I've already yammered about the design and capabilities of the Oculus Touch motion controller hardware itself, and now it's time to talk software. Around 50 Touch-enabled VR games and apps launched this week - more than I can feasibly hope to look at, but I've been able to finger-gun and swipe and prod in enough of 'em to give you a clear sense of what this whole experience is like right now for games and software, and whether the Touch is generally a goer or not.
I've broken this into capsule 'reviews' of several games and apps, but really it's one longform discussion of what the Touch controllers can do by looking at different applications thereof.
How to navigate this feature - use the arrows or cursor keys to skip back and forth between pages. And in the interests of full disclosure, some of these screenshots are marketing materials, as grabbing one's own screens in a VR game is hard enough at the best times, but I also found that many of the ones I did take came out all-black. I would pay for a voice-controlled screenshot app or a magic button that sticks onto a VR controller.
Oculus First Contact
This is almost certainly the first hoojum you'll try on your new doohickeys, as it also constitutes the tutorial. Starring a cutesy robot that strongly resembles something you saw in a TV advert and begged your parents for in the mid-80s, it's clearly an extremely expensive short-form endeavour, working hard to conjure awe and sell the concept of using your hands in VR.
There are several minigames in there, loaded by physically inserting cartridges into a faux-retro computer - a conceit shared by several Touch launch titles, suggesting either a style mandate from ZuckHQ or that too many designers simply share the same sensibilities. You then get to launch pullstring rocket toys, play with a child's rattle and have magical hologram butterflies land on your outstretched finger or palm. The latter's lovely, the former two are openly patronising - "congratulations on spending the best part of £800 on advance technology - now you get to pretend to be a two-year-old." There's a gun too, because there's always a gun, but I'll talk more about shootability in later entries.
The single best part of First Contact is a concept it then drops like a hot potato, and one that I've yet to see anything else use. When the robot first comes online, it takes one look at you and flees in horror. It peeks out from behind a corner, doing its best Johnny Number Five impression, and won't come out until you wave at it.
It's an instinctive action, is waving. On the Vive wands, it'd be all clenched-fisted, the game aping a position your hand is not truly on. On the Touch, you raise your fingers and wave. The bot cheers up, waves back and comes over to you. It's delightful.
The Touch can also read and replicate pointing and thumbs-up. Hell, it could probably pull off a high-five or a fist-bump. Human interactions with virtual entities. Pair this with some Amazon Echo-style speech recognition and this stuff can really go somewhere. But no, babies' rattles and laserguns it is.
First Contact hints at where VR experiences could go, and it's a beautiful scene to boot, but then gets stranded on the rocks of pretend toys.
This is Riftbook's riposte to the mighty Tilt Brush on Vive - a VR air-painting/sculpting tool whose results are limited only by your imagination, patience and eyestrain.
Medium is both superior and inferior to Tilt Brush. It has more features and fine control, and explores sculpture as well as painting. Moreover, the essential 'grab' function of the Touch (clench your fist to activate the side trigger, thus taking hold of an in-game object - this is a mainstay of many Touch titles) enables you to take your creations in the hand and move them around in front of you. Good both for admiring what you've made and for reaching the other side of it in order to paint or model it. You get to touch it and move it, and even throw it, whereas in Tilt Brush all you can do is paint on the sky then walk around it. There is a sense of tactility here, albeit with the lurking dissonance of never physically feeling the thing in your hands.
However, it falls down on presentation. Whereas first experiences in Tilt Brush feel like Actual Magic - painting colours in the air as if with neon mega-sparklers - here you feel as though you're in an application from the off. The background is a grid, the interface is a bit Paint Shop Pro, and the colours don't have that otherwordly lightshow effect. You can get it closer to that by picking the right tools and hues, but out of the box this doesn't have Tilt Brush's sense of wonder - instead it sort of hits you hard with an awareness that making something good will require a ton of time and patience.
Ultimately, Medium allows significantly more variety and intricacy of creation than Tilt Brush, as well as actual interaction with whatever you make, but if you just want to have a lovely time with your new toys, it can't hold a candle to its Vive rival.
Now we're into the contents of the £60 pack known as the Oculus Touch Launch Bundle. I've written about Crytek's rockclimbing game The Climb before (it's also available on its own), and how remarkably physical it is even on a gamepad, so won't repeat it all. Clearly though, that side of it ramps up enormously with Touchus, as now you're physically moving your hands and doing the ol' squeeze-grab to take hold of ledges.
It's very, very natural, with the exception of some of the more extreme up'n'sideways lunges. It can map your hands and head but not really your body, and as such it can sometimes be tricky to tell just exactly how and where you're moving across the rockface. Also, I kept punching my lampshade by mistake.
The Touchus element I actually like less than the gamepad version is 'chalking' (whereby you apply chalk to your sweaty mitts in order to help you to hold onto grips for longer). On gamepad, you hold down a button for a few seconds to make this happen, but on Touchus you have to hold down the side trigger and vigorously shake the controller, which is far more disassociated from the on-screen act of gentle rubbing than pressing and waiting is.
I don't know whether this is simply a misjudged interface decision or speaks to the ultimate limitations on the controller - i.e. even though it can map each hand into three different zones (index finger, thumb, the other three fingers treated as one) it's still not able to replicate many gestures. Time will tell.
Another of the five Touch launch bundle offerings (also available on its own), and easily the least interesting as far as I'm concerned. It's a graffiti sim, handicapped right out of the gates by the far more capable and versatile paint/sculpture tool Oculus Medium coming free with the Touchus. Ah, but Medium isn't styled like 90s vandalism, is it?
Well, neither's Kingspray, not really. Sure, you get garage door and schoolbuses and whatnot to tag, and can set your boombox to play disappointingly quiet online radio stations, but it all feels so very sterile. No danger, no competition with rivals, not even running out of paint and having to adapt.
In fairness, it is trying to replicate a very specific form of artistry not general painting, and that is here - the angle you have to hold the can at, the importance of distance and pressure, changing nozzles, creating something careful rather than crude. It's done the work here and, if you're into that scene, you'll probably pull far more from Kingspray than I did.
Space Pirate Trainer
It's been available on Vive since the get-go, and now joins the Oculus Touch launch bundle (as well as being available for individual purchase on either the Oculus store or Steam). It's a straight-up shooty game, but vaguely in a shmup vein - only you have to physically move to dodge your enemies' blasts.
It's on the bland side, using an aesthetic that seems straight out of early-90s videogame advertising but never goes full-force silly. As a game, it's... fine. You point your controllers and pull the trigger to shoot, with the option of moving a hand to your back to 'swap' a weapon for another. Exactly the same as the Vive, in other words - there's no use of the Touch's finger-mapping here. Another area in which it's exactly the same as the Vive is that this is definitely doing 'room-scale.' Not in quite so large an area as the Vive's largest, no, but you're definitely dancing around the place. More on that side of the Touchus shortly, though.
SPT also strengthens my feeling that the Touch is a superior controller to the Vive wands on every level - aiming is that little bit more accurate due to the smaller, lighter controller and the lack of much protrusion beyond the end of your knuckles or fingers. My shooting felt more accurate here, less haunted by the ghost of the Wii - but even so, there isn't a huge amount in it really.
I Expect You To Die
Again part of the launch bundle, and also available on its own. This isn't anything like as funny as it thinks it is, and I hit a few too many stumbling block puzzles that resulted in repetition of long sections due to the absence of a sensible checkpoint system. However, it's a lovely idea executed with panache and clever use of the controllers.
Here's the conceit: you're a secret agent, in the early Bond/Austin Powers paradigm. You've got to use silly technology to survive silly traps. Loading gas grenades into a car's hidden rocket launcher, lighting dynamite with a cigar, defusing bombs by cutting the red wire, that sort of thing. It's a lot of fun, and has you constantly reaching for this, grabbing that, throwing that, cutting that or shooting that. All done from a seated position too, thanks to a 'telekinetic implant' that lets you grab things from far away.
The scope's impressive and it's pleasingly tactile - you're always grabbing and maneuvering stuff, including turning a steering wheel with two clenched hands. You also get to poke many big chunky buttons with a pointed index finger. Yes, it would all be possible on the Vive too, but there is so much to be said for 'holding' and 'pointing' as opposed to 'glued to the end of a stick' or 'prodding with a plastic donut'.
Like I say, it suffers for flow a bit - badly needs regular checkpoints, plus I'm going to have to try and lookup some solutions online - but it's lavish and silly and fun, if not a million miles away from what Job Simulator does, but with just that little bit more purpose and requirement for thought and precision in addition to physics pratfalls.
The final part of the Touch launch bundle, also available on its own, and the crown jewel not just of the bundle, not just of all of the Touch software I've played so far, but of all VR software I've played so far (with the possible exception of Tilt Brush). I'm going to write about slo-mo first person shooter SUPERHOT VR in its own piece, because it bloody well deserves it, so will be brief here. In short though: this is a redemptive VR game.
So many are gimmicky or reliant on short-lived awe or on physics puzzle farce or are essentially just doing what the Wii already did a decade ago. SUPERHOT, though, feels like a true-blue, full-fat virtual reality game. Full-body movement, ducking and diving and grabbing and punching and throwing and shooting.
Here's the thing about SUPERHOT VR. In most VR games, you feel clumsy, even foolish - the beginnings of interaction in a virtual space in the way you can in a real space, but hampered by awkwardness and butter-fingers. In SUPERHOT, you feel cool. Cool as fuck.
You punch the nearest guy in the face, grabbing his slo-mo falling shotgun as he crumples. With your other hand, you scoop up a bottle from the table to your left. You hurl this at the guy coming out the doorway just beyond it, while simultaneously firing at the two coming from the alley ahead. The shot only hits one of them. You swear at the inefficiency then throw the expended shotgun at the remaining man.
Four men dead. Took as many seconds. Took as many movements. One swift, brutal dance, doing the John Woo thing, you in that space, a bulletime superhero. Magnificent.
Again, would work well enough on Vive too, but you'll lose grabbing and most of all curling your hand into a fist with which you then punch a foe's glass skull full-force. Or, in my case, the four-foot-high cactus I keep near my desk. Ouchy. Try playing this and then claiming the Rift doesn't do roomscale, I dare you.
Serious Sam VR: The Last Hope
Another game I've written about previously. I don't have much new to add, other than to say that the experience translates from Vive to Rift without issue, and if anything the smaller, lighter, stick-free controllers offer a tiny degree of extra precision.
This remains a glorious, glorious take on lightgun games, writ at a comically colossal scale. Plant your feet to the ground, spray the world with dual-wielded bullets and survive impossibly large waves of enemies and titanic bosses. This. Is. Videogames.
It's throwback and dumb as a hatful of dicks, but it's the exact opposite of being transported to a brand new reality, but it is a most excellent party that will help you to feel a whole lot better about your VR hardware if you're in the 'is this it?' doldrums I know I experienced not long after initial launch.
theBlu: Season 1
The former Vive exclusive brings its beautiful fishspotting to the competition. There is nothing specifically Touchy about it - as on Vive, it barely even uses the controllers even though it requires them - but if you want to definitely demonstrate that the Rift can do roomscale VR too, this should be your first port of call.
You don't do much in theBlu. You just wander around a trio of beautiful undersea environments, occasionally flicking away fish, turning a torch on or being surprised by AAAH GIANT WHALE. For example:
It's long been the Vive's benchmark for AWE + WALKING, and that translates perfectly well to the Rift. It's the second sensor included with the controllers that does it, rather than the controllers themselves. I'm not sure it can cover quite the distance that the Vive's lighthouses can, but it's certainly good enough for me and my tiny room.
There isn't anything like enough of theBlu and not being able to actually do anything means jaws slide back into place after a time, but it feels like a VR essential, even if only to try and justify your pricey hardware purchase to yourself.
Surgeon Simulator: Experience Reality
As a concept/demo, this has been kicking around since Oculus devkit days, but as of this week gets itself a full release on consumer hardware. As with its subtitle-free forbear, this is basically Operation: the videogame, only infinitely more sadistic. That's taken to an extreme in VR, where you're physically picking up a hammer and smashing up a ribcage, or sawing away at organs. The OR's also full of buttons to push and lights to sway and unconscious faces to slap. It's hilarious and horrible, though if you've played the original the essential joke is running out of gas.
In terms of Touch, it works to use the whole hand - for instance, you can't even pick anything up unless you clench with the fingers and clamp down with the thumb. There's also the ol' pokey button thing, which is fast become a Touch standard.
I won't go so far as to say its gestures are natural, because Surgeon Simulator's raison d'etre is to make everything awkward and buffoonish, but again it's the difference between 'I am holding something' and 'my closed hand operates like a big magnet'. This one'll keep you busy, so long as you're still on board with laughing at murder via medical malpractice.
Not a Touch exclusive - it just launched for Vive as well - but as one of the second wave of motion-controlled VR shooters it's a suitable touchbed for Oculus' latest gizmo. It's a zombie shooter, comboing teleportation-led controls (in the Touch's case, using the thumbsticks to point where you want to be) with free aim guns. There's a snarky voiceover which makes the theme a little less vanilla than it otherwise would be, and a vaguely sim-ish reload system that has you manually ejecting spent cartridges and pulling new ones from your belt. It's not bad - it's glossy, doesn't feel as though it's quite as many steps behind non-VR-based shooters as many of its peers do, and the protracted, precise nature of reloading introduces real tension into those moments when your clip runs dry - very different from simply pressing a button to sort it out for you.
It lacks the sheer exuberance of Serious Sam and the smart agility of Superhot though, so feels somewhat redundant if you have either of those.
Hopefully though, it's a sign that the coming wave of VR games isn't quite as gimmicky and light as the first wave was. Now that the two main headsets have reached damn-near parity, perhaps the industry can knuckle down on standards and take this thing to new places instead of getting caught on the rocks of minigames and wacky physics.
Oculus Sports VR
Free to Touch owners for now, this is Oculus trying to have its own Wii sports. I think it stumbles right out of the gate by being so US centric - Wrong Football, Baseball, Hockey and Basketball are the options, and it doesn't really bother to explain the rules if you don't already know 'em. These are fairly statty, precise takes on their sports, not the pop drop-in of the Wii, so don't expect to be giggling from the off. It's also generally only replicating elements of the sports in question, as this one doesn't have you moving about the place - you're either in situ swatting or throwing, or disorientatingly jumping between players. The controls are nicely responsive, but otherwise I rather think that VR hinders rather than helps this, if I'm honest.
It's clearly been an expensive development - it even has ultimately pointless narrative skits hung around it, as well as league modes - and it's not a bad demo for the capabilities of the Touch, but it feels like we're still a long way off getting the definitive VR sports game.
Oculus Touch Review Conclusions
I like 'em a lot - again, more than the Vive controllers, which prior to this I considered to be the gold standard in VR input devices. It's not simply that the Touchus enables a handful of gestures such as waving, pointing, thumbs up and gripping - in addition to these things it replicates the main functions and hand-feel of a decent gamepad, including the all-important twin thumbsticks. I never quite got on with the Vive wands' button layout, and they effectively forbid playing games 'normally' - as such, the Touch is a whole lot more versatile.
It also bumps up my sense of being in the game, because there's this ghost image of my hand that reflects some of its movements and (despite knuckleduster appearances) not actually any plastic in the way of me and the in-game thing I'm bothering. It's not full finger movement, no, but enough that I feel like it's me doing stuff as opposed to just bumping a rod into a phantom object.
I think there's a whole lot more to do be done with gestures, but right now the focus is inevitably on action, spectacle and to a lesser extent creation. I hope someone will pick up this ball and run with it soon. Clearly, the dream is VR hardware that can simply read our hand movements without any kind of controller being required, but that's a way off, no doubt (RIP, Kinect).
I like the Touch more as a piece of hardware, too. The Vive wands have a certain sci-fi cool, but they seem so big and cumbersome compared to these dainty little slip-on things. I find this a boon to aim as well as comfort and how much of my desk is taken up by black plastic.
Couple that with the Rift's more minor boons, such as auto-detecting when the headset is removed, reduced cabling and built in headphones, and the Vive is suddenly starting to lag behind. Because, you see, the Rift can now do roomscale games. In, as far as I can tell, slightly smaller spaces (something I'm actually grateful for), but mostly it's that they don't seem to be talking it that way. Add in the second sensor and suddenly you move from sitting and standing to walking and running and jumping. And now I'm back to rethinking my room layout all over again.
Of course, the Touch is an extra cost on top of a pricey headset that I suspect many purchasers felt a bit underwhelmed by after initial awe, which is likely to make it a harder sell than an everything-all-at-once Vive kit. With Touch in the picture the total cost is close enough to equal, though. I come down on the side of Oculus.
The major caveat to that is Steam and Oculus Home. Most of the best Rift stuff is locked into its under-developed proprietary storefront, and of course you lose all the social bells and whistles of Steam. It's not simply the irritations of a second client - it's stuff like the complete lack of anything other than a basic product page for a game, so a fair bit of legwork is required simply to work out what a game actually is and whether it's any good.
Increasingly, and especially now Touchus is in play, many Steam VR games now support Rift also though, so it may even out in time. Perhaps eventually Oculus will give up on 'exclusives' and we'll be able to get anything anywhere, which would be the ideal.
As for VR as a whole, I still don't feel it's where it needs to be. The picture is fuzzy and the scenes often simple, the wires are cumbersome and my head and eyes are always messed up for a while after anything more than a token session. Factor in the cost too and there's no escaping that we're still in the realm of the early adopter. The Touch is a vital upgrade if you have a Rift already, but for anyone else I don't believe that now is the time to jump aboard the VR train.
That said, Superhot... More on which soon.