Review: Oculus Quest 2 is an even better portal into alternate worlds
The original Oculus Quest was one of the technology world's great game-changers when it dropped in 2018: a totally wireless virtual reality headset you could use just about anywhere with nearly zero setup, coupled with a super-slick user interface that instantly yanked VR out of the realm of geekdom and made it something your granny could enjoy. People's first experience using one to visit alternate realities was a powerful, liminal "oh wow, I guess we're in the future then" kind of moment that left a lasting impression.
Two years later, even with no significant competition to worry about, Oculus dropped a sequel, the Quest 2. Lighter and smaller than the original, the second version offered 46 percent more processing power, 33 percent more graphics processing power, 50 percent more RAM, more sensitive controllers, a higher-resolution image in each eye, faster refresh rates and better battery life.
What's more, the price somehow plummeted by a hundred bucks; the 64 GB version costs just US$299 and the 256 GB version is $399. You could call that kind of pricing a brutally anti-competitive loss leader designed to obliterate competition while it's still in the womb, or you could call it a killer deal – either way, this headset lowers yet another barrier to entry in the, er, "quest" to bring virtual reality to the masses.
So what's it like to use? Honestly, I wouldn't say it's hugely different to the original. Everything's a bit better, but it's the same outstanding concept, executed just as tightly but with a few of the first Quest's edges smoothed off a bit. Much of that comes down to the fact that there's pretty much no content as yet that's designed exclusively for the Quest 2.
Instead, you're looking at the same games, just with marginally improved graphics; better lighting, more detail in the textures, extra particle effects – the kinds of things PC gamers bring in and out with switches and sliders while obsessively trying to justify the purchase of their latest wildly expensive graphics card or multicolor LED water-cooling jacket. Do they improve the experience? Sure, but to be honest my disbelief was already suspended, and much of the current crop of Quest content is still, shall we say, a bit Playstation 3 in the graphics department.
There are certainly games that feel like they're pushing to make the most of the Quest 2's capabilities, notably Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy's Edge, which take things up several notches in terms of scale, environments, effects and details. Positional audio deserves a shout-out too, a lot of these games sound pretty incredible.
Indeed it's getting pretty stunning what developers can squeeze out of a device light enough to strap to your head – which, in addition to rendering 1,832 x 1,920 pixels per eye in stereo vision, is also constantly interpreting streams of data from four built-in cameras and a battalion of sensors to track your movement in the room and instantly update the view as you turn or move your head. It's also tracking your hands, and some apps now allow you to drop the controllers altogether and use a frighteningly accurate set of virtual hands to interact with the world you're in.
If you want to experience the absolute bleeding edge of VR gaming with things like Half-Life: Alyx, the Quest 2 doesn't have the grunt to run them natively. But if you've got a juiced-up gaming PC, you can hook it up to the headset with a cable and play more or less anything, making this a single headset to rule them all.
One thing this device really feels like it could do with is a wider field of view. Oculus doesn't quote figures for this, but YouTubers have measured it as slightly narrower than the original Quest, and you certainly briefly feel like you're looking at the virtual world through a tube when you pop it on. This feeling goes away, but it's something that can definitely improve to increase the already amazing sense of immersion.
Facebook is starting to push the Quest as a social platform, so during my time with the headset I spent a fair bit of time using it as such. The beta version of the Venues app, for example, lets you create an avatar and then go out into a large meeting space to chat with strangers, throw high fives around and check out a bunch of entertainment options such as stand-up comedy, MMA fights, documentaries, that sort of thing. The Quest 2 has a built-in mic so you can chat away perfectly naturally in these situations – it even makes your mouth move in appropriate ways, figuring out when you're laughing and making your avatar do the same.
Now, these spaces don't seem to inspire the greatest conversations I've had in my life; they remind me of the early days of random ICQ chatting, if I'm going to hideously date myself. That is to say, for every semi-engaging conversation there'll be another guy jumping around screaming, two stoners using their virtual hands to molest themselves or others, a couple of confused six year olds who can't work out what the buttons do and a guy yelling at his roommate. You can block people, but it still doesn't come off as a welcoming place for women and it's very much still a Wild West.
Having said that, the technology itself feels really promising, and I can definitely see how VR meeting spaces will be productive and helpful telecommuting tools as time goes on. It's different to a Zoom chat; you feel like you're physically there and can fall into groups for semi-private discussions much like you would in person.
For a system like this to become a must-have device that makes its way into every home, you need content. To convince studios to invest in content, you need a big user base willing to buy it. Facebook's decision to price the Quest 2 so crazily low is paying dividends in uptake; Digital Bodies reports it's selling five times quicker than the original Quest, and Superdata projects three million more sales in 2021.
The team seems to be working hard to keep the Oculus Store fresh and lively, with regular discounts and lots of free content. New games are popping up regularly, and the quality of experiences available is on the way up. The two best-selling games people actually pay for are still Beat Saber and Superhot, but there are now some neat multiplayer shooters like Onward and Population: One in the list, a AAA-style single player horror game in The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners, a truly brilliant multiplayer ping pong game in Eleven Table Tennis, and futuristic full-contact zero-gravity jetpack frisbee golf in Echo VR.
Pure video content seems to be accelerating a bit slower. The adult entertainment industry is pulling more than its weight in this regard, as if those guys weren't pulling hard enough already. The VR section of YouTube gives you plenty of travel and extreme sport experiences, the odd music video and a thousand rollercoasters. People are experimenting with ways to use this insanely immersive format to do more, but it still feels embryonic.
I still don't have much of a stomach for experiences with a lot of movement in them; my brain accepts these new realities without question and the lack of proprioceptive feedback as I move makes me sweaty and seasick in the guts. But I'm led to believe you can develop a stronger stomach over time, and there's no question in my mind that VR will end up a vastly superior gaming platform than consoles, PCs or screens, so maybe that's something worth working on.
To sum it up, the Oculus Quest 2 takes the best (indeed maybe the only) standalone VR headset on the market, and improves it in just about every conceivable way while making it much more affordable. It's a perspective-shifting device and an extraordinary experience, a transcendent piece of consumer tech that will blow your mind and the minds of just about anyone you have the pleasure of showing it to. On the other hand, if I owned a first-gen Quest I wouldn't be rushing to upgrade until there's a decent trove of Quest 2-exclusive games and experiences, because the original device is probably 85 percent as awesome with the current content.
Enjoy a video below, but be aware that some of the games shown in this video don't look this good on the Quest 2 yet, and others (like Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond) don't work at all without a gaming PC doing the grunt work. That's a tad disingenuous in my book, but it does give you an idea of the kinds of experiences you can enjoy.
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