I've deflected blaster shots using a lightsaber, standing in the shadow of the Millennium Falcon, fought off shambling horrors in the ruins of a city at night, and constructed fantastic contraptions, suspended on a grassy plain in a bright and breezy abstract world. No attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion yet, but VR has taken me to some wild and wonderful places.
And yet, the game that convinced me of the immersive qualities of the Vive's roomscale and touch technology dropped me into a pub, in front of a pool table. Pool Nation, in replicating an experience that I'm familiar with, came closest to fooling my senses completely.
During GDC last week, I spent a lot of time talking to developers who are either working with VR or who are considering working with VR. A lot of the time, VR forces a rethink of basic design principles – how to move within a gamespace, how to interact with objects, how to access menus and inventories – but I hadn't come across anything quite as unusual as Pool Nation's 'table' problem.
“A lot of people have been trying to lean on the table,” says the chap responsible for the VR integration. I can't see him, being Vived up to the eyeballs, but he's just seen me stumble slightly as I line up a shot. He's also correctly guessed that I tried to lean forward, resting my cue and my weight on the table that isn't actually in front of me.
“We're considering having some kind of rest to lean on, letting people take shots from a set position where they have a table or desk to rest on if they choose to play that way.”
That's one solution and it might work as an alternative but I wouldn't want to give up the ability to walk around the table and view the current clusters of balls from various angles.
As you might imagine, there are some issues to overcome. First of all, cramming an entire pub into the rectangle of space that you've managed to comandeer for the Vive's roomscale setup is probably impossible – unless you have an entire pub that you've cleared out so you can play with a Vive in the middle of it. In that case, you're an idiot; put the bar and the taps back in, put the actual pool table somewhere with plenty of cue-space, and you're good to go.
Chances are, if you're playing Pool Nation in VR, the space you've managed to clear for yourself is significantly smaller than a pub. And yet when you put the helmet on, you'll see a pub around you, with people standing by the bar, a dartboard off to one side, and the sound of conversation and merriment all around. It is extremely weird to be in a place that has such an accurate atmosphere and surface credibility, weirder than being on an alien planet or inside Aperture Science's labs lobbing personality cores into the abyss.
You could actually play the game sitting in your chair, or standing on one spot, as the possible table solution mentioned earlier implies. That's because you can teleport around the table by putting your cue away then pressing one of the haptic pads to draw a target. Release and you'll appear in the spot targeted. The reticule sticks to the table by default, placing you in a position ready to line up your shot, using both hands (arms, even) in a way that felt entirely natural to me despite the absence of any actual cue.
Once you're in position you can walk around as far as the chaperone system allows. For those who don't know the lingo, the chaperone system is the in-VR holographic wall that appears when you're close to a wall in the real world. It's superimposed onto the virtual world which means you'll run up against a chaperone wall long before running into the pub's walls. However, with careful use of teleporting you can travel around the entire space rather than sticking to the table.
There are distractions to find. You can pick up many of the objects in the world, from chalk cubes to beer bottles, and it's even be possible to play darts. Pick them up and throw them at the board, simple as that. There might even be a full scoring system at some point, upgrading the pub from set dressing to virtual lobby, a place to play and explore while you wait for a human opponent.
Remarkably, the entire VR demo scene was constructed from scratch rather than using a backdrop included in the original release. Pool Nation's existing locations weren't suitable, partly due to their size but also because they tend toward the bright and garish. They wouldn't have felt real.
I've always wanted grimier, dirtier details in virtual spaces and if they're a necessary component toward the credibility of VR locations, then that's one part of the helmeted future that I'm willing to embrace wholeheartedly.
The most important thing about Pool Nation is that it plays a good game of pool. And it does, despite a couple of problems that related to my own unfamiliarity with the controls as much as the game itself. It's possible, in this early build, to nudge the cue ball when lining up a shot and the game doesn't punish that flagrant breaking of the rules. Presumably that's because it'd be unfair to penalise people simply for struggling to calibrate their own bodies within virtual space and that's a wise decision. But it does speak to the loose nature of the cue control, which is inch-perfect once a shot is locked in place but slightly hindered by the weightlessness of the cue when initially leaning toward the table to find an angle.
But the controls are smart. That 'locking in' of a shot is achieved through a simple button press, affixing the tip of the cue to the ball so that specific angles, spin and power can be applied. And they're all applied by...moving your arms, wrists and fingers almost precisely as you would at a real table.
It's uncanny. So uncanny that I not only leaned on the table, I tried to look at my watch at one point. Leave me in there any longer and I'd be standing at the bar, complaining about how long it takes to get served when you're not a local.
I've played VR games that are more impressive on paper – fantastical, beautiful things – but nothing else convinced me that the Vive can conjure up realistic spaces that feel so close to home.
Oh, and I was rubbish at it, just as I'm rubbish at real pool. In the end I resorted to placing beer bottles all over the table and driving the cue ball through them, then throwing the shards of glass at the people around the bar. Obviously, I'd never do that in the real world but I wondered, out loud, if the VR people would ever respond.
“A lot of people want a barfighting simulator,” my guide laughed. Give it to them, I say. It'll kill time while we're waiting for an online opponent and add even more flavour to the place.