Valve’s Destinations is the best and worst of VR

Valve’s Destinations [official site], a workshop/gallery designed to enable us to experience detailed recreations of real or fictional places in virtual reality, was released into early access last Summer. This is the first time I’ve used it in earnest – partly because I wasn’t able to maintain the floorspace needed for a full Vive setup, partly because the shine so rapidly came off VR once the initial awe had faded. I’ve finally pushed enough furniture into the stairwell to be able to give it a go. It’s both exactly what VR needs and all the technology’s disappointments focused into one place.

Destinations is an ideal Steam application in many ways – it’s plugged directly into the Steam Workshop, and an optional accompanying editor enables smarter folk than I to create a theoretically endless roster of ‘rooms’ for end-usery-types to goggle at. The base game/application is effectively a gallery picker, from where you pick your ‘Destination’ of choice and, if you so wish, a few basic physical props to use within it. Interface-wise, it’s smart and intuitive, and there’s no issue with choosing anything from inside your headset, with your motion controllers of choice in your hands.

The killer twist – in theory – is multiplayer support. You find somewhere to go on your blinkered holiday and drag a few mates in there with you. A hangout in an unreal place – or a meticulously-recreated real place, depending on your preferences.

A couple of years ago, before the Vive had been released and only a select few had been able to try devkits, a friend of mine breathlessly told me about the demo he’d tried, and said ‘this time next year, you and I are going to be in our Vives, drinking beers on the Riviera.’ Destinations didn’t exist then, but it is pretty much what he had in mind. And it’s also exactly what I what I suspected the reality would be like.

Which is to say, amazing sights rendered at life-size scale, but whose initial impact wanes due to an inability to meaningfully interact with anything. The first location I visited, an old English church and surrounding graveyard, I spent a good 20 minutes exploring. After that, I flicked through amazing places at speed, like a bucket list world tour on extreme fast forward. Yup, seen, seen, seen, seen.

The detail on some of these destinations is truly impressive, even despite the limited resolution of current VR headsets. It’s not like Google Earth VR, which though it may feature dramatically more locations (and freedom of movement) can only render any of them as if someone applied stickers to clay shapes. It’s photo-quality, bearing up to scrutiny from any angle. If you go for the room-size VR option – you don’t have to, standing and seating is available, with the old point’n’teleport movement controls – there’s a museum exhibition quality to it.

Barriers exist, though, and consciousness of those barriers grows with each new Destination. There’s no walking inside that church, or along Tower Bridge in the background. I mean, we can’t expect miracles here – not to mention the impracticality of trying to render and allow the player to navigate truly vast spaces when some poor sod has to photograph, map, model and import all that stuff. It’d be the work of months, for something some ignorant ass like me downloads for free, spends two minutes with then moves on to the next thing.

Destinations offers options for a few cod-physical props – balls and baseball bats and Weighted Companion Cubes. In multiplayer, these things can be thrown to or swung at your companions, who appear as cartoonish, blocky, simple avatars, not in any way themselves. It’s a giggle, to say you played catch with your mate on the South bank or clobbered each other harmlessly with bats inside a scene from The Ocarina of Time. I’m glad this exists. I’m just not going to do that very often.

Sure, I could have that drink on the Riviera with my friend, but my eyes would hurt after ten minutes, I’d almost certainly knock my beer on the floor while blindly fumbling for the glass, there would be no chair to match the chair in my room, no warmth from that sun, and we’d both look like cutesey robot-heads made for a 2008 Wii minigame collection that sold 700 copies worldwide. But we would both yell ‘now let’s see Captain Picard’s quarters!’ or ‘what about the lookout tower from Firewatch?‘ and that would be fun too.

Destinations is absolutely a VR title, which means superficially impressive but inherently limited. How long can the joke remain funny for? Well, a while, but only if there’s enough take-up by smart and skilled people to ensure a steady stream of suitably appealing locations. Yeah, I want a drink in King’s Landing and I want to stare down from the top of the Burj Khalifa, but someone needs to make those things. Right now, the Destinations gallery just isn’t terribly full, given it’s been kicking around for eight months. Unless there’s a sudden influx of new Vive or Oculus owners, that is sadly likely to remain the case.

The right places will bring me back, for sure – for instance, browsing around Valve’s offices, I spotted the cover of a magazine issue I worked on myself, which was a startling delight. I think I’d almost enjoy this more to revisit places I know well than I would limited slices of places I’ve never seen. I hope new things are steadily created for this, and I hope that one day we have a more comfortable headset to visit them with.

Destinations is a must-have if you own a Vive or an Oculus Rift with Touch Controllers, partially because it’s free, but partially because it’s exactly what VR needs to do – and then go further still. I am less and less convinced that the technology will, at least not any time soon.

Destinations is available on Windows via Steam for free.

42 Comments

  1. crazyd says:

    I see that RPS VR coverage is still being done by people that want to hate it SO HARD. I really don’t get why you would get someone that actively dislikes VR to cover it. You wouldn’t put up WITs from people that hate the genre of the game being reviewed, but every damn VR post around here is 75% some jerk explaining how they think the the whole concept of VR is crap.

    • Jason Lefkowitz says:

      If VR is such a house of cards that it can’t stand up to a little skeptical coverage, it’s got bigger problems than the editorial policies at RPS.

      • CaptainKoloth says:

        Crazyd is right. I invested in VR and love it. You’re free to not love it and RPS is free to write all the negative coverage it wants on it. But you don’t see people who review FPSes, for example, start off every single article they write by dumping on the genre, explaining how they don’t like it, everything coming out in it is a failure, this thing or that thing is neat but ultimately it’s doomed etc. It just makes me choose to get my VR coverage elsewhere.

        RPS is not that blatant on VR of course but I think a better analogy would be if a site like IGN had its Nintendo editor be a blatant PS4 fanboy. Why would I read that stuff? What value does it add?

        • frymaster says:

          “if a site like IGN had its Nintendo editor be a blatant PS4 fanboy. Why would I read that stuff? What value does it add?”

          but RPS don’t have a “VR editor”. They’re all just PC games writers, and if any of them fancy writing something positive about VR then they will.

          As to the utility – I bought Banished because of a negative RPS review. Honest opinion openly stated is a lot easier to understand than trying to intuit conscious and unconscious biases hiding behind a pseudo-objective tone

          • TechnicalBen says:

            VR Experience is not objective, until you realise the results are subjective.

            People have different physical requirements (eyes, brain, glasses, lenses, etc) and VR can totally fail because the human body and the workings of it vary.

            Thus, VR could be the best experience ever, but fail if 50-90% of people cannot actually physically (or mentally, due to synapse firing or sensory input problems) use it.

            Thus the extremes in reviews etc.

          • Cinek says:

            but RPS don’t have a “VR editor”” – they don’t have an FPS editor either. Instead they pick people to review FPSes who actually like the genre and won’t be wasting people’s time on their whining about what they don’t like in the genre.

        • Jason Lefkowitz says:

          I read RPS because I value the opinions of the people who write here. If they find VR products uncompelling, I want them to tell me that. That’s literally their job!

          I invested in VR and love it

          That’s great! I’m glad you are getting enjoyment out of it, that’s what games are supposed to be about. But given that neither Oculus nor Vive are breaking out into the mainstream they way they were predicted to, you should at least be open to the idea that other people may not feel the same way.

          • damnsalvation says:

            I read RPS because I like the way Brits write. Y’all crack me up.
            Plus the name is fantastic.

          • SCheeseman says:

            But given that neither Oculus nor Vive are breaking out into the mainstream they way they were predicted to

            Predicted by whom? Oculus and HTC?

            Both companies were upfront about their devices being niche, repeatedly stating this over and over at press events and conferences. They’re selling $800 peripherals that require relatively powerful PC hardware, they know that they’re targeting a limited audience.

            What they’re manufacturing they’re selling, the APIs and drivers from both are getting frequent updates and there’s been enough solid titles to hold interest, many experimenting with new game mechanics and ideas. Just as many cashing in on a fad, but how is that different from any other point in computing history?

            You’re entitled to your opinion, but the snippet I just quoted from you wasn’t one, it was a smear. Either give some effort to understand the nuances of the VR market or don’t bother reporting it, otherwise you’re just going to be writing trash.

        • DEspresso says:

          Well on the height of WW2-pointy-shooty fatigue quite a bit of the reviews out there showed quite some diustance from the genre.

          A valid reflection of the mag readers at this point I wold guess.

      • Cinek says:

        VR can stand just fine to scrutiny. But there’s a difference between writing scrutiny of VR and trying to review software while constantly whining about what one doesn’t like about this type of software. It doesn’t add anything. We’ve already went through RPS’s scrutiny of VR about 15 times now – how about flippin time we finally hear some proper reviews?

      • Arioch13 says:

        Well said. VR seems to be a generation away from immersive and useful to me. The field of view alone gives me brain damage. Taking the field of view from consoles was not a good plan in terms of avoiding nausea and disorientation.

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      teije says:

      You must be reading RPS in some parallel universe. In this one, healthy skepticism about the current state of VR applications does not equal “jerks hating on it” as you think.

      • Ghostwise says:

        You don’t understand. The only reason somebody could have a different opinion about entertainment products than one does is because they are a spiteful, hateful jerk with an agenda of hateful spite against everything good and true in the world.

        • CaptainKoloth says:

          Not at all what I said. RPS has had a generally negative tone to its VR articles for months. I think this tone is sufficiently pervasive that it detracts from the value of these articles as evaluations of specific VR applications. They are free to have that opinion and I am free to disagree with it.

          • theblazeuk says:

            Your post above contradicts the statement “they are free to have their opinion”.

        • J Arcane says:

          Projection is a harsh mistress. ;)

    • grundus says:

      “You wouldn’t put up WITs from people that hate the genre of the game being reviewed” – You’ve not read anything John Walker has written, have you?

    • aepervius says:

      I disagree with most of the writer of rps, particulary their emphasis on some forced politized points (e g the thing with rimworld a while ago), but i come back over and over in spite of the disagreement. Because i value their honest opinion and bias far more than i value the fake objectivity many if the major game news outfit out there. Their (assumed by me honest) bias laid bare allows me much better to decide wether something is for me by learning to compare with my own biases and tastes.

      But frankly even in spite of that, from what i tried of vr, i think they are right that vr is not ready. Too many nice tech demo, too few real uses. At the moment vr us gimmicky.

      Maybe what you perceive as a negative bias, is partially due to your own positive investment , and thus a little too much overlooking the flaws of the current vr crop ?

  2. seroto9 says:

    I literally did the same: goggled at the churchyard, yawped at a ruin, then flicked through the rest – yeah, yeah, yeah…

    The only VR game that still thrills me is Elite Dangerous – it’s a ‘real game’, plus it’s the only way I’ll ever be sure of seeing attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.

    I can walk ’round a church yard any time…

    • Diziet Sma says:

      .. this, though for me I’ll throw Project Cars and Dirt Rally. Potentially also Superhot VR and Vanishing Realms as pure VR games. Certainly Superhot VR is the game I’ve shown to friends and then had them going “holy **** I get it now, this is why VR can be cool.”

      • Cinek says:

        Arizona Shunshine’s also great. And so is Raw Data. Both feel like a proper, big titles that make me constantly return back.

  3. DoomBroom says:

    RPS is the best and WORST on VR reporting.

    Get someone that are not super sensitive, have the proper space for a roomscale setup and a beefy computer that can bump up supersampling do at least some of the reporting on VR!

    I don’t mind the cynics point of view but there’s just too much of it on RPS, I don’t feel it matches the optimism I see when I play games and hang out with people online in VR.

    • Someoldguy says:

      Given that average floorspace of a UK property is nearly the smallest in Europe and roughly a third that of one in the US, it may just be differing perspectives here. Gamers in an awful lot of countries are never going to have the luxury of a “roomscale VR setup” in the way some US designers envisage it. In much the same way that most gamers I know ended up playing all those cool WII games sitting on the sofa making minimal arm movements, not standing around a big room playing virtual doubles tennis with their photogenic family like the adverts made you think you would. If you tried a full arm motion serve you’d give your partner a black eye before smashing the overhead light or barging into one of the kids.

      VR is going to be cool when you can actually feel like you are physically interacting with the projected environment. Let us know when the Matrix version is ready, because we haven’t got room to install the holodeck one.

      • Cinek says:

        Gamers in an awful lot of countries are never going to have the luxury of a high-end PC either. Doesn’t mean that games should be bashed because reviewer can’t run them properly on their PC. Well, you don’t have a money for a flat with a large room – tough luck – but if so then don’t waste our time reviewing product you can’t run as designed.

        • Det. Bullock says:

          A large flat and a high end PC are on a completely different scale, and VR is only a very costly (and admittedly better) trackIR that Oculus and Valve are desperate to sell to people who would never touch the kind of games that really benefit from it.

        • Doogie2K says:

          The 1% tend to have better ways to earn money than by writing video game reviews on the Internet.

  4. Eleven says:

    I’ve noticed that all of the RPS crew who have used the VR headset have complained that it hurts their eyes to stay in for more than a few minutes. That’s abnormal and very concerning, and you should be using you super journalistic powers to reach out to Valve and work out what’s going wrong. It could be hardware, software or biological, but so many seasoned game players having issues suggests that there’s lessons that need to be learned.

    VR headsets should be quite relaxing to use, with your eyes resting naturally focused near infinity. Please stop using VR if it’s causing problems with your vision!

    • Faults says:

      Many people have been complaining of eye discomfort, disorientation and nausea with VR headsets for years now, and the general response appears to be “well, it’s the people that are wrong!”.

      Also your eyes being constantly focused at near infinity is not natural.

      • Eleven says:

        I’m saying that they’re wrong? I’m sorry if I gave that impression.

        Disorientation and nausea are commonly reported even among fans of VR, I certainly have felt it even in popular games like ‘Onwards’, but not so many people have been complaining about eyestrain, especially with adverse reactions within a period as little as ten minutes. There are big scary warnings in the manuals of both the Vive and the Rift about discontinuing use in the event of eye trouble, so the manufacturers are at least aware of a liability.

        I haven’t really heard much about people having problems other than nausea, though. Do you have experience with the issue?

        • Faults says:

          Apologies, I wasn’t referring to your response in particular. It more seems to be a kind of prevailing attitude amongst a lot of proponents of VR that many of its intrinsic shortcomings do not matter, or have been solved via workaround.

          I certainly do not agree with your statement that the RPS crew’s eye discomfort was abnormal though – the idea that the eye’s natural resting point being focused at close to infinity might be true (although there does not seem to be a lot of readily available evidence that this is the case), but it misses the point that in natural surroundings, the human eye is constantly refocusing to perceive depth, something that is simply not possible with current VR, and will likely never be solved using current display technology. Having no control over focus on an image that is tricking your brain into believing it has depth will inevitably lead to discomfort.

          For the record, I do not own a VR headset, nor do I plan to, and it’s specifically because of these reasons.

      • Cinek says:

        Many people don’t know how to setup the headset either. Complains like these shouldn’t be dismissed as ‘VR was and is wrong’ but rather it should be ensured that they’ve got everything set up correctly, run it on a PC powerful enough to pull off required framerates, and comply with suggestions for people who are easily getting nauseous.

        Help is what they should be getting, not bashing of them or hardware.

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    Don Reba says:

    exactly what I what I suspected

    I think you misspelled “wat”.

  6. Runty McTall says:

    I own a Vive, which I ordered within under a minute of it going on sale or something silly, have shown to a bunch of people and evangelise frequently to all and sundry and I have no problem with RPS’s coverage of VR…

    Good grief people, it’s a fair perspective – it takes up lots of space, it’s especially hard to combine with a young family, the Vive in particular is tough to wear for a long time in comfort, there a few games that are compelling for long periods of time… It’s all fair comment!

    All that said, I freakin’ love it – it’s awesome to see people stagger backwards when they see the whale in TheBlu, it’s great to play the lightsaber games and bounce back laser bolts, Elite Dangerous frickin blows my mind, despite the limited res, screen door effect and ability to duck my head into my avatar’s chest. I like what VR is now and I’m really excited about where it can go in the future (twice the res, half the price (headset and PC to drive it, both), much better ergonomics (PSVR sounds good on that front) and we’re really cooking) and everything that Alec says is still true.

    It’s his subjective opinion explained clearly with supporting objective facts. Stop harping on about it simply because he doesn’t completely share your perspective.

    Btw, I downloaded Destinations for the Mars stuff, but haven’t had a chance to try it out yet.

    • pennywyz says:

      One thing I found to be pretty inaccurate was the RPS article written about how the Vive was virtually impossible to set up (I don’t remember who wrote it). Seemed pretty straightforward to me, took maybe 15-20 minutes not counting software installation time. I was also expecting the cable to be a huge monstrosity based off their articles and it is actually not that big at all. I was pretty excited to buy it at first but after all the negativity from my favorite games site I started to have doubts, glad I got it though it has been a blast.

      • Runty McTall says:

        I have small kids and insufficient space to devote to it full time anyway (I clear the dining room, table and all) so I pretty much have to set it up each time. The process is straightforward enough (in terms of knowing what to do) but it’s still tedious and half the time I have to repeatedly trace out the area for it to take.

        Regarding the cable – I’m certainly conscious it’s there but I’ve never come close to tripping on it or whatever.

      • Nogo says:

        Set-up really depends on your situation. I already had a large empty space right next to my gaming PC, and even then it took me about three days, a room rearrangement, and a trip to the hardware store to get a decently functional space.

        And I still have one area that’s a bit suspect, some unseemly wires, and my seated set-up leaves a bit to be desired.

        • Runty McTall says:

          We’re having work done on the house at some point to build in an office off the dining room so I’ll be able to leave the seated configuration set up permanently, which should make pCARS and Elite much more common. I’ll also sneak a mounting bracket for a lighthouse unit into the ceiling so roomscale setup is a bit quicker / better.

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      particlese says:

      This one seems perfectly reasonable, I’d say. Well, maybe excepting tat last sentence, which just kind of comes out of left field. Valid reiterating of half of the point of the article, but abrupt. Anyway, the meant of the article is good: real excitement, constructive criticism, a bit of valid ripping. I’ll echo the sentiment of disappointment at not being able to interact with things as I would expect. I have also just about experienced the knocking over of Beverage and the subsequent awkward attempt to consume said beverage.

      But I love VR and Destinations anyway. Particularly Valve’s Mars effort. Not because it’s particularly interactive, but because it had a number of interesting info boards, like most of their Destinations output, and because I got a sense of scale and of being there which I haven’t gotten anywhere else.

      • Fiatil says:

        My experience demoing the Vive to people is that this kind of “10 minute eyestrain” is very rare. Out of the 40 people I’ve demo’d the headset to, one has had this problem. It’s a bummer! We haven’t really had time to mess with the IPD setting to see if it helps her, but that is the most commonly reported cause of this.

        Motion sickness is an entirely different animal, and has occurred in exactly no one I’ve demo’d it to if the game is roomscale.

  7. Premium User Badge

    particlese says:

    What I think Valve needs to create for this to take off is a real purpose-built editor. Maybe something like SnapMap or Portal 2’s easy-mode editor, but which lets you easily import a model or browse existing Valve environments/props, then presents an appropriately limited set of UI elements which make it at least vaguely intuitive to mess with boundaries, teleport areas/spots, trigger volumes, and the growing pool of other Destinations-relevant things.

    Right now, it’s just Hammer with a few blanks filled in at the start and some critical combo box options hidden in lists a hundred entries long. And a wiki. I love my full-/lotsa-fat editing programs, but to get my feet wet in VR creation — beyond waving my hands around in Tilt Brush — I’d really rather not rummage through the massive pile of butts, combo boxes, and side-windows that make up Hammer. I’d have the same complaint were it UnrealEd running this specific show. It’s great to have that power avaliable as an option, but for mortals with a little time, creativity, and motivation on their hands to make some destinations, Valve needs to make something attractive or at least more accessible to use.

    I will slowly persist with this Hammer thingy, but I hope — for the sake of VR’s popularity, diversity, etc., or at the very least for the sake of my laziness — that they come up with a purpose-built editor.

  8. JamesButlin says:

    Wow, you guys really don’t get VR do you? Have you tried any of the actually good experiences? The ones that are well designed and don’t make you even the slightest nauseous.

    The last thing the uneducated masses need are people who seem to see VR as a gimmick, rather than the future of gaming..

    Please, when you review VR, be goddamn optimistic. It’s early tech and it’s getting better with every moment. Stop complaining about its shortfalls and focus on its potential.