Reviewing Oculus' launch titles for the Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition
The Oculus-powered Samsung Gear VR marks the commercial arrival of modern virtual reality. Its excellent (Galaxy Note 4-powered) hardware isn't in question, but what about its software? Join Gizmag, for a quick review of the highlights (and lowlights) of the Gear VR's launch lineup.
Update: Oculus added several new high-profile apps right before Christmas, and, after checking them twice, we added them to our list.
The Gear VR is very much a ground-level device, aimed squarely at developers and early adopters. From that perspective, its software isn't in bad shape at launch. But since it is also a consumer product, perhaps our quick impressions will help you decide whether to throw down for Samsung's US$200 accessory (for more on that, you can read our full Gear VR review).
Also remember that virtual reality is like no other form of entertainment. On paper, most of these titles sound pretty lame – and if you played them on a 2D screen, most of them would be. But in the immersive world of VR, even the most rudimentary of games and videos can be enthralling. This is your chance to be Scott Bakula, as each game Quantum Leaps you into another world.
All of these titles are available through the Gear VR's Oculus app, the only way to download and play games on the headset. We'll see paid apps eventually, but right now these are all free.
We also denoted the games that require a Bluetooth controller and which are best played in a 360-degree swiveling chair.
HeroBound: First Steps (controller required)
This is one of our favorite Gear VR games. Though a first-person perspective makes the most sense with virtual reality, HeroBound lets you look down on (and control) a cute little sword-wielding muskrat (or something like that), as he makes his way through dungeon after dungeon. It's a bit Zelda-like, though simpler and more repetitive.
It's subtitled "First Steps" for a reason (like most Gear VR apps, it's a work in progress), but still feels more like a AAA console title than any of the other launch titles.
Anshar Wars (swivel chair recommended)
This arcade-style space shooter is another highlight. Your mission is to protect your mothership from attacking fighters, using head movement to control your own ship, as it veers between asteroids. You're surrounded by space in every direction, and that alone makes for quite the head trip.
Apart from steering with your head, the only other two controls are firing guns and missiles, so this one can be used with either the Gear's touchpad or a Bluetooth gamepad.
Dreadhalls (controller required, swivel chair recommended)
Not for the faint of heart (or stomach), this ultra-realistic horror game puts you in the halls of a mysterious dungeon, wielding only a lamp, map and some lock-picks. It builds suspense for the first 10 minutes or so, when you won't encounter any enemies. But once you do, prepare to scream (and quickly die).
Dreadhalls shows the mind-bending potential of realistic first-person games in virtual reality. More than any other launch title, it makes you feel like you're really somewhere else. And this "somewhere else" has violent demons that charge at you like a bull.
Minotaur Rescue VR (swivel chair recommended)
With some games, the only appropriate question is how many hits of acid the developers dropped before they created it. This psychedelic 360-degree arcade shooter puts you in a dark chamber where you're tasked with blasting floating rainbow-shirted Minotaurs to kingdom come, while avoiding flying saucers and the like. It cleverly marries VR's futuristic capabilities with Atari classics from the early 80s.
This isn't a title we often want to play for more than a few minutes at a time, but those few minutes are usually trippy enough to make Dr. Timothy Leary proud.
Darknet (swivel chair recommended)
In this cyberpunk strategy/puzzle game, you hack nodes one-by-one to overtake enemy networks. It's another highlight among the launch titles, with its terrific combination of eye candy and smart gameplay.
Romans from Mars
This cartoony tower defense game gives you a crossbow to fend off legions of Martians dropped out of UFOs by the God of War himself, Mars (get it?).
It's fun, and the Looney Tunes-like characters are charming, but after 15 minutes or so the game abruptly ends, with promises of a full version "coming soon." These kinds of abrupt endings are all-too-common among these launch titles.
You're an ESP-endowed test subject, running through a series of puzzles in a single chamber. Like Professor X or any other great telepath, you touch your temple with one finger (using the Gear's trackpad) to move objects.
This title shows promise, but the fact that you have to start from the beginning every time you play takes something away from the puzzle-solving aspect. If nothing else, though, it makes us imagine how cool Portal would be if it ever made its way to Oculus.
This on-rails, physics-based shooter is another highlight that, unfortunately, is merely a free preview of an upcoming full game. You play the role of an anti-virus protector (stay with me) making your way through the innards of some sort of AI host. The virus, in the form of little red and green men, is attacking and you need to blast all of them (without running out of ammo) to move to the next stage. It's like G.I. Joe meets Innerspace.
The absurd premise, physics and exhilarating movement make us eager to go on the full ride.
Shooting Showdown 2 VR
This shooting gallery game includes online multiplayer support at launch. The stationary, single-directional shooting gets a bit repetitive, but the developers do mix things up with some wacky challenges (like shooting blinking traffic lights, dice and slot machines).
James's Legacy (controller required)
An adventure game that takes place on Super Mario Galaxy-style planets (small enough that they're basically asteroids) sounds like a cool premise – and it is engaging on a visual level. But this one requires a lot of patience and can quickly get boring.
It goes something like this: walk up to character or object, press button, see thought bubble denoting an object you're supposed to fetch, get object, see a new path open. At that point, we usually drop out and jump into a faster-paced and more rewarding title.
Another tease: this short demo of an upcoming full game has you sneaking past robots and riding elevators through a city in the clouds. Looks promising, but right now it only gives you about five minutes of gameplay.
Another arcade-style game, which is basically a 3D, modern-day version of Pong: deflect colorful flying orbs as they deflect back and forth off of a wall in front of you.
It has a cool concept and some crazy, eye-candy visuals, but it doesn't appear to work with our gamepad. Having to use the headset's trackpad takes something away from it.
BombSquad VR (controller required)
Another cutesy third-person game that reminds us of a mini-game you'd find in a Nintendo Mario Party title. You control a character on a platform, who tosses bombs at enemies, while trying to avoid their bombs and other attacks. It's pretty fun in short bursts, but also feels a bit like a 2.5D game ported to 360-degree virtual reality (and go figure, it is).
Strangers with Patrick Watson
This surprisingly engaging "experience" (aka non-interactive video) puts you in the loft of Canadian singer-songwriter (you guessed it) Patrick Watson, as he lays down a track. I wasn't familiar with his music before using this app, but the intimacy of sitting next to his piano bench while his dog sleeps behind me makes me want to call him up tonight to grab a beer.
Cirque du Soleil's Zarkana
Cirque du Soleil and 360-degree virtual reality: what could possibly go wrong? Well, nothing ... that is, until this non-interactive video abruptly ends and you realize it was just a ridiculously short promo (three minutes or so) to help sell tickets for the live show.
Titans of Space (swivel chair recommended)
Another (mostly non-interactive) "experience," this educational video takes you through the solar system, comparing the sizes of heavenly bodies. It isn't exactly exciting, and the rendered planets are far from photo-realistic, but it's still an interesting teaching tool that uses VR to put the sun's size in a perspective that anyone can comprehend.
theBluVR (swivel chair recommended)
Like Titans of Space, this is another educational 360-degree video – only this time you're in the ocean with marine life. Also like Titans, it would be more effective if the blue whales and stingrays didn't look like they came out of a 10-year-old PC game.
Temple Run VR
On mobile devices, Temple Run is a fun and addictive endless-runner, but hardly an immersive or scary experience. But on VR, running through the Himalayas pursued by vicious beasts is exhilarating and, at times, frightening. More than any other early title, it feels like a roller coaster ride.
This on-rails space shooter is swinging for the fence, but the screen is usually so crowded with bad guys, asteroids and gunfire that it gets clunky and confusing.
On a 2D screen, slowly swimming around underwater environments would be boring as hell. But in VR, it's a fascinating scuba-diving simulation.
Jaunt Paul McCartney Preview
I'm a fan of both the Beatles and Sir Paul's solo work, but this concert of the aged legend (also available for Google Cardboard and Oculus development kit users) doesn't feel nearly as immersive as Strangers with Patrick Watson. McCartney playing "Live and Let Die" is pure stadium rock, pyrotechnics and all. Compared to Watson's intimate hipster loft "experience," this one comes off a bit contrived.
NextVR (Coldplay concert)
Ditto for this Coldplay concert of "A Sky Full of Stars," filmed in a studio in Los Angeles (the same video that underwhelmed us at Samsung's launch event in September). The clip looks more rehearsed than real, and it too could learn a thing or two from Strangers.
The moral of the story, with both the Coldplay and McCartney concerts, is that VR appears to favor honest intimacy over contrived theatrics.
Work in progress
There are also some cool 360-degree videos in the Oculus 360 Videos app, including helicopter rides above Iceland and New York City, as well as a boring visit to Tony Stark's lab and a hilarious promo for Pacific Rim. There's also a standout concept video that takes you on a mind-bending trip through a dream world (positively Inception-like). Many of these videos are good showcase pieces, and worth checking out at least once.This roundup should give you a better idea of what you're getting from the Gear VR's software at launch, but just remember that its library is meant to be a work in progress. The Gear VR platform – like virtual reality in general – is just getting started, and we'll hopefully see the available titles multiply within the next few months.
For more on the hardware and the general experience of using virtual reality, you can hit up Gizmag's full Gear VR review.