HTC Vive review: The best tracking in VR needs more great games

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After eight months, New Atlas re-reviews the HTC Vive(Credit: Will Shanklin/New Atlas)

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You could say revisiting our HTC Vive review eight months after launch doesn't make a lot of sense: Its hardware hasn't changed at all and its gaming library hasn't seen a dramatic overhaul. From another perspective, though, those are precisely the reasons to re-evaluate the Vive. With its biggest rival, the Oculus Rift, recently adding new controllers and a wealth of fresh games, the playing field has changed – even though the Vive hasn't. Is this a case where standing still (or close to it) equates to moving backwards?

The HTC Vive is still the best place to find 360-degree, room-scale virtual reality. The Oculus Rift now supports this as well, but a) its tracking is more limited and b) it isn't clear how long it will take developers to make games and experiences that fully exploit it. The Vive, meanwhile, was built from the ground-up for this free-roaming, face-any-direction-you-like style of play. Its best games reflect that.

The Vive's Lighthouse tracking system is easily the best in VR: Two mounted base stations plug into wall outlets to beam invisible lasers into your playing space. Photosensors on the Vive headset and controllers use those lasers to calculate their precise positions in space. The result is pinpoint-accurate tracking from all angles: In the eight months of using the Vive, I can't think of a single time when the tracking was anything but perfect.

And while each of the Rift's sensors requires a USB cable running to your PC, the Vive's base stations require no PC connection whatsoever.

Though the Rift now has its own room-scale boundary system, the Vive's "Chaperone" pioneered this. After initially setting up your Vive playing space, a grid will pop up once you get close to the edge, triggering your don't-smack-into-walls instinct (an instinct Crazy Jimmy in the 7th grade apparently lacked).

Our opinion of the Vive as a tracking marvel that dances around the outermost boundaries of VR hasn't changed.

The problem is we haven't seen enough new killer Vive games since the system's April launch. I can name two: Arizona Sunshine, a zombie apocalypse action/adventure game, and Raw Data, wave-based action/combat. Even when you add favorite launch titles like The Lab, Vanishing Realms, The Gallery and Job Simulator, we're still looking at a short list.

Two of the top HTC Vive games: Arizona Sunshine (l), Raw Data

On the whole, the majority of titles in the Vive's content library have a rough-draft feel. Having spent eight months trying new SteamVR releases, often ringing up for around $20-30 each, my expectations for return-on-investment have sunk. Too many are low-budget indie projects that, after that initial evaluation, aren't worth returning to.

Indie games made by small teams can sometimes incubate creative ideas you wouldn't see from big publishers. But when you're paying US$1,500 or more for Vive + gaming PC, you expect to see more high-end content for your high-end purchase.

Meanwhile the Rift has a long list of titles – made for both gamepad and Oculus Touch – standing firmly in "polished/complete" territory. Superhot, Dead & Buried, Damaged Core, The Unspoken and Edge of Nowhere are just a few of the Rift games I voluntarily go back to on my own time. They have more of a AAA, console feel, thanks to Oculus' aggressive funding and collaboration with developers since the Facebook acquisition.

The Vive's controllers are very good, but less ergonomic than the palm-hugging Oculus Touch. They also lack Touch's rudimentary finger-tracking: sensors on the surface that know when you lift your fingers, triggering finger movement on your virtual hands.

While Vive controllers are great for handling weapons in games (their shape sort-of resembles the handle of a gun), they make for a clunky approximation of bare hands. Oculus Touch is equally adept at simulating both.

There are finer details we appreciate in the Vive. You can slide its lenses forwards and backwards to easily make room for glasses. The headset is well-ventilated, never giving us lens fog problems. Its camera lets you get a glimpse of your real surroundings without taking off the headset. And its field of view (110°) and display resolution (1,200 x 1,080 per eye) stand eye-to-eye with the Rift's.

If you told me you had $800 to spare and were going to buy the HTC Vive, I wouldn't try to talk you out of it. It will give you some of the most immersive experiences in VR, and it's always possible there's a glut of higher-quality content set to arrive soon (if it does, we'll be happy to re-evaluate again). Most importantly, both the Vive and Rift are head-and-shoulders above all other virtual reality today.

But unless room-scale VR is your top priority, we recommend the Rift with Touch controls over the Vive. Not only do you get the more ergonomic controllers and a simpler headphone setup, you can play with the Rift every day for months and still have plenty to do. Unless you enjoy experimenting with indie passion projects, the Vive is more likely to start collecting dust after a few weeks of plowing through its most-polished games.

The HTC Vive is available now for $799, a package that includes headset, controllers and tracking system in one box. Don't forget a VR-ready gaming PC.

Product page: HTC

This article was updated on December 26 to reflect further impressions of the Rift's room-scale tracking.

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