It would hardly be a stretch to call virtual reality the next frontier in video-games after motion controls. Despite Virtual Boy having very similar ideas, of having a pair of goggles strapped to your head so the screen is centimetres away, the current attempt appears to have the advantage of not trying to blind its audience. It also has the advantage of allowing you to move the screen by looking around, making you able to act in one direction while looking in the other (e.g. sprinting while peering over your shoulder in fear as another player gains ground on you in Day Z).
After the unveiling of the concept of the Oculus Rift, companies have been itching to jump onto the wagon before they are seen as redundant and flagging behind. You have the HTC Vive, StarVR, Samsung Gear and many more lesser known ones (including a £3.12 cardboard one for your mobile phone which you can buy on EBay now). There is even the development of a console exclusive VR happening as Playstation VR’s release is around the corner.
Despite the large amount of choice about, it seems buying a VR headset is perilous thing. You not only have the hefty price tag involved (unless if it is that cardboard one, I mean, you could buy your family one each for Christmas and spend the evening simulating a Christmas evening that is actually enjoyable), but each VR headset comes with its own exclusives. Fortunately, EGX Rezzed gave me a chance to dive into four big name VR Headsets to see which one you should get.
Headset: Oculus Rift
Release Date: Out now
Game tried: The Assembly
Developer of game: nDreams
What better place to start than the original headset that kicked this all off? Even better I got to try a (admittedly non-exclusive) game by the self-confessed “ largest UK software developer to be solely focused on creating virtual reality entertainment content,” nDreams. Already, something hits me about VR like a slap across my face:
In a convention setting, getting the focus right is really really REALLY hard.
While the central near view was reasonably easy to nail down in some form of clarity, objects further away or on the edges of the screen seemed blurry. This could be a general thing to expect from VR headsets, but this is an important point that I think will resurface.
I also faced another graphical issue a bit more precise to the Oculus where the graphics didn’t feel smooth; instead, it looks slightly pixelated/jagged around the edges of objects. In addition, I faced a very specific oddity where the calibration of the unit I was using was off by a very bizarrely specific 90 degrees, so I was sat facing a 90-degree to the left of the booth. Although hind-sight offers the possibility this was for wheelchair users, so it might not actually be a problem.
However, I believe what harmed the Oculus presentation the most was the game. The aesthetic was close to realistic, but was just off. You couldn’t see your own body when you looked down. As well as this the characters looked slightly too thin and stretched like an X-Com Thin Man or…Well.. A stretched Stretch Armstrong. It felt like an uncanny valley in the most horrifying of ways, fearful of the virtual world and the real life blending in a creepy unreal fashion.
In addition, I couldn’t try to test how the visuals reacted to movement since I was wheeled from one location to the next against my will, brief flickers of freedom presenting in a bizarre “view-angle change” option and being able to project myself forward. However, what I did manage to test was if the game creates motion sickness, which I did feel mild nausea by the end.
Beyond that, well, I’d talk about the game but there isn’t anything more to talk about. There’s not really anything in terms of gameplay and the story is so distant that I only vaguely have a clue what it might be about (doctor’s mother gets ill, so doctor experiments to perhaps make cure, secret illegal laboratory stuff happens, you are the mother). It wasn’t fun in the classic sense, and it didn’t manage to hook my narrative interest.
Verdict: If there was a VR headset I had expectations for, and I admit they barely exist, it was the Oculus Rift due to how they’re the brand to resurrect the VR-headset idea. In addition I had some positive expectations for The Assembly, a game I had seen at EGX which prides it self on being a large VR-only developer. Together though, it was a mess. Putting aside the calibration issue and the blurry screen problem, I was astonished something so jagged and creepy in appearance could have been made and marketed as though nothing was wrong. It turned out to be the single only time I felt nausea and a little bit of dissociation. If I was told this was the prequel to a horror game, I’d believe it whole-heartedly.
I’m not particularly sure how The Assembly could appeal to anyone, at this stage, and it only served to make the Oculus Rift look clumsy and containing technical faults. The Oculus Rift gets a D grade.
Headset: Samsung Gear VR
Price: $99 or £95.99
Release Date: Out now
Game tried: Esper 2
Developer of game: Coatsink
I wanted to give a “small” (read as: intended to be brief, but I have a tendency to ramble) talk about the Gear VR. This is because while it is technically produced by a different company it is “powered” by the Oculus (sorry, not familiar what they mean by “powered”, is this a coding/engine term or what happens if you’re put on the spot when asked how exactly Oculus ties into this).
While I had the same blur-problem, everything else worked a lot better graphically. Rather than trying to create cutting edge graphics that beg for some anti-aliasing, it goes for a more cartoonish appearance that works. I’d rather not go too much into the game it self, as I’ll be covering it in an interview I managed to get with Coatsink, but there is one part of the VR that I found interesting.
The Samsung Gear VR appears to be trying to create an useful headset where all you need is your phone (which I hope you have the required specific phone that’ll cost you more than the headset likely) and the Gear VR device. While good in theory, this means that the controller you get with it is actually built into the headset, meaning you’ll have to play with your right hand (I don’t believe it is left-handed as well) near your temple. This can cause eventual strain in the user, as I begun to feel it even in the 15 minute demo I tried.
Verdict: Graphically, even with the blur, it seems a lot better than the Rift. Although I expect the Gear VR to be severely limited in its specifications in comparison, which will offer less usability for higher-end titles. I was also not too pleased with how the $99, while cheap on the surface, only pays for the accessory headset. To get the phone needed (e.g. Galaxy S6), that’ll be another £30 a month or a single payment of $599.99 or £450. In addition, if you don’t want to feel the strain of constantly poking near your temple, that’s another $59.99 or £63.20 for the recommended controller. Still, it seems to offer a cheap alternative that allows it self to cater to the mobile market in terms of app games, if by cheap I mean “I hope your phone can handle it!”.
With this in mind, it gets a grade of a D+ if you lack the mobile phone and a B- if you happen to have one.
Headset: HTC Vive
Price: $799 or £689 + £57.60 P&P and tax
Release Date: Out now
Game tried: Sluggy’s Fruit Emporium
Developer of game: Timothy Johnson
On the way home from EGX Rezzed one of the days, on the 2+ hour journey, I begun to day-dream. “We need something to represent the graphical prowess, immersion qualities and the reactivity under high tensions of the motion controls of our VR device. Something that makes people’s hearts race, their palms sweat and their faces focus. It needs to be a serious AAA title.” a man with an ironically worn t-shirt with a suit-design on it spoke to a room of people.
“Maybe we could go with a cartoony indie game where you serve fruit to aliens?” a man with a hoodie and jeans suggests “Something that is fun”.
The ironic suit-man responds “sure, excellent, go do that. As long as you include a part like a first-person Papers Please but with higher graphics.”
“…Yes, sure, we’ll get on that right away”.
Then they went off to talk about how the ironic suit-man intern shouldn’t have been in that meeting.
…Anyway, in case you’re confused at the odd introduction, Sluggy’s Fruit Emporium is a game where you are an alien running a fruit stand on an alien planet. However, rather than tell you what they want, you have to pick up the fruit until they stop growling and start grinning and hand it to them. You then grab the money, cash it, and continue on.
What is absolutely hypnotizing about such a game, besides just how silly and carefree it feels (you’re really not pressured by anything besides a convention setting where there are others in the queue staring their loathing at having to wait for your idiocy into the back of your head), is the hand-held controls. You have two waggle sticks that, upon clutching, will grab whatever is in front of you. While usually accurate enough, it never felt precise enough as it was still akin to controlling a robot with a controller (which…Is apt actually). I tried to juggle some of the fruit to take my mind off the people in the queue but felt like I was doing it with oven mitts. Although in the end such a device was good enough for the purpose.
This was a game where I was expected to stand, the tingling horror of falling over or banging into something creeping in. However, despite this, the handy in-game aid of where to stand was incredibly useful as I could work out where I could stumble about without embarrassing myself.
Again, usual blur applied, as things on the walls only sometimes were in focus enough to be understood clearly. Besides that, graphically it seemed to work fine within the quaintly odd aesthetic the game had.
Verdict: The main trouble I have with assessing this game is, well, the aesthetic is as cartoony as it is. Besides noticing the obvious blur, I couldn’t really get a feel of if anything else was concerning. The controller worked better than I had hoped, with an accuracy surprisingly high in terms of using duel-wielding waggle-sticks. Fortunately, said sticks come with the headset in the final price that is a good deal more expensive than the Oculus Rift. Still, at the end of the day, I really had fun with the physics nonsense of trying to juggle with VR-sticks at a fruit stall (which I admit made me hope for a VR version of Papers Please that use the dual-wielding controllers). The final grade is a C+.
Headset: Playstation (PS) VR
Price: £349 (or $400) solo, but will need the £39 camera to function.
Release Date: October, 2016
Game tried: RIGS: Mechanized Combat League
This was a particularly hard VR device to slink into. You had to book either weeks in advance (which didn’t work due to an odd website glitch), or book on the day amongst the crowds also hoping to try it. I had fortunately got two tickets from someone else at Bago on two different days. However, due to a bizarre communication problem, I missed the first day’s time slot and had to hope the Saturday booking would be okay.
On Saturday, I turned up to check on the time early in case there was another time mistake. What I didn’t realize, although I should have, was I was to be IDed to make sure the name matched the ticket to confirm I didn’t just buy my ticket online. Surprisingly, after explaining it was booked by someone else at the company I work at (which is true), they were okay with me trying the headset out. So I queued up nervously after giving my name, worried that either I wouldn’t be called or someone would be ushering me to the exit on accusations of fraud and of purchasing the ticket. Fortunately, instead I went to try RIGS.
The first thing that hit me was, I admit, the sigh of relief I’d be using the controller rather than the odd aircraft marshalling wands called the Playstation Move. The second thing was the greater relief that I wouldn’t have to use a variety of straps to make sure the screen wasn’t beer-goggles blurry. Instead it felt more like sliders along tracks. This sounds like it would be ineffective, but surprisingly this was the first time the entire view was crystal clear. There wasn’t a blurry moment in sight.
Another unexpected pleasant moment was the game itself. I’m not into mech games as often because they are either too clunky and complex or may as well be people running around madly. This worry was exacerbated by having the right stick and the head-set manage camera/aiming controls. Not only the mechs felt like mechs, balancing freedom and simplicity of movement against actually feeling like being strapped into a robot, but after a tiny bit of getting used to I was shooting other robots out the air with the greatest of ease.
The game it self was also oddly splendid. Besides the uncanny valley feel of the humans (so it was a good thing it is primarily a mech game), everything looks fantastic as you can look around to see yourself strapped into a several ton killing machine. The gameplay is where it falters a little bit; as auto-aim was on, it often felt a little too easy to play. However, considering the public demo status that was to be expected. I had also wished there was a sprint button of some kind, as too often I was just trudging from one end of the stadium to the next. Besides the criticisms, I genuinely had a very enjoyable time with the game.
Verdict: As a headset device, it definitely is the best VR headset I got to try. It was easy to calibrate for absolute clarity, everything operated smoothly and even came with a demo which had powerful graphical power and that was fun to play. My only worry about the game side is it’ll end up, understandably, so open to all players as to leave those with a higher skill level bored fast.
The headset side is where things get a bit more awkward. I want to lump all the praise I can onto it, as it definitely was the best moment of VR enjoyment. In addition, it comes at a shockingly cheap price compared to other headsets. However, and this is a big creeping stalking however, it is exclusive to PS4 which will bar those with a PC preference from enjoying it.
The grade for PS VR is a cautious B. I wanted to give it a B+, A- or even an A, but I feel too wary about the PS4.5 rumour that suggests that you have to get this new console to get the optimal version of their VR experience. In addition, if you prefer to play PC games then you’re going to be left in the cold on this one. It is cheap and works fantastically, but what isn’t there that is what is gnawing at me.
The best VR at EGX Rezzed ended up actually being the only one yet released. In those circumstances, well, I believe there isn’t that huge of a gulf of difference between the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. Vive costs more, but I saw less graphical issues (on, I admit, a smaller game that requires less graphical power) and you get a better pair of waggle-sticks to use than the Oculus Rift’s singular pointer (which I actually didn’t get to try).
It was during research of the basic information of each headset that I think the punchline of this article emerged. A press release by Strategy Analytics unveiled that while Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PS VR collectively had 77% of revenue of VR headsets, the reality was they only made up 13% of headsets being sold. This 87% gap was made up of VR headsets like the cardboard one I joked about before that utilized mobile phones in their VR headsets to provide an affordable experience.
Maybe the big three names mentioned above will win in terms of revenue at the start, but as consumers flock towards cheaper forms, will the well of VR support of video games will dry up? As the amount of games to use the VR on diminishes, the revenue will also take a turn for the worse as there is less and less reason to throw down a couple of hundred dollars/pounds for a headset device. While the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift could potentially be adjusted to be able to run said mobile phone games, still being expensive devices in comparison to mobile-phone driven headsets and therefore taking a huge hit in sales, the PS VR will fall down in a colossal mess for its exclusivity for the PlayStation platform despite the cheaper price compared to the other two. However, this is simply a theory I have based on the article above.
So, if you must flock to a big-name headset right now, while the PS VR is the better one and is cheaper, chances are the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive will have more of a shelf life at this rate. This is especially as more powerful PC games will only work on the Rift or Vive likely. Work out how much the waggle sticks seem appealing to you, and invest accordingly. Otherwise, well, if you have a mobile phone which can run VR, then grab a headset that’ll work with the phone you have (and hope you don’t have to get a new model in the future). You’ll miss out on the huge colossal AAA games with VR capability that’ll likely emerge, but it’ll be significantly cheaper.
No matter what you run with, it seems like VR will be a bigger and bigger thing over time. This is especially as motion controls of yesteryear will be paired with these new headsets to create an environment where you can flail your arms around madly, unaware you’ve just punched your grandmother and put your foot through the TV screen in the name of entertainment while sober.
Although for those who still love sitting in a room with only the monitor screen for light, I doubt it’ll dominate video games enough that you’ll be left in the dust for not buying into the trend. Like motion controls, this is just a luxury intended to improve gameplay through immersion, but unlike motion controls, it is one that is actually able to inspire awe to those who don’t just want to play sport games indoors.
Special thanks to Sam Pope for some of the photos.