We're still just scratching the surface of what virtual reality will eventually be able to do. But when we sat down to round up a list of the best VR games, it was a little surprising how much high-quality (if still a little primitive) content is already out there. Let's break down our always up-to-date picks for the best VR games you can play today.
We're constantly trying and re-evaluating games for the Vive, Rift, PSVR and Gear VR. We'll continue to update and refine this article whenever we think something new is worthy of being called one of the best VR games.
Damaged Core (Oculus Rift)
The just-launched Damaged Core is the rare first-person shooter that does something different – and not just by being in VR. High Voltage's Rift exclusive uses the teleporting mechanic that's so common in first-gen VR (especially on the Vive), but weaves it into the story and setting from the ground up. Here your magical blinks through space aren't just a convenient way to move around without losing your lunch, but core pillars of the story and game world.
The whole thing has a AAA feel, gameplay is often frenetically-paced and it's difficult enough to keep the hardcore legion of gamers satisfied. Add it up, and you could say Damaged Core is the first must-have VR game.
Raw Data (HTC Vive)
Despite being in Steam Early Access, Raw Data also has a AAA feel that you don't always see in early VR games. The fast-paced combat reminds us a bit of last year's Oculus Touch demo Bullet Train: Like in that demo, Raw Data has you moving your own body and teleporting to avoid fire, and using your motion controllers to wield the weapons that take your enemies out. Here that means a pistol and katana blade.
With both single player and online co-op modes, there's a solid amount of gameplay to be had even in this early pre-release version.
Just be warned: Raw Data can be a highly physical experience. You will burn some calories here and you'll need to take the HTC Vive's Chaperone boundaries seriously. It's also one of the most exhilarating short-burst games in VR.
Vanishing Realms (Vive)
If we had to pick one game to show you a peek into the future of open-world gaming, it would be the Vive's Vanishing Realms. As a Steam Early Access game, this isn't even a complete product yet – but you'll likely forget all about that as it sucks you into its fantasy/RPG world. It's a bit like stepping inside a Zelda game: Walk around these virtual environments, using your own feet to walk and your own hands to wield swords, shields and a flesh-piercing magic wand, and you have one of the brightest glimpses into VR gaming's future.
Like many early Vive games, Vanishing Realms supports room-scale VR and uses teleportation for movement around the wider virtual world.
Star Wars' Trials on Tatooine (Vive)
It's over before you know it, but this super-short "experiment" – a collaboration between Lucasfilm, Valve and HTC – is another mesmerizing peek at our VR gaming future. It includes some familiar characters from the original (Episodes IV-VI) trilogy, including a voice actor who does a mean young Harrison Ford impersonation, and puts you in the familiar setting of Luke's and Anakin's home planet.
But all that takes a backseat to the fact that you get to live out your fantasies of using a lightsaber. It looks and feels real, swoosh sound effects and all – and it's even better if you have a high-end graphics card, like the new GTX 1080 or 1070.
Defense Grid 2 (Rift)
Before the Oculus Rift launched, if you would have asked us to predict what our favorite Rift games would be, we'd have guessed Lucky's Tale, Eve: Valkyrie or just about anything but this tower defense game.
More than any other title, though, Defense Grid 2 shows us how knock-your-socks-off-great strategy games can be in VR. It makes sense: Platformers and third-party action games don't really have any practical reason to be in VR (other than why not?), but strategy games, where panning and zooming are so much more convenient because they're tied to head and body movement, are simply better in VR than they are anywhere else.
The Gallery: Call of the Starseed (Vive)
Almost on par with Vanishing Realms is the Vive's first killer adventure game, The Gallery. The first chapter of the episodic series, Call of the Starseed, is a bit like getting sucked into one of those 90s-era adventure titles you used to play on your PC after school (well, if you're of a certain age). The slower-paced exploration, object-collecting and puzzle-solving staples of the genre become fresh all over again when you feel like you're really there – standing on the beach, combing sewers and traversing a mad professor's underground lair.
Like Vanishing Realms, The Gallery is another room-scale/teleporting Vive game.
Edge of Nowhere (Rift)
Insomniac's Edge of Nowhere sits alongside Damaged Core and The Gallery as the best story-driven VR games. Imagine a weird splice between the Uncharted series (collapsing environments, cinematic quality, mixture of fast-paced action and slower-paced exposition) and the Scarecrow scenes in Batman: Arkham Asylum (tripping-balls hallucinations where you aren't quite sure what's real and what's in your head).
Even if it's riding on the shoulders of these established franchises, Edge of Nowhere's unique reorganization of those foundations works very well. It's a creepy, horrific and well-written ride that's worth the US$40 asking price.
CastleStorm VR (Rift, Gear VR)
CastleStorm VR is like two parts tower defense, two parts Angry Birds, one part action/brawler. Put them together, take a step back and you have another absurdly fun strategy game for the Rift and Gear VR (unsurprisingly, it looks and performs much better on the Rift).
As the commander of your castle, your job is to juggle things like deploying soldiers, flinging boulders and bombs, and summoning your knight (who plays the braggart soldier role to a T) to bash some enemy skulls. It may sound like a strange mix, but CastleStorm VR is one of our favorite recent VR games.
The Brookhaven Experiment (Vive)
The scariest entry on our list, the full version of The Brookhaven Experiment launched recently, and it's much bigger and better than the demo that was available at the Vive's launch.
The Brookhaven Experiment is a 360-degree horror survival game, where you're plopped into a variety of environments with only a gun, flashlight and melee weapon. After the first couple of levels, your surroundings turn just about pitch black – leaving you to manage your flashlight's batteries and listen carefully (the positional audio comes in handy) to try to take out your monstrous invaders before they get up in your grill. If they do, prepare to scream out loud as you desperately fire and slash at your terrifying would-be slayer.
Zombie Training Simulator (Vive)
At the other extreme of the undead-wave-survival genre is Zombie Training Simulator, which substitutes Brookhaven's realism for something resembling clip art.
Behind those deceptively basic cardboard-cutout visuals is a fun and addictive game with a terrific weapons system. There's a nice upgrade path (kill more zombies, get better guns) after starting off with a collection of pistols, grenades and propane tanks. And don't forget those steaks sitting on your ammo table: Chuck one out to attract a gaggle of ghouls for easy picking.
Best of all, the far-from-lifelike attackers eliminate the scare factor you get with titles like Brookhaven, leaving you to enjoy the core gameplay without crapping your pants.
AirMech: Command (Rift)
Another favorite Rift game follows a similar formula to Defense Grid 2: strategy game that's much better in VR than it would be anywhere else. Here you take classic real-time strategy gameplay (building and deploying units, moving them carefully to best overtake your opponent) with the unique twist of controlling your own jet/robot mech who adds an action-packed element to the mix. It also helps that he's basically a superhero in your RTS world.
Final Approach (Vive)
Air traffic controller meets orchestra conductor in Final Approach, where you trace paths for planes and helicopters swirling around you – using the Vive's room-scale and motion controls.
This one is much more fun than you'd expect based on its description. It must have something to do with feeling like a giant towering over a city, island or aircraft carrier.
Job Simulator (Vive, PlayStation VR)
Speaking of games that sound ridiculous but end up being loads of fun, the cheeky Job Simulator drops you into environments like an office cubicle, convenience store counter or mechanic's garage, to perform seemingly mundane day-to-day tasks, as simulated (not so well) by the robot overlords that run the world.
How is this kind of game possibly enjoyable? First, manipulating simple objects with your hands (motion controls) in VR can be a joyous experience in itself. But there's also a GTA-like sandbox element where, when you no longer feel like following instructions, you're free to raise all brands of mayhem – chucking coffee mugs at co-workers, microwaving silverware or pouring sriracha sauce into a car's oil tank. Now we're talking.
Note that we don't recommend playing the game on PlayStation VR, due to that system's major motion-control issues.
The Lab (Vive)
Valve knocked it out of the park with its first VR title, a collection of mini-games along the lines of Wii Sports (only much better). Favorites include an archery defense mini-game and an Angry Birds-like tower smashing game where you load and fire the human-sized catapult using your own hands.
From the files of "good games that don't really have any practical reason to be in VR," Chronos takes a Zelda-like adventure/role playing game and puts it on the Oculus Rift. If we moved all of these games onto 2D screens, this would be one of the best, but it doesn't really gain anything by being in virtual reality (other than the "hey, this is neat!" factor that all VR adds).
The Nest (Vive)
As the first sniper game we've played in VR, The Nest shows the genre's promise in virtual reality. From your lookout nest, grab your scoped rifle and zoom in on the fields full of robots below, to take them out one by one.
It's a little strange using a small Vive controller to represent a long rifle, but we found that resting your dominant arm on your secondary arm makes aiming and firing feel natural.
Viral (Gear VR)
One of our favorite mobile VR games is an on-rails, physics-based shooter where you fire balls at little red and green robots that flail like rag dolls when you take them out with a well-placed hit. It's hard to explain why, but this gameplay is immensely satisfying.
Hover Junkers (Vive)
One of the Vive's best multiplayer games, Hover Junkers puts you on a hovercraft in a virtual post-apocalyptic wasteland where you get into shootouts with other players riding their own hovercrafts.
The long-promised single player mode has yet to materialize, though, and the multiplayer matches can quickly get repetitive. Still worth playing, but not quite the killer game we thought it would be before launch.
Herobound: Spirit Champion (Gear VR, Rift)
From the same developer as Chronos, the fun Herobound: Spirit Champion is like a more childlike version of that title, with a cute little cartoon goblin traversing dungeons, solving puzzles and taking out hordes of undead skeletons and werewolves.
If you buy a Gear VR, this one is a free download.
Selfie Tennis (Vive)
Be careful you don't get too carried away in this one, as you'll be flailing your Vive controllers around your space like you're Serena Williams. As long as you don't destroy your room in the process, Selfie Tennis – you play both sides of the net, hence the "selfie" part – is great fun.
Darknet (Gear VR, Rift)
One of the Gear VR's best strategy games, Darknet sits on a hacking thematic backdrop with holographic visuals representing the enemy networks you "pwn" one by one. Great for longer sit-down sessions, this one is easy to get lost in.
Land's End (Gear VR)
Land's End takes the Gear VR's limitations (no body tracking, entry-level horsepower) and, within those confines, crafts a slower-paced, atmospheric work of art that's as much about taking-it-all-in as it is solving puzzles.
Lucky's Tale (Rift)
Based on our event demos, we half expected Lucky's Tale to be a generation-defining game – along the lines of Super Mario Bros. for the NES. But once we brought it home, the game's pacing was disappointingly slow (perhaps necessarily, to avoid motion sickness) with too-little enemy variety. It also doesn't help that you have to go back and replay levels that weren't particularly exciting the first time around.
That's why Lucky's Tale isn't a platform-defining killer app: But it makes our list anyway, as it's still fun to play a Mario-like 3D platformer – a very polished one at that – in VR.
Eve: Valkyrie (Rift, PSVR)
Another game that Oculus hyped up in advance of the Rift's launch, Eve: Valkyrie ended up getting boring far too quickly. Space dogfights in VR sound great, but not when it feels like the Groundhog Day of video games, repeating the same battle over and over (even when you're on a different map, it plays mostly the same).
Like Lucky's Tale, though, just because Eve: Valkyrie fell short of our lofty pre-release expectations doesn't mean it isn't worth playing.
Fantastic Contraption (Vive)
In Fantastic Contraption, you walk around a floating island, constructing bizarre cars that will return your precious jelly ball to its long-lost jelly home. The quirky premise is just a surface facade for a smartly-designed engineering game using the Vive's room-scale and motion controls.
The Climb (Rift)
Imagine getting soooo close to the peak of the mountain you're scaling, only to fall hundreds of feet, breaking bones all over your body and only narrowly escaping with your life. That's not only one possible scenario in The Climb, it could also be a metaphor for the game itself (admittedly a melodramatic one).
The "so close" part comes from the game's stunning visuals and perfect for VR premise. The fall comes courtesy of the developer's decision to stick with gamepad controls, instead of much more logical and intuitive motion controls. Climbing a mountain where you use your body to stretch, but triggers on a gamepad to grip? This one should have gone back to the drawing board after Oculus' and HTC's motion controllers were announced. Still fun, but a missed opportunity to plant its flag near the top of the best VR games.
Fortunately Crytek recently demoed an Oculus Touch-enabled version of The Climb. After that's available, we wouldn't be surprised if it rose quite a few notches on this list.
Rez Infinite (PSVR)
Currently the only PlayStation VR exclusive game on our list, Rez Infinite is a techno-fueled acid trip of a game, blending music, rhythm and kaleidoscopic visuals into a meditative experience that's one of the few pleasures of using the broken PlayStation VR. That's thanks to the fact that it uses a PS4 DualShock gamepad, rather than PSVR's horrible PS Move motion controls.
Elite: Dangerous (Vive, Rift)
Going off of sheer detail and sense of immersion, Elite: Dangerous could be one of our top picks. But it's a little hard to recommend to anyone but the most hardcore pilot sim fans, as the learning curve is extremely high. When I sit down to play a video game, I don't mind going through a tutorial process: But spending days, maybe weeks, learning how to properly fly and land my ship – and even then realizing the only way to do it justice is to buy an extra flight stick accessory – well, that's a bigger chunk of my life than I want to devote to a single game.
If you're into that kind of thing, though, Elite: Dangerous is role playing in the most literal sense: making you feel like you're really a space pilot, with all of your travel happening on a real-time, 1:1 scale.