VR gaming is about to get much better: Oculus demo impressions from GDC
This past weekend we spent about six hours hopping from demo-to-demo at a pre-GDC hands-on with Oculus. Our conclusion? VR gaming is about to take big leaps forward in depth, length, polish and quality.
The recurring theme at the Oculus Rift demo stations was deep, first-person, Oculus Touch-enabled games that play like much more than just a glorified demo. Many of the upcoming titles appeared to be fully-formed and lengthy first-person journeys that can rival what we're used to seeing in traditional/2D games on PCs and consoles. You travel around a larger world, using your body and hands to fight and explore, something we'd only caught fleeting (often rough) glimpses of up to this point.
It looks like first-person/Oculus-Touch gaming is going to be the norm moving forward – and that's a very good thing. I didn't play a single Rift demo this week that was third-person or relied on a gamepad (a first in an Oculus meeting). And most of the Rift demos let me move around a larger virtual world, with inventory, level systems and all the deep gameplay mechanics you'd expect from a AAA console or PC game.
So if you don't yet own a Rift because you were waiting for more mature games to arrive, this wouldn't be a bad time to think about making the investment. And if you do own one but haven't added Oculus Touch, you'll want to pick up the controllers soon: Moving forward, they're essentially going to be the new baseline.
You'll also want to consider ordering a third sensor, as more physical movement means you'll need full tracking to turn around in all directions. (The optional US$59 sensor is required for 360° tracking.) Otherwise you're stuck using a controller stick to rotate the camera, an instant illusion breaker.
While the HTC Vive beats the Rift in room-scale tracking, I had no problem staying (mostly) planted in one spot for these upcoming titles. The key is 360° movement: As long as you have that, the illusion is highly effective when standing in one general area, pivoting your body and using the game's locomotion (usually teleporting) to traverse the larger virtual world.
In this way, standing VR may end up being a more suitable alternative to room-scale than I'd imagined. It turns out we just needed to see some truly great standing-game implementations that unlock its full potential.
Let's dive into some of the specific Rift and Gear VR titles we sampled.
We've played the demo before, but getting a taste of the full game this week accentuated what a killer exclusive Oculus has in Robo Recall. The follow-up to 2015 demo Bullet Train, Epic Games' just-launched title has you taking out robots by blasting them with a variety of guns, ripping them apart limb-from-limb or even slowing down time and flinging their own bullets back at them. The AAA-like level of polish is as high as anything we've seen in VR.
The arcade pacing is frenetic and fun, giving you a simple and physical experience that people of all ages will both immediately "get" and get lost inside. And while it's essentially wave-based combat, you teleport around the larger world, including on ledges and rooftops, so it doesn't feel static, confined or repetitive.
Robo Recall launched during GDC week as a free download for all Touch owners. This is one worth getting (shotgun-) pumped for.
Killing Floor: Incursion
A made-for-VR entry in the Killing Floor franchise, Incursion puts you in the game's sci-fi universe, where you use the Touch controllers to fire pistols or shotguns at ghoulish attackers, slice them with an axe or pick up one of their own severed limbs (or heads) to fling back at them.
None of this sounds atypical in the world of gaming, but VR and the Touch controls make it a highly-physical experience, with large environments to traverse (via teleporting). It's another omen of the evolution and depth coming to the Rift this year.
From Other Suns
If you found 2016 VR games to be too short, small and repetitive, take a look at From Other Suns. You can play this game hundreds of times and have a different experience in each playthrough, as it uses procedurally-generated missions, maps, enemies and alien worlds.
The in-between part of the gameplay involves in-space decisions from your ship's bridge. Once you find a mission to go on, though, you jump into the action, moving around the planet or space station with your crew (who can be either online players or AI-controlled), blasting attackers with various weapons, finding keycards and getting back to your ship.
It's another first-person Oculus Touch title that adds depth, taking you on a journey that spans a large world. The developers give you several locomotion options (including the oft-used teleporting), but I used stick-controlled standard movement and didn't feel any nausea. (The developers said I wasn't the first to make that comment.)
From classic RPG developer inXile Entertainment, Mage's Tale lets you cast magic spells from the palms of your (Oculus-Touch-holding) hands. Again, a wizarding, dungeon-crawling RPG sounds like it was ripped from a zillion other video-game bylines, but it's the combination of larger-world exploration and motion control that makes it feel like part of a new, deeper echelon in first-person VR role playing.
(You can't compare VR and classic games: No matter how much crossover any of them may have on paper, virtual reality is a profoundly different experience.)
One of the game's fun twists is that, as you collect new spells, you can craft your own unique versions of them, mixing ingredients with several variables. My favorite was a bouncing rainbow spell with party-favor sound effects, which could annihilate a goblin with a single strike.
Rock Band VR
The first of our demos that moves away from first-person adventures, Rock Band VR is finally set to launch next month. I had a blast jamming out to 90s classics like "Man in the Box" and "Everlong," shredding away on the plastic, button-laden guitar (Oculus Touch clipped to the end) as if I was Dave Grohl or Jerry Cantrell.
Developer Harmonix changed the formula for the VR version of its classic rhythm game, as the company found staring at a stream of colored notes simply didn't work in VR: You need to be able to take in the whole environment.
The game does keep score, depending on (from my understanding) the timings, progressions, difficulty and logic of the chords you strum, but since it's no longer about hitting the floating blocks, it liberates your focus, allowing for more creativity and immersion in the role of rock star.
Blade & Soul
Blade & Soul also moves away from the broader theme of this year's GDC demos, but still made for a fun real-time strategy jaunt. You have a row of statues that represents members of your army; save up enough mana, pick a good one (or two) to place on the field below and watch them battle your opponent's players. (You play either online or against AI.) The strategy is in what you pick, when you pick it and where you place it.
While it's more in line with 2016 VR games (static playing space), I enjoyed it because it's simple enough that you don't have to be a hardcore RTS gamer to figure it out: A few helpful hints from the developers had me unleashing an army to destroy the enemy castle.
It isn't as directly action-packed as the other demos (the action takes place on the game board below you), but the Oculus Touch controllers make Blade & Soul a more visceral experience than if it were gamepad-based: Grab that ape king and fling him down onto the battlefield below.
Term1nal (Gear VR)
It wasn't all Rift/Touch on our demo day, as Term1nal was a promising Gear VR title. The (three-quarters view) stealth game is set in a third-person perspective, as you use a gamepad to sneak your character past sentries – sometimes hiding in lockers, other times using a robot dog pal to distract them or unlock doors.
While it's a far cry from the high-end Rift demos we played, Term1nal has a shot at being one of the top mobile VR games.
SingSpace (Gear VR)
It was inevitable karaoke would eventually make its way to VR, and Rock Band maker Harmonix has stepped up to the mic to make that a reality. SingSpace lets you strap on a Gear VR and belt your heart out to classic pop or rock tunes. (We only saw a small sample of the full list of tracks that will be available in the final version.)
The virtual room is filled with other Gear VR owners – either hand-picked friends or internet randoms. My first thought was, being the internet, this will get really cruel really quickly, but the developers have planned for that and want to keep it positive: Singers can easily mute individual audience members or even the entire audience. And if you need a little private brush-up, you can sing to a room filled only with AI.
For a look at the top VR games available today, you can browse our picks for the best VR games.