Ho Ho Ho! It’s Christmas!! That means presents, food comas and post Christmas sales. If you aren’t already wearing virtual reality tinted glasses, then a VR headset is likely high up on your list of gadgets to blow that fresh Christmas money on. If only it wasn’t for that nagging fear that it’s all hype and that you’ll waste your money. Fear not, for I have the answers that you seek, so stay a while and listen…
As someone who’s been a gamer pretty much my entire life, there have precious few experiences that had the power to transport me to another world, through either the gameplay or visuals. A few examples are; the adrenaline rush that came from Half-life and Counterstrike when nothing like it had existed before. The palpable sense of dread from the dimly lit, Gothic scenes and audible footsteps of the Khazra in the Catacombs in Diablo. The overwhelming sense of achievement from killing Ragnaros or Nefarian as part of a 40 person raid in World of Warcraft and the heady elation of then winning the roll on that sick piece of loot you’ve wanted for ages. As time goes on, the bar gets higher and higher, and it’s with a hunger for new experiences that I bought my ticket to the virtual reality show. More on how that in a moment, first let’s get through some logistics.
Before diving headfirst into a virtual world, you need to pick your poison, namely the Oculus Rift or the Vive. I’ve had the Rift for about a year now and have had little experience with the Vive, but ultimately, content is king, and the Rift wins that battle hands down. The Oculus has better AAA exclusives than the Vive and you’re able to access the Vive content on SteamVR, but not the other way round, unless you use a workaround. Add to that the fact that the Rift is now also cheaper than the Vive and it’s hard to justify picking up the HTC headset. That means this will double as both a review of the Rift and by extension be my view of virtual reality as a whole.
The first and post important thing you need to consider before getting into VR is your hardware setup and whether or not your computer is fast enough to power the headset. Unlike regular games, you really can’t get away with low frame rates. Low frame rates or choppy gameplay will give you serious motion sickness. This is bad. You don’t want this. I probably wouldn’t getting a headset unless you’re close to or above the specs that Oculus recommends here. In short, a GTX 1060 / Radeon RX480 should have you covered. You’ll also need at least 3 available USB ports. Greedy, greedy, Oculus. For the record, things are buttery smooth with my GTX 1080 and i7-6700 processor.
Outside of a fast computer, you need space. When I first got my Rift, my play area was basically 1m x 3m, which was fine because I didn’t yet have my touch controllers. Post touch controllers, flailing arms, and a few bruises later, I realised this wasn’t going to work. Fortunately for me, I soon moved and now have the precious 2m x 3m space I need for flailing like a tube man. Let my cautionary tale stand as a warning, VR is immersive and in a small space, you’re likely to injure at best yourself and at worst your computer.
Initial Setup & First Time Experience
Setting up your Rift is pretty painless. Once you’ve cleared your play area, like I have below (so fresh and so clean, clean), you simply need to place your sensors, plug them in and lastly, plug your Rift into your graphics card. A few simple calibrations in the Oculus app later and you’re good to go. I was honestly expecting a more painful setup process and was really happy that it was this simple.
Pop the Rift on your head and it automatically loads up Oculus Home. It’s a simple but beautiful home base from which you launch all your apps, games and other virtual adventures, complete with sakura blossoms dangling outside your window and a crackling pixelated fire. Getting screenshots to work was proving particularly difficult, so you’re going to have to take my word for it. SteamVR has a similarly cheerful home base, which could very well be better than the very room you’re in! If you’ve used entry level virtual reality like the Gear VR and that’s what’s prompted you to be interested in the real McCoy, it’s important to flag that there’s almost no comparison. Like playing The Witcher on lowest graphics at low frames vs full graphics at 60fps.
The quality of hardware you’re getting is high, regardless of whether you pick up the Rift or the Vive. I think the Rift is a bit better, both in terms of design and quality of materials and I may be a little biased, but look at them side by side and you’d be hard pressed to disagree. Either way, the materials and quality are great, with the headset feeling simultaneously both light and sturdy. The straps are strong and haven’t failed me, and the foam surrounding the headset is firm and hasn’t given in yet either. The headphones have surprisingly good sound when compared to my Astro A50’s and the controllers have quite literally taken a beating, and lived to tell the tale. All in all, the quality of the hardware shouldn’t be a concern in the least.
You can dip into the best of both the Oculus app store and SteamVR. Both offer you a similar experience with beautiful home rooms from which to navigate your virtual world, as well as a list of games, complete with descriptions, requirements and reviews. You can navigate the apps with either the Oculus remote, your gamepad or the Oculus touch controllers, which I opt for as they’re what I want in my hands when I start playing games anyway. To load up a game you simply aim at it, hit a button and off you go, with exiting being as simple as tapping the home button on your touch controller. Both are simple and intuitive, so navigating the user interface isn’t a chore.
User Experience – Comfort
Time to hit you with some knowledge. Outside of computer speed and having enough space, user experience with virtual reality for me really comes down to two things. The first being comfort and the second being immersion. Anything that interferes with either of these is immediately noticeable and frustrating. On the comfort front, there are two kinds of comfort, namely the physical comfort of using the hardware and how comfortable you are within the VR experience.
On the physical side, it takes a bit of tinkering to get the straps on the headset just right, but once you do, you’ll almost forget that it’s there, aside from when your nose itches! The amount of times I’ve tried to rub my nose, only to find a headset in the way, is too damn high! The only gripe I have is that occasionally the cable from the headset to your computer can get in the way, which breaks your immersion in the virtual world. This is just a problem we have to deal with till they find a reliable way to remove the cable altogether, but for now, it’s a minor gripe.
The bigger challenge is the in-game comfort. Virtual reality is more intense than normal gaming and at times, can make you feel pretty ill, depending on the situations you throw yourself into. It’s not too dire, but it is something to be aware of. The best way to think of it is that any time you move in the virtual world without moving in the physical world, your brain get’s highly confused and the effects will feel similar to being car sick. It’s for this very reason that most VR experiences are either stationary in either a sitting or standing position, or require you to teleport around, which mitigates the ‘moving sickness’. Fortunately the Oculus app tells you how comfortable or uncomfortable an app will be before using it. Over all, because of the intensity and potential to feel a bit woozy, I never play for much more than an hour at at time, as opposed to regular gaming, which I can do all day.
User Experience – Immersion
On the immersion side of things, anything that comes between you and the virtual world is bad. Graphically, the lenses of either headset will give you some screen door effect, which basically means you can see the pixels. This doesn’t mean that the graphics are bad, but it does mean that you’re not going to get a photo realistic experience with VR yet, which is something that will likely happen with the next wave of graphics cards and the next iteration of these headsets. It’s worth noting that the Rift is the best here, but the lines are still visible.
Another thing worth noting is occasional jerks and sensor issues. These issues may be limited to me, but there’s occasionally some lag, especially when I’m holding something in my hand and moving it around quickly. This is the lesser of the evils though. The bigger issue is that I’m only using two sensors, as my setup doesn’t allow me to run cable for a third sensor to give me true 360 degree tracking. This means that if I turn away or turn my back on the sensors, they’ll stop picking up my movements. When you’re in an engaging virtual world, it’s easy to lose track of which direction you’re facing. Losing tracking capability of your hands or guns is a very easy way to break immersion! Bare in mind this is only a problem if you’re not using a 3rd sensor, but it is fairly annoying. Definitely grab the 3rd sensor if your wallet and setup allows for it.
All this said and done, you will be immersed and you will have moments that fill you with child like wonder and joy. You’ll also want to walk off into the distance, but not be able to. You’ll want to pick up that sword that you’re not meant to (and can’t) pick up. You’ll bump into your wall while trying to punch a robot in the face and likely step on your cats’ tail at some point for good measure. None of these are by any means deal breakers, but it’s important to temper your expectations. Sadly, this is not a magical rabbit hole that severs your ties with reality, and being immersed in these worlds will blow you away, but they’ll also leave you wanting more.
As I’ve already mentioned, content is king. VR as a platform is only as good as the experiences that have been created for it, and fortunately, there are now a wealth of great experiences to get stuck into. Its a bit of a chicken and egg situation, but hopefully the positive trend over the past year is a sign of things to come in 2018. I’m yet to play recent ports like LA Noire, Fallout 4 VR or Skyrim on PS4 VR, and I’ve definitely have missed a few gems, (like Serious Sam, Arizona Sunshine, or Obduction) but here are a few of my personal favourite games and apps that are worth getting VR for, in no particular order.
If you’ve ever wished you could be John Wick, Max Payne or be part of a Tarantino movie, this game will make your dream come true. It’s a waved shooter where you kill everything in your way, with guns, knives, throwing stars and even bottles. The best bit? Time only moves when you do, which leaves you feeling like you’ve just Neo’d the shit out of everything. Oh yeah, I just used Neo’d as a verb. Super. Hot.
Space Pirate Trainer
While Super Hot is one of the most innovative shooters I’ve played, Space Pirate Trainer is the most polished, by miles. Here you have two futuristic and highly customisable energy weapons and your sole goal is to survive waves of flying drones, by dodging, blocking and shooting your way to victory. This is one of my go to apps to showcase how amazing VR is. It’s just that fun and equally as polished.
We’re already talking about space, so I have to mention Elite Dangerous. You don’t need VR to play Elite Dangerous, but if you’ve ever fancied yourself to be Starlord, zipping around the galaxy in your own ship, this is the best way to do it. It’s honestly a bit overwhelming at first, but if traversing space is your thing, this game alone is reason enough to get into VR. There’s also Eve: Valkyrie, but I feel this has much more depth.
Back to shooters we go! This list wouldn’t be complete without Robo Recall. It’s a fast paced wave shooter and it’s really interactive. You can grab the robots and fling them around in addition to shooting them. This game feels more complete and AAA than Super Hot or Space Pirate Trainer.
I love music, so it’s hardly surprising that a music based game has made this list. In Audioshield, you have two shields and block a series of balls that coming flying at you to the beat of your favourite songs. Think guitar hero with shields. It’s a ton of fun and brings life to pretty much any song you have on your computer or load up from Youtube. Time to load up Through the Fire and Flames? 🙂
There are actually a few games nestled into one here on this SteamVR gem and they make for a fantastic tech demo experience. The standouts are an archery defense game where you defend your castle against a horde pf paper men and a Galaga style space shooter where your hand is the space ship, zooming around a 3D space. There’s also some fantastic humour in here. Look out for the Beat Core.
Imagine playing the movie Gravity. Zero-G space mishap is the name of the game here and it’s an outstanding showcase of what’s to come. I can’t wait for photo realistic graphics and realistic ISS renderings. Imagine being able to see and feel what an astronaut does. Magic. Fantastic game and experience. Get it now.
Eleven: Table Tennis VR
It may seem like a bit of a wasted slot in this list. You may be thinking, how can a lowly table tennis game compare with outer space… and you’d be wrong. I play a lot of table tennis and they have got the mechanics almost perfect with this game. Everything from the haptics, to the spin and the way the ball behaves. It’s all spot on. Give in to your inner Forest Gump and play this.
Earlier I spoke about Diablo. One of my gaming dreams is to be able to experience that in virtual reality, complete with eerie audio and dark hallways, not to mention the allure of fantastic loot. Right now, Karnage Chronicles is arguably as close as you can get. If you’re looking for a VR dungeon crawler, this is the way to go.
This was one of the flagship experiences that was released with the Oculus touch and it’s still spectacular. Put your vertigo on the shelf and limber up your arms as you scale cliff faces in this climbing sim. The graphics are simply stunning and while it’s a simple game, it’s challenging and different to any non VR game you’ve tried.
While this isn’t a game, it’s still an experience I really enjoy and is about as close as we’re going to get to Minority Report. This allows you to choose from a variety of scenes and use a virtual desktop to watch movies, play games or browse the internet. Pour yourself a nice glass of wine, put on some chilled music and sit outside on a balcony looking over a city. So very relaxing.
So, should you get VR?
One of the most important things to consider when getting a VR headset is that you will be an early adopter. This means that while you’re in for an awesome experience, it’s not going to be completely perfect yet. There will be teething issues, bugs, and all the usual problems you face when dealing with a fledgling medium. The payoff however, is fresh, unique experiences, which are well worth it.
With that said; at the start of the article, I spoke about some formative experiences I’ve had in gaming. In games like Space Pirate Trainer, Robo Recall and Audio Shield, I’ve had my first truly new experiences in gaming in a very long time. They’re much more akin to the gaming arcades I would go to as a child than they are a game of League of Legends or Overwatch, but that’s entirely the point. To me, getting to have these new experiences was a no brainer and is well worth the cost of the Rift.
In addition to the joy I take from the experience, it’s as much fun introducing your partner, family or friends to VR and watching them lose their shit about how amazing it is. That said, it’s all fun and games until your girlfriend starts hogging your computer because she loves VR, but that in itself says how good this experience is.
So overall, yes, virtual reality is definitely worth it and I’d highly recommend you get in on the action, especially with the current price of the Rift. If you need to build a gaming computer from scratch to power your headset, then you need to decide how much you want VR, but again, a little bit of wooziness aside, I’ve loved my time with my Rift.
If you’re on the fence, I’d recommend speaking to someone who owns one directly or trying one out in person. Hit me up on Twitter if you have any questions.