecting Full 4K resolution, but on one particular Star Wars demo I briefly sampled I was seeing pixels. Actual pixels.
I’ll run through each of the titles I played, and one I watched my brother play (to much hilarity) below. This is mostly done from memory as it wasn’t my kit or set up and occured over the festive period, so alcohol may have been involved. So if details are slightly off (such as names etc), don’t be too surprised….
The Portal Tech demo.
There were a number of tech demo’s associated with the kit, one of which was a Portal based one where you’re effectively in a small room the entire time. You manipulate a few things, open the wrong draw a few times and accidentally cause the destruction of a tiny office-based ecosystem. Not long after you are met by one of the portal robots, who promptly disassembles in glorious 3D directly in front of you, for you to ostensibly run some repairs. You can rotate parts (along a set axis) and peer around the inner workings, and it really is magnificent.
Things predictably go wrong, he(?) explodes and then GLaDOS herself (wow she’s BIG) appears after a wall is removed. The whole room then starts disassembling around your feet and yes, I stepped back as panels moved without even thinking about. It. The VR experience was very immersive. It’s a short demo, maybe 5 minutes, but really sells what a Portal game could do in VR. Vertigo and blind terror aside.
Oh now this one was good. Unfortunately (and unwittingly) I jumped into my brothers game that was already halfway through and ended up in the middle of a fist/gun fight against the red enemies, next to a stripper’s pole. Yup. Where I then had to duck, weave, punch (and eventually) shoot my way out of each scenario. This is where the room-based movement really came into its own. You could walk around objects and duck under bullets etc- all using Superhot’s trademark movement technique.
Now for those who don’t know the game, time only moves when you move. So stand still and time stops. Move slowly (even an arm) and time moves slowly. Move quickly, and well, you get the idea. It’s a genius idea that worked well in the game, but in VR it really comes into its own. You’re literally ducking and dodging around gunfire. It’s utterly brilliant. After getting the ‘knack’ I managed to progress quite far in what turned out to be the games mid-game, so i’m quite happy with myself. If you have VR this is one I thoroughly recommend.
Star Trek Bridge Crew
Hands-down my favourite. I’m a Trekkie anyway, so being on the bridge of a Starship was glorious. To start you’re treated to a shuttle ride to a space station where your dumped into a lobby. The lobby is a small federation meeting room with 4 chairs around a large oval console/table which get filled with people as they join the game. On the screen you can choose who you want to be (captain, tactical, con or science) and what type of mission (training, campaign etc) and to a certain degree, what ship. There was a choice of two for us, alas I can’t remember what they were, but we ended up on the bridge of a Kelvin-timeline vessel from the reboots, and boy did it look good.
I was at tactical looking towards the view screen which showed a brown planet by a nebula. I pointed with my arms and my arms moved in front of me. Fits of giggling and one Y.M.C.A. Later and the Captain, a chap called George, tells me to ‘stow it Lieutenant’ and I’m at once quiet and in the character of a Starfleet officer. I loved it.
We spoke in ‘Star Trek’ jargon, I called him Captain, I looked across the bridge to the science station and waved. She waved back. More giggling. Down to business though.
We were tasked by Starfleet command to explore a nearby sector and find a missing ship. This involved scanning the nebula for engine traces, and identifying any potential clues to its whereabouts. At tactical I was in charge of weapons, scanning, and for some reason the transporters. Which was kinda cool.
I scan the nebula, picking out anomalies that lead us deep into the nebula and a bunch of mines. I’m thoroughly enjoyed gawping around the bridge (it looks incredible) and watching my hands and arm dance on the console in front of me. My legs don’t quite track well, but given I’m sat AND there’s no actual tracking on them it’s actually pretty good.
We identify some mines, and the Captain tells the con to set a course around them. I ask permission to destroy them, he agrees and I phaser them to death. Tee hee. We then get a distress call about a ship’s reactor that’s about to go critical. The Captain orders an intercept course and we head across at full impulse.
A small vessel appears on screen, though the Cap doesn’t order us to ‘’magnify’(to my dismay) so I never get a close-up look of it. I’m ordered to scan the vessel and quickly identify 6 life signs and an overheating reactor. I’m instructed to lock on and beam off the survivors. I start the transporter lock and watch each pattern complete, I tell the captain all ready and he says the magic word: Energise. “All aboard Captain” I report before selecting the ships drive in my tactical screen to attempt a remote shutdown. The shutdown is successful and the mission is complete. Tribbles for everyone.
It’s then that we find a lead for the missing ship we were actually sent out to get. Once closer we receive a distress call complete with ominous static; “ ….under attack…. eavy damage ta….. shields failing…. ur…. assistance…. Elp” (slight artistic license taken there…). The Captain orders an intercept course and once in range I scan the ship. It’s the Kobyashi Maru…. both the science officer and I squeee. The Captain laughs. Seems it’s all our first game, but we’re all trekkies; We know what’s coming.
As soon as we’re close enough to attempt a full life-sign scan of the vessel, three Klingon Bird of Prey’s de-cloak and begin attacking the Kobyashi Maru. The Captain hesitates- “should we attack sir? Shields sir?” He says yes to both and we go in. It’s an interesting encounter, we target one Bird of Prey and chase it out of range, severely damaging it in the process. I’m still unclear if this was a tactical manoeuvre as it left the other two free to attack the defenceless vessel. We get back and drop shields in a desperate attempt to beam across survivors before she blows. We get six. Six out of over three hundred, and are immediately fired on by the remaining Bird of Preys. The mission ends and Starfleet command (on the view screen) informs us that we’ve passed the simulation (passed?!) and are ready for our own command. We’re back in the briefing room and we all congratulate each other before we part our ways (presumably to go back to the boxing day lunches we’d all evaded)
That was fun.
Space Pirate Trainer
This was a more stand-up fight (if you’ll excuse the pun) than the other titles. You’re on a small landing pad high above some sci-fi city. A large Vyper-esque spaceship sits in front of you, and the horizon and sky behind. You’re basically tasked, via some nifty interactive menu’s, to survive against waves of attacking bots that all have slightly different modes of attack. You’re free to move, to a limited degree, around the the platform and spend your time ducking and dodging (and using the handy electric shield you can have as an off-hand weapon) to evade and block incoming fired. It’s then just a question of high scores.
It’s mindless fun and not without a reasonable amount of skill (the bots can move pretty quickly), and terrific to look at. Each round is pretty short, possibly just a few minutes and with a high score-table, I can see some replay value. Not sure how long it’ll be playable before it becomes repetitive, but, it’s worth a look.
This was the final thing I saw, but I didn’t actually play it myself because I got pretty severe motion sickness in this one (the only title i suffered with). The main reason I think was with other games you’re either walking around little areas in ‘real life’ using the room’s sensors, or you’re teleporting to new places using the remote. With Dreadhalls you used the controller as you would any gamepad- and push up to move forward, left right strafe, and back back. My primitive monkey brain did not like this. So I left my brother do the demonstrating on this one and frankly, i’m glad I did because a) it looked actually scary in places and b) it was hilarious to watch.
This is a medieval dungeon crawling horror/suspense game. It’s in the dark (you have a portable oil lantern you can fill up and you hold in one hand (you literally hold it up in front of you to see). The other hand is for interacting, and opening/picking stuff up.
It’s a basic affair, you trundle around in the dark, looking through locked rooms and trying to find your way out whilst solving some sort of mystery. It’s pretty atmospheric and my brother reported that it was even more so in game (luckily when you’re in VR what you can see is still displayed on a monitor, so others can share in the fun).
After a while we came to a statue’s face recessed into a wall and being as we were, he started to pick its nose with his in-game hands for a giggle. When the statue opened its eyes quickly (and to a shrieking note) he literally jumped back 3 paces. I jumped too, but was also too busy laughing at my brother to care. The further he got into the dungeon, the more weird stuff happened. Noises behind him causing him to jump. Fleeting glimpses of moving things in the shadows ahead or behind and basically lots of things to make him very nervous. Fear in VR it seems, is very visceral.
At one point my brother spotted a form coalescing out of the shadows just out of sight around a corner and that was enough to confirm that the ‘baddies’ could turn up anywhere- even places you thought were safe. This vastly increased the ‘looking over the shoulder quota’. One terrifying bit had him walk around a corner to find a human form stood directly in front of him, but looking the other way. It’s head was bowed and a mysterious voice urgently whispered ‘don’t disturb them!’ So he backed up slowly… and ran down another corridor.
It all became too much when entering a large area (after being in cramped halls for some time, we noticed a number of alcoves. Some held doors, some held relics, and one nearest held a beast-like statue. A noise to his right made him spin around (nothing there), but on turning back the statue had moved to just out of reach (‘Weeping Angles’ style) which resulted in the hasty removal of the VR kit to a chorus of ‘Nope, Nope, nope, NOPE, nope nope’ from my brother, and much laughter from myself.
It looked atmospheric and very immersive (if my brothers reactions can be any judge), so it seems VR and Horror go together very well.
That’s it! All the games i had any serious time on (or with) during the festive period. I came away a big fan of VR. It still feels to me like it’s not quite there yet. There needs to be a bit more evolution in terms of game mechanics and tech (especially on the display side), but it no longer just feels like a fad. I think this could catch on…
Have any of you sampled VR or any of the games i talked about above? Drop something in the comments.