For over 30 years gamers have relied on trailers and TV commercials to get a visual understanding of a game before its release. Then along came demos, which gave gamers a small taste of what's to come in terms of game play. Demos have morphed into “betas” and now players have access to sometimes hours of footage before a game's release. But with the dawning of mainstream virtual reality you can throw all of that away. None of it does a VR game justice. Until you actually try VR it's nearly impossible to wrap your head around the experience. Which is why as we draw ever closer to the launch of Playstation VR, the most accessible of all the VR options, it's imperative for Sony to get these headsets in the hands of consumers as soon as possible. Even us here at the Tower of Babble had yet to try VR until this week and could only speculate on its future based off what we’ve heard from industry insiders. But that’s all changed now that Sony has rolled into town to demo PSVR to anyone and everyone who wants to try it. They set themselves up at the local mall with a fancy kiosk and some comfy couches and proceeded to showcase what the future of VR was all about… kind of.
The mall demo offered the choice of five different experiences of varying complexity. From the experiential “Ocean Decent”, which didn’t even use a controller, all the way up to “Eve Valkyrie” and “Super Hypercube” which required more dexterity and traditional control schemes. The others being "Battle Zone" and "Headmaster". Even though I had yet to try any of these hands-on I had heard enough about each of the offerings going in that I had some idea of what to expect.
My first demo was called “Battle Zone” (I was supposed to try Eve first but I guess they already had this one loaded up and ready to go), a VR take on the classic arcade style tank combat games, that took place in a Tron-esque Polygonal world. Being my first ever VR game it was fun being able to look around the cockpit but the novelty wore off quickly. What really struck me about “Battle Zone” was that even though I felt like I was physically inside the cockpit of the tank, the actual game play wasn't very engaging. It was initially fun to strafe left while peeking with my head to check my right flank but that quickly wore off after I realized how precise the in-game radar was. The idea of having a super precise radar defeated the purpose of being able to control the tank and look around freely at the same time, something novel that only VR can really allow. The tank could only shoot in whatever the direction it was facing, so spotting an enemy on your right-hand side was no different that seeing that same enemy tank on your radar, which required no actual movement of the head, since you had to turn the tank to face that direction regardless. Overall I wasn't blown away by my first VR experience. Having been listening to people hype up VR for the last year probably didn't help though. My expectations were through the roof and there was almost nowhere to go but down. All that being said however, in my mind, VR is supposed to offer something new, not just put you in the cockpit of recycled game ideas.
As I waited in line for my second experience I had to decide if I should hop back in the cockpit again, this time in “Eve Valkyrie” (my original choice), or try something completely different in “Super Hypercube”. I’m glad I went with the latter because it was easily the most impressive demo I saw. The game is simple, manipulate a geometric shape to fit through a space in a wall coming up behind it (Or as the Playstation rep called it; 3D Tetris). This is where VR really shines. By being able to look over and around this blocky shape you're able to determine which way it needs to be flipped and rotated to fit the approaching hole. Although initially easy it becomes more and more challenging as you progress through the levels until you can't even see the approaching hole unless you move your head to look around the shape in front of you. This was really the only thing I played that felt like a fully functional experience, which might be why it stood out as my favourite. But that certainly wasn't the only reason; “Super Hypercube” offered something that was innovative. Something that made you think about a three-dimensional space in a new way. It took a simple idea and used the power of VR to turn it into a fun yet challenging experience that left me wanting more.
Finally, I played “Eve Valkyrie”. Which somehow was the most disappointing of all my VR experiences. I was back in a cockpit which had the cool novelty of being able to look down and see “your own” body. No longer confined to ground based combat, like in “Battle Zone”, I was able to move in any direction I wanted. Which meant this game had the greatest chance of giving me the much talked about “VR sickness”, or as most people call it; motion sickness. And although I didn't really experience any of that I certainly understood where it might come from. As I tried a barrel-roll the disconnect between my eyes and body became apparent. That being said, I get the impression that spending a few hours inside the headset might help train your brain to avoid future problems. Or it might make it worse. Who knows! I didn't really get enough time with anything to really get a good handle on it. As far as “Eve” is concerned though, it was a competent shooter with surprisingly poor visuals that suffered from the same disorienting mess that most space combat games tend to have when there’s no distinct “down” direction. That being said, being to look around freely made tracking enemy ships much easier than your typical dogfight.
At the end of the day I came away from my first VR experiences with mixed feelings. Although I know it's still early I was hoping for a bit more from this fledgling gaming frontier. I loved the simple yet somehow complex “Super Hypercube” but was underwhelmed by the games that simply put me inside a cockpit. Based off my brief time with VR I get the impression that the titles that will really start to reshape the way we think about games will need to be built ground up for VR and take some “outside of the box” thinking by developers. It won't be as easy as putting someone in the driver's seat of vehicle A, B or C, although those games will certainly have their place, it’ll be games we haven't even imagined yet. THAT is what excites me about the future of VR