For would-be virtual reality customers torn between the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, things aren't getting any simpler. The Vive's main advantages on paper – motion controls, 360-degree tracking and room-scale boundaries – will soon be negated after the upcoming launch of Oculus Touch (Facebook's ergonomic tracked controllers), optional 360 tracking of its own and virtual bounds that mimic one of the Vive's keystone features.
With the two systems having more in common than ever, the X-factor most likely to push our recommendation one way or the other is now content. And right now the hand Oculus is holding looks very promising, with years of Facebook-funded development materializing in highly-polished games and tools designed to lure early adopters into the magical worlds of VR.
We recently got the chance to have extended play with three upcoming Oculus Touch titles: VR Sports Challenge, The Unspoken and Oculus Medium.
VR Sports Challenge
Sports games are going to be a tough nut for VR developers to crack. Even in room-scale VR – where the player has freedom to walk in all directions and is only limited by the size of the space – you can typically only move 5 to 10 ft. in any direction before stopping. Unless developers limit you to stationary contests like golf, shot put or free-throw shootouts, there will need to be some kind of game-assisted movement to enable mobility.
VR Sports Challenge developer Sanzaru Games works around this by automatically teleporting you from player-to-player in football, basketball, baseball and hockey games: Throw the pass to a teammate, and while the ball is in mid-air you jump into the shoes of that teammate to catch the slow-mo heave.
Far from a true-to-life simulation, the Oculus Touch title embraces over-the-top arcade silliness – with shades of 1990s quarter-sucking classic NBA Jam.
For example, in the basketball mode (as an NBA legend-in-my-own-mind, I spent most of my time there) you can't drive the lane, move without the ball or even go more than a few steps in any direction. Your job consists of shooting jumpers, finding open teammates and trying to convert a crowd-pleasing alley-oop (where the game slowly floats you towards the basket). The defensive side of the court is limited to the occasional shot-blocking mini-game: no man-to-man coverage, banging in the paint or full-court press.
They're all stationary actions, strung together to create an illusion of a wider playing field.
It isn't perfect. Different gestures sometimes have too much overlap, with an attempt to dribble too often turning into an errant pass. Some of the challenges – required to unlock mini-games and advance to the next game mode – seem unnecessarily difficult. Computer-controlled teammates don't run plays with much variety: It often feels like slightly different versions of the same offensive possession, over and over.
Still, despite the game's foibles and larger-than-life style, the "feeling like you're someplace else" element of VR makes it worth going back to. The joy is in using your own hands to grab rebounds, throw a touchdown pass or perform a three-times-behind-the-back, twice-through-the-legs, 720° tomahawk jam (I told you it was over-the-top). It's half video game, half athletic fantasy play-acting.
The game was originally designed for gamepad use, but the developer's wise decision to shift to Oculus Touch input paid off: The tracked controllers take what would have likely been a yawn-inducing title and turn it into a highly physical – often highly enjoyable – experience.
The Unspoken is a spell-casting game that's only as rewarding as the time you put into its tutorials. In our first event hands-on, we weren't particularly impressed: Due to time constraints in the demo session, a too-quick crash course in the art of conjuring left us confused and frustrated as we prematurely stepped into clumsy duels with rival sorcerers.
But after getting extended time with the full game, with a 20-30 minute intro that gently guides you through the gestures and controls, I was surprised how fun The Unspoken ended up being. The joy comes from the feeling of power you get after learning the difference between bringing your hands together to summon a flaming skull, and spreading your hands to fire exploding rockets at your nemesis.
The online-multiplayer-only The Unspoken is clearly playing to the gallery in the fantasy-loving geek crowd, but the physical element provided by the Touch controls keeps it from flying so far in that direction to scare away casual players. While too many of the Rift's gamepad-based launch titles felt like regular video games randomly appearing in virtual reality, Oculus Touch games like this one finally marry Facebook's system to the first-person transportive element that VR was made for.
Oculus Medium is a VR sculpting app we first played more than a year ago. It's 3D content creation that – appropriately – takes place inside a 3D virtual space, providing you with tools to mold, shape, reshape, color and create to your heart's content. It takes something typically done on 2D screens and makes it a visceral, "real-life" sculpting experience.
Your average Joe or Jane may find Medium to be more novelty/sandbox than anything, but there's enough depth and nuance on offer to make it a legit 3D design tool for pros or semi-pros. Since you can export high-resolution meshes of your creations into more traditional 3D-creating software on 2D screens, we wouldn't be surprised to soon hear about popular animated characters, video game protagonists or other 3D digital media that got their start with an artist tinkering in Medium.
While Medium is a must-have for Rift owners who also do 3D design, what about the rest of us? That's an iffier proposition. How much are you willing to pay to be reminded how limited your artistic/sculpting abilities are, no matter how robust the toolset?
From where we stand now, Facebook's funding is proving to be a boon for the Rift, with these and other (fully or partially) Oculus-backed games establishing a potentially commanding content lead over the Vive. Stay tuned: Oculus Touch starts shipping on December 6.