Pip and Adam are out in the wilds of GDC, hunting the grounds of the convention centre and the streets around for the most interesting people and games in the world today. In one dark room, in an unassuming building on a busy street, they found a crowd of virtual worlds.
This was the Oculus Rift Game Day, in which the VR devices were on display along with selected launch titles. From sport to slaughter and strategy to stealth-horror, here are our thoughts on the first wave of VR games. And our first verdict on the launch window and the all-important Touch controllers.
Pip: I got off to a deceptively promising start with this one as I apparently have a knack for three point basketball in virtual reality. Ball after ball sailed into the basket and I felt like a hero. Surely this is too good to be true? Obviously it was and my basketball pride came before an American football fall. I don’t understand American football. I have no idea what I was trying to do while playing even though you’ve explained it to me. All I know is that I caught the ball from the bendy-over squatting man and then threw it to someone else. After that the camera changed to the perspective of the catching player, I tried to catch the ball and the cycle started again. The developers said that it was just a matter of listening to the tutorial to follow what was going on and that did teach me the basic movements but I never got an overall sense of the game or how I was influencing my own progress. I wanted to spend a bit more time with it and see if it finally just clicked with me, especially as the three point basketball mode had come so naturally and the last mode – the slam dunk basketball challenge – had also felt more intuitive.
Adam: It’s probably a massive oversimplification to say that VR Sports is the Rift’s very own Wii Sports, but I’m going to run with that because I am occasionally a very simple person. That statement also ties in with my overarching impression of the Oculus Game Day event, at which we played all of these games. It felt like we were looking at the launch day lineup of a new console, with both the good and bad connotations that come with that.
Thankfully, the meeting of Rift and American sports seems like a happy one. It might not do the Wii Sports trick of becoming the party game of choice for people who wouldn’t think to pick up a more traditional controller, but it’s taken the smart approach of zeroing in on the elements of each game that suit particular types of intuitive movement rather than trying to simulate every aspect of each sport.
That’s true in theory, at least. We only got to play two games, basketball and American football, so can’t judge the ice hockey and baseball. Those latter two will concentrate on shooting and goalkeeping (shunting and blocking), and batting and fielding (swinging and catching) respectively. The aim, from a development perspective, is to present the player with a highlight reel of each game in which they get to be the star. And they get to be the star by performing actions that are natural and intuitive.
Football, which I didn’t get a chance to play, didn’t seem particularly intuitive. When I was watching you play, it seemed like you would have needed more knowledge of the sport to appreciate the context of your goals at any one time – whether choosing a play, picking out a receiver or trying to throw a leading pass. The ‘bullet’ throwing motion didn’t seem to come naturally at all.
Maybe that’s fine though. Maybe it’s good to have at least one minigame that you need to spend time learning and maybe that one game is American football in this case.
The best thing about the entire demo was my three-point attempt in the basketball mode. I was awful. So excruciatingly bad that I realised the developers were speaking the truth when they told us that there was no aim assist. When you were playing, I was convinced that was a white lie. Turns out you’re just awesome at basketball.
My favourite part of the actual game was the slamdunk challenge though. It’s like the bits in a motocross or skating game when you’re in the air performing tricks, except you’re not pressing buttons. You’re manipulating a ball that felt completely real in my ‘hands’, bouncing it off the backboard, tossing it from one hand to the other, playing with the physics in what feels like a real space. I remember it as a real thing that I did, that handling of the ball, rather than part of a game. That’s pretty incredible and it wholly convinced me that Oculus Touch can do incredible things.
And this wasn’t even the best implementation of Touch in the games we played. More on that later.
Edge of Nowhere
Pip: This one I really liked for its sense of place. You play as a guy stuck up a mountain, traversing these ice caves and ice walls and skirting round crevasses. You’re finding out about these monsters another explorer (I think he was an explorer – my memory lets me down here – has been insisting exist but you had your doubts. It’s a third person game which I thought might feel particularly weird in VR – like you were harassing someone, permanently hovering over their shoulder – but it actually worked neatly. The camera follows the main character at a slight distance so you can move him about and make him interact with the environment but you’re slightly removed from those acts, watching him instead of seeing things through his eyes.
The overall effect, I think, turns something that could be vertiginous and uncomfortable into more of a companionable and moderate experience. You get to peer around the landscape without having to directly contend with its hazards. You guide and curate and listen instead of being the one climbing and falling and hacking with our ice pick. The other thing I found really interesting about Edge of Nowhere was that when I was talking to one of the developers they were explaining that they had originally intended to have a big arsenal of weapons but that it made the experience clunky so they decided to stick with only a few options, but to get various objects in the environment to function as weapons instead. That’s part of why you can throw rocks at these weird seed pod-looking structures growing out of surfaces and have then sprout defensive spikes – it’s a way of creating weaponry you can use against enemies so you could lure one of these insecty monsters in by making a noise with a rock, then hurl a second rock at the spike ball triggering it and making it iskewer the monster.
Adam: A third-person VR game seemed like a disastrous idea to me. When I watched you playing, seeing what looked like a regular third-person stealth-horror game on-screen, I thought it was even more disastrous. The camera was swinging around all over the place in a way that didn’t give me a sense of what you would be seeing or how the sense of space, and the character within that space, was being communicated.
And then I played it for myself and it all clicked into place. There’s a fairly tight control, by the game itself, of the camera so it adopts a position and then you can look around and enjoy the scale of the caverns FROM that position. The actual game itself is neat, with all of those environmental hazards you described and the ability to play with the AI in a satisfying way, luring it and avoiding its attentions or using its behaviour to your advantage, but I was most impressed by the fact that, hey, third-person VR games aren’t completely horrible to play!
Pip: I liked this in the sense that I think it’s nicely executed but it’s one of the games I’m not convinced needed to be in VR. I do like that this was the second game we saw at GDC which was aiming at making RTS more pick-up-and-play-able to people (the first being Tooth and Tail), and I did think the transformers element where you switch from being a land unit to an air unit was really nice. We seemed to end up in a stalemate, though, which meant I wasn’t really sure what to make of the experience. I always get that feeling when I don’t experience victory or loss. It feels unresolved. I did kill you a lot though and I am going to hang onto that.
Adam: Has there been anything we’ve played this week that you haven’t killed me in? When we played basketball, the entire court literally burst into flames when you were playing, because it was so happy. When I played, icicles formed on the backboard.
As for Airmech, I half-agree with you here. The game seemed fun – and it already exists and has a playerbase that would agree that it’s fun – but I’m not really a fan of RTS games where I control a unit within the playing field. I’m never sure if it’s better to play it as an action game, using my overpowered commander unit to trounce everything or to take a zoomed out view and play in a more traditional fashion.
Airmech goes some way toward solving that problem by having your commander also be your cursor. You need to fly or stomp around to activate, to give orders and to build, so even if you’re taking a distant view you’re flitting in and out of the action.
The VR isn’t a necessary part of the game but it wasn’t a distraction either. As with Edge of Nowhere, the main thing that I took away was that it’s exciting to see a strategy game actually working with the Rift. I want to play Supreme Commander looking down on the battlefield as if it were a wargaming table. Hell, I’d probably be happy playing a good Chess game using the Touch. And Tabletop Simulator VR? Yes please.
Even though this WASN’T a Touch game it did get me thinking about how capturing the pleasantly tactile nature of boardgames and wargames in VR makes a great deal of sense. Maybe I could even pretend to paint miniatures using a virtual box of paints and brushes.
On page two, more games, including Fantastic Contraption and a verdict.