So the guys here at The Late Night Session have requested that I let them know just what they’re missing out on with no VR headsets to play with. My long agonising wait for my Oculus Rift ended about a month ago and by hell it was worth it!
Over the last 12 months I’ve been addicted to both DiRT Rally, and Elite: Dangerous, both of which made the desire for VR grow stronger every game. My 3 monitor set up was a nice step on the way, but it still didn’t make me feel like I was in the game. That changed when the Rift arrived and I may never play another non-VR game again!
There’s plenty of unboxing reviews, and YouTube videos showing what’s in the box, so I won’t go into too much detail about how it was packaged other than to say that it comes in a nice high quality magnetised box that holds everything safely and securely, it’s a classy package, but it’s what’s inside that matters. The Rift itself is very lightweight, comfortable to wear and very easy to set up. The materials are very high quality, and for the price it comes at, it’s what I’d expect! The set up is quick and easy, find a spot for the desktop sensor, mines right in front of my central monitor, put the headset on, do a quick adjustment to line up the prime focal points, adjust the IPD (interpupilary distance) until the picture is clearest and you’re set.
There’s a raft of freebies available on both the Oculus Store and Steam so there’s no shortage of things to keep you busy for quite a while. From concept demo’s to 360 videos and VR movies, as well as Lucky’s Tale and EVE Valkyrie, you’re well equipped out of the box. The 360 videos are no different to what you may have seen on mobile phone headsets like google cardboard or the Samsung Gear VR but with a better field of view and resolution. They can be entertaining, I enjoyed watching the intro to the stage production of The Lion King from the middle of the stage, but overall they’re not particularly exciting, more of a distraction for when you’re bored. The Game of Thrones intro in 360 is rather cool but the picture quality of these videos tends to be somewhat lacking. The Dreamdeck is a collection of short demos that do a great job of highlighting what is possible in VR, standing on the edge of a building looking at the ground far below you is amazing.
Picture quality is one of the few things that mar the whole VR experience. While the Rift and the HTC Vive both have similar screens, with 1080×1200 pixels per eye and a 110° field of view, the fact that these screens are a couple of inches in front of your eyes, with big magnifying glasses in front of them means that the pixles are quite enlarged. It’s been described as the screen door effect, everything looks almost like you’re watching it through a security mesh door. Apparently this effect is reduced compared to the developers kits but I’ve only ever had a quick go on a DK2 Rift and I couldn’t really comment on the difference. The image tends to get worse as you focus further away. Close up everything looks very crisp and clear, and it’s extremely impressive, but as things get further away, the image is using less screen area, which means less pixels are being used to display the image making it less clear.
While the picture quality can leave a little to be desired, I usually liken it to watching a high definition picture on a standard definition screen, all the graphical flourishes are there, but they’re just not as crisp as you’d expect on a monitor. But it’s the immersion factor that is what defines the VR experience. A small step backwards for a huge step forwards. It’s comparable to the big change from 16 bit consoles to 3D consoles. While a still image of games on the 16bit consoles looked better than the chunky indistinct 3D graphics of the PS1 and N64, seeing the game in motion and the extra depth of the 3D graphics made it way more impressive. Same with VR, while the picture quality suffers from the lack of resolution, the depth and immersion has to be seen to be believed. It’s really hard to describe just how much everything looks like it’s really there in front of you.
This physicality of the image is what has really shone for me, and it surprised me just how impressive 3rd person experiences are in VR. Before I got my rift I was questioning just why exactly developers would make a 3rd person game for what seems to be the perfect platform for a 1st person experience. Once I fired up the concept demo Mythos of the World Axis my doubts were well and truly blown away. I’m a tabletop gamer from way back and one of my favorite things is making terrain pieces for the games, and this demo has you controlling a little man around a castle to free you from some chains holding you in place. On the screen it looks no different to any other 3rd person 3d platformer, but in the headset it takes on a whole new dimension. Everything really does look like it’s right there in front of you, it’s like having a physical model of the castle set up all around you. You can walk in closer for a good look, bend down or stand on tiptoes to get a better view, looking down corridors and around towers to guide your man when you move him out of your line of sight. A quick push on the left trigger puts you into 1st person view, and while you can’t move beyond a few steps in this view, it really does feel like you’re standing in a medieval courtyard.
Lucky’s Tale is a similar experience, it’s a mario 64 style platformer featuring Lucky the fox in his quest to rescue his friend from an evil tentacled eyeball creature, and while the game itself is nothing groundbreaking, its a competent platformer that gains a lot from VR. Lucky’s Tale looks as if someone has setup a kids toybox and the toys have come alive. It’s a great use of new technology to breathe life into a rather stagnant genre.
Of course 1st person games is really what VR is all about, and the like of EVE Valkyrie, Elite: Dangerous, Project CARS and DiRT Rally really deliver the ultimate VR experience. I was playing Elite, and at one stage I turned and looked behind me and realised that my cockpit stretched back a few metres, so being the inquisitive sort that I am, I decided to get out of my seat (Leaving my headless body sitting there! ) and have a wander around. It was an incredible moment that really hammered home just how immersive VR is. I walked to the back of the cockpit, looking out my windows I could see the exterior of my ship, parts that you normally can’t see from the vantage point of the pilots seat, and while it added nothing to the gameplay, just knowing that you can do it still amazes me! Project CARS has the unintended consequence of being able to stand up through the roof of your car and view from there, it really is a great way to watch replays.
The gameplay of these games is vastly improved by the VR experience. Being able to look around and keep your target in sight during dogfights in Elite and EVE makes it a lot easier to keep track of where your enemies are. Docking at a station in close orbit to a planet hammers home the scale of everything in the game, the planet stretches as far as the eye can see and is especially gorgeous when you have nearby planets or stars adding to the vista. Driving games really make it look as though you’re in the car, I found that I was shifting in my seat in the same way that I would be if I was throwing my real car around, leaning into corners, craning my head around to look through my side windows as I slid sideways down the road and fighting to keep the car pointed in the right direction. The long sweeping bends, rises and dips of finland were unbelievably fun to hurtle down, and throwing the car around the muddy tracks of wales was amazing. It’s surprising just how much more active it makes gaming, In EVE Valkyrie I find myself jerking not only my head around but most of my body as I try to keep my eye on my target, it’s definitely not a passive experience!
Of course all this amazement and wonder don’t come without a price, not the financial cost which is significant, but the physical cost of VR sickness. Unfortunately it’s a real issue, but luckily one that doesn’t rear its head too often. My worst experience has been with ADR1FT, a game that finds you floating amongst the derelict pieces of a space station floating above earth after a catastrophic event. It’s an amazingly beautiful game, imagine the movie gravity in game form, but not so woefully terrible, it has huge open 3d areas mixed with cramped corridors and rooms. Descent style controls give you full 360° movement, which makes the VR experience quite intense. At one stage of the game I found myself at one of the objectives when some strange music started playing, a whining note rising and lowering while rotating around my head in the directional speakers. After about 2 minutes of this I had to take the headset off to stop myself from throwing up, I had no desire to put it back on for the rest of the night! I’ve had no more experiences like that, but a few games can give you a motion sickness kind of feeling. After an hour long session of DiRT Rally the queasiness started affecting me but oddly enough, in DiRT it was only on static screens, I had no problems whilst driving, but as soon as I crashed, or going through menus was when I felt the slight nausea. It wasn’t a game killer, but it was definitely there. After a month of playing, I’ve only felt this queasiness 3 or 4 times but it’s definitely worth a mention.
So I can readily assure you that VR is extremely impressive. The Rift is a quality piece of hardware that doesn’t fail to impress. It’s shortcomings are more than equalled by its highlights and while cost is a factor that will keep it out of the mainstream market for a while yet to come (hopefully PlayStation VR will help this along), early adopters should be very happy with the investment, I know I am!
I just want to thank Psycosm for giving the time to share with us his thoughts on the Rift and some of the games that have been arriving since its launch. Cool little factoid: back in the 80’s Psycosm introduced me to both Impossible Mission and classic British gaming mags such as Zzap!64 and C&VG. 🙂 – Night Owl