Oculus Rift review: Polished, often magical ... but ultimately second best

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After years of demos and anticipation, the consumer Oculus Rift is here – this is our review(Credit: Will Shanklin/New Atlas)

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If you would have told us a year or two ago that, when the consumer Oculus Rift finally launched, it would only be the second most exciting VR headset in our offices, we would have picked up the phone and dialed the men in white coats. Oculus started this rapidly spreading virtual reality fire, snatching VR out of a vaporware purgatory and molding it into something that we'd want to bring into our homes. At one event demo after another, the Rift – the brainchild of Oculus' brilliant and passionate young executives – captured our imaginations and opened our eyes like no other pre-release product. Somewhere along the way, though, Facebook's Oculus Rift got caught off-guard by an opportunistic rival and lost its leadership position. The Rift is fun, high-quality and often magical ... it just isn't the best way to spend your VR dollars.

In case you haven't been paying attention to this VR craze, the new leader we're talking about is the SteamVR-powered HTC Vive. It lets you walk around 360-degree room-sized spaces, putting your entire body into VR experiences, with its wall-mounted base stations and outstanding motion controllers. The Oculus Rift can't do that, launching instead as more of a VR game console than a virtual reality machine in the most literal sense.

Strap on the Vive and you walk around these incredible worlds, where your real hands control your virtual hands and things like picking up objects, flinging arrows and bashing away with your sword are all physical – incredibly immersive – experiences:

Put on the Oculus Rift today and you sit down in a chair with an Xbox controller in your hand, playing very traditional-looking, console-type games ... which just happen to be in VR:

There's still great fun to be had in gamepad-based VR. If the Vive didn't exist, we'd probably be running in the streets, shouting to anyone who'll listen about how cool the Rift is. But in this world where you have to choose between the Rift and Vive (only the most rabid early adopters will buy both), Facebook's headset is a level or two below.

The Rift is going to creep closer to the Vive later this year, when its excellent Oculus Touch motion controllers (below) launch, but even then there's still going to be a gap in raw capabilities. At our event demos, Oculus Touch-based Rift games have handled larger-space tracking perfectly, but without something like the Vive's Chaperone system (where virtual boundaries pop up to let you know when you're getting too close to the edge of your playing space) we aren't likely to see anything more than standing and very limited movement in Oculus Touch experiences.

Developers we've talked to also say that Oculus is asking them to track their Oculus Touch games in 180 degrees, instead of the full 360-degree experiences that the Vive gives you. That means standing Oculus Touch games will usually encourage you to face in one direction. Most of our Touch hands-ons so far confirm that.

That can still make for a ridiculously fun experience. While shooter Dead and Buried, coming later this year after the Touch launch, makes you face in one direction, it's easily one of the coolest VR event demos we've played.

But you still have to think about which VR has the higher ceiling. If Product A lets you walk around an entire room, facing in any direction, and Product B makes you stand mostly in one spot, facing mostly in one direction – without any other obvious advantages to cancel that weakness out – then it's pretty clear which one we're going to recommend.

The Oculus Rift does have a very sleek and polished build. Much of the headset is coated with fabric, and it has this lovely unified feel, with its thick and sturdy back-strap and built-in headphones (which sound terrific). It looks like Oculus/Facebook shot for an Apple level of design polish, trying to communicate subconsciously to customers that the Rift is an iconic moment in consumer tech history, along the same lines as the first Macintosh, iPod or iPhone. The Rift is indeed a beautiful piece of gear that, if books were judged only by their covers, would be the most magical VR headset this side of the Matrix.

It's also very light and compact: you can wear it loosely, so it's kinda hanging off of the front of your head. The thick and rubbery back-strap tilts the balance towards the back of your head – the front becomes almost like the bill of a baseball cap.

But the flip side to wearing it loosely is that, unless you're in a dark room, light is going to leak in from the bottom. Not really distracting, but it also doesn't make for a 100 percent immersive field of view.

Why not just tighten the straps to shut out the light, you ask? Well, when you do that, lens fog becomes a big problem. That's familiar territory for the mobile Gear VR, but for some reason the scuba mask defogging agents we've been using to fix lens fog on the Gear don't do much of anything on the Rift. Wear it any way but extremely loosely, and your virtual world is going to look like a rear windshield on prom night.

So your best bet is to wear the Rift very loosely and play in a dark room.

Gamepad-based VR isn't as immersive or "magical" as the Vive's room-scale VR, but the Rift's approach at launch has another disadvantage: in some cases, it can make you feel like you're going to toss your cookies. First-person games where you use the analog stick to control virtual movement (while the real you sits in a chair) consistently make my stomach feel like it's doing some slow-motion back-flips.

Launch games Adr1ft and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter are the biggest culprits. I can't play either of those (otherwise immersive) games for more than a few minutes without needing to take a break. Oculus does provide comfort ratings in the store listings for all of its games, so you'll want to give those a good look before buying – and treat them as seriously as a heart attack.

... this is yet another tick in the Vive's column. When your physical movement mirrors your virtual movement, you don't feel sick. Third-person games are also much better at avoiding nausea, likely a big reason we see so many of those at the Rift's launch.

We didn't go into this review expecting to talk almost as much about the Vive as the Rift, but ultimately we publish these things to a) communicate our experience and b) recommend where to spend your money. Existing in its own vacuum, the Oculus Rift is a great high-end VR headset that's miles ahead of mobile and console-based VR. If we were only allowed to use the Rift for the next year, we'd still have loads of fun – especially after Touch launches.

But we'd be doing you a disservice to pretend that there isn't a better option. If you're going to throw all this money into high-end VR, then we think you'll get a much more immersive – just better – virtual reality from the Vive.

Besides, it's not like the Rift is a tiny fraction of the Vive's price. They both require (more or less) the same gaming PC, which, from scratch, will set you back around US$950 or more. The Rift headset itself is just $200 cheaper than the Vive – and remember that the Rift's motion controllers will be separate purchases later this year, while the Vive's tracked controllers are bundled in the box.

Facebook's Oculus Rift is a sleek, polished and often magical VR headset that's easily the second-best of this first generation. We'll revisit the landscape after Oculus Touch launches, but if you ever want room-scale VR on the Rift (at least without bumping into stuff), you'll probably have to wait for a second-gen model. Why bother when there's already something that takes you there?

The great but not the greatest Oculus Rift is now shipping for $599, in addition to the ~$950+ gaming PC you'll need to power it. It's severely back-ordered, though, with current purchases estimated to ship in August.

For more on the best first-gen VR headset, you can hit up our HTC Vive review.

Product page: Oculus

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