Who would have thought that all it would take for me to be sold on the merits of VR was the ability to load and fire a virtual gun forever? Well, everyone, surely, but that’s besides the point. The real issue here is that, having played around with the HTC Vive for a couple of days now, I’m more than impressed with the fucker, and so is everyone I know that has used it. It – and this isn’t even a joke – made me excited about video games again.
Now, I’ve used VR before: I once had a go on some ridiculous setup (Virtuality, since you asked) at a Butlins in the early 90s, but the headset weighed me down like bad manslaughter and, graphically, everything was made out of about six polygons. You also had to stand in an enclosed area, a nerd holding pen of sorts, which was both appropriate and not a little disheartening. It was crap, but then so was much of the 90s.
The Vive, as you’re probably aware, is quite a bit better than that. Yes, you need a fairly big space to use it, but the scale of the software so far is pretty fucking incredible. Being able to walk around the ‘room’ is both joyful and disorientating: after a little while you’ll think you can put the (real) Vive controller down onto the (virtual) tables around you, which will invariably end in disaster. VR’s whole thing is about scale, of course, but SteamVR’s commitment to actually enabling you to move around in the spaces it generates makes it all the more…immersive. (This may be the first and only time this word is actually appropriate.)
The best game (experience? Interactive Fun Bringer? Who knows) for actually placing players into the world is Valve’s The Lab, which drops you into Aperture Science and lets you freely move around it (you can teleport if you’ve not got a big enough space). Here you’ll be picking up sticks to throw to robot dogs, or firing arrows at employees. Beyond that you can teleport into the solar system, throwing the planets around, or stand on top of a very high mountain which looks suspiciously close to the real thing. The main room itself is fairly big, but it’s the sizing of the things in it that makes it work: everything is so well-proportioned it means that, coupled with the ability to actually walk around, it all starts to feel very…real. (Sorry. It’s like a marketing meeting in here today. But it is very realistic.)
This, of course, does weird things to your brain, including – but not limited to – inducing vertigo, making you forget that the TV is actually in the way, and giving you the confidence to start ‘putting things down’ on stuff which, in actuality, don’t exist. A large part of how SteamVR is able to fool you into doing this is how intricate the controller input can be.
One of the best examples of this is Hot Dogs, Horseshoes, and Hand Grenades, an early access title where you load and fire various weapons on ranges. Just using the regular pistol requires you to pick up the firearm, insert the magazine into the handle, and pull the slide back before you can even fire it. It’s cumbersome at first, as you get used to the controller and your abilities. After a while, however, the Vive’s 1-1 mapping (with zero lag) enables you to fire every shot in the magazine, eject the magazine, and load a new one in seconds. It’s so precise that you can pick up a six shooter and load it one bullet at a time, before closing the chamber with a flick of the wrist.
Which, combined with excellent haptic feedback, is one of the most exciting and disconcerting things I’ve ever experienced in a game. Like other VR units, the Vive has that old ‘screen door’ effect, and the resolution is fairly low. But the overall effect is superb, and the lighting and texture work on Hot Dogs is still good enough to give you the feel of actually holding the weapon. Or, at least, the gun actually being there.
There are other great showcases on Steam which show off the Vive’s potential, including an excellent Apollo 11 recreation which enables you to set down the lunar lander and have a wander about on the Moon. (Side note: our very own Jim Trinca nearly fell over when he realised a full-sized Neil Armstrong was next to him in the lander. He thought he was there all by himself, arrogant bastard.) But the Vive’s main problem at the moment is that it is a) expensive and b) a total pain to set up, needing loads of space, many inputs and outputs, and more plugs than the average YouTuber’s Let’s Plays.
It’s also heavy, and there’s a very real chance you’ll break your legs thanks to the mass of trailing wires, including the huge one that comes out of the headset. But as Valve’s first real shot at commercial VR, it is incredible, and if you’re not going to buy one, befriend someone richer and stupider than you and have a little go. If Valve and Facebook (and Sony) can minimise both the hardware and the cost, then the next decade or so is going to be very interesting indeed, and it’ll be difficult to see these firms not making it part of their core plans for their respective ecosystems. If not, then it’ll just be a genuinely amazing curio.