You couldn’t have possibly missed it the last few years; virtual reality is the future. But is it also gaming’s future? We’ve been playing around with it, and we’re not convinced just yet.
29-06-2016 - by Thijs Kaagman
When it comes to gaming, there’s three big players in the virtual reality world. First off there’s the Oculus Rift, the first big VR-headset that got funded through Kickstarter. Then there’s the HTC Vive, which is specifically targeted at the PC gaming market through Steam. Lastly; the PlayStation VR, made by Sony themselves, will release later this year.
Let’s start off by saying I have close to no experience with the Oculus Rift. I used it on a Game of Thrones exhibition to get a virtual tour on the Wall once, but I haven’t played any games with it. I have played with the Vive and PS VR though, and neither of them have convinced me to buy one for myself just yet.
A few weeks ago, our HTC Vive pre-order arrived in the office. We spent an afternoon setting it up in our gaming room and had great fun playing around with it. But setting it up is no easy task. There’s two sensors that you have to set up diagonally 5 meters away from each other, by hanging them on your ceiling. After connecting the wireless controllers, you then have to map out a square area in your room (where the sensors are two of the opposing corners), which will be your play area. Lastly there’s the headset itself, that has a bunch of cables that have to be connected to your computer in various ways.
Once you get it going, it’s good fun. You can actually walk around in the area you’ve set up, and the game will display a grid once you get too close to the edge. This almost prevents you from running into your furniture (that will still happen). The wireless controllers are brilliant. They have enough buttons to provide you with full control over your computer, both within and outside of the games, and the haptic feedback on the touchpads works great. There’s also a camera at the front of your headset, so you can pause your game and look at what’s happening in your environment without taking it off.
The PlayStation VR hardware still wins though, and that’s mostly because it’s really comfortable. It’s very easy to adjust and it doesn’t involve Velcro strips like the Vive. But more importantly, with the Vive you strap the actual VR glasses (the big block in the front) to your face, where you can easily adjust the PS VR in a way that the glasses don’t even touch your face. There’s a wide band on your forehead, a smaller one on the back of your head, and the glasses sort of hover in front of you instead of resting on your forehead and nose. This prevents red marks on your face, but more importantly prevents it from turning into a miniature steam room strapped to your eyes.
The thing with both headsets is; they’re a hassle to put on. You need both hands to put the headset on, after which you’re as good as blind. But you’ll still need to put on your headphones, after which you’re deaf. And then you need to locate the controller(s) to actually be able to start playing a game. You almost need an assistant to set the whole thing up.
So let’s talk about the games, because that is where they are going this battle for us gamers, right? Well, then a lot still has to happen. We have played the PlayStation VR on a preview event in Amsterdam and they showed us games from last year’s E3. That means Batman and Resident Evil weren’t there, but there was this thing called Headmasters (where you had to headbutt footballs), London Heist and Battle Zone, which looked like World of Tanks meets TRON.
For the HTC Vive an impressive library of games is already available on Steam. The problem with that platform right now is; you’re not going to put hours into these games. As I’ve said before, we’ve had some great fun playing around with the Vive. During our lunchbreaks we would play a game of Fruit Ninja or try the bow and arrow game in Valve’s The Lab. But that’s about it. And to be honest, even that quickly wore off after two or three weeks. I was pretty enthousiastic about it after my first session (as you can see in the Unboxing video below), but by now we’re back to playing a match in Rocket League or Overwatch during those lunchbreaks.
The demo’s during the PlayStation VR event didn’t manage to impress me either. I played a tutorial match in Battle Zone, a very generic game where you drive a small tank around and shoot at other tanks. I played with a normal PlayStation controller, which allowed me to drive around and aim my gun separately. But of course I could also look around to see what was happening around me. So that’s three separate movements for your eyes and brains to register, while in reality you’re sitting in a chair in your living room. I was feeling a bit nauseous after the tutorial match, so I handed the VR set to my colleague.
And that’s my main issue with VR right now. When I play a videogame, I do that to relax after a day’s work. I want to sit on my couch or at my desk and unwind. And playing a game in VR is not relaxing at all. The simple games like Fruit Ninja are good fun, but like its mobile equivalent you probably won’t play it longer than 10 minutes on end. And games that do provide impressive gameplay are probably too intense to play for longer periods.
The whole VR business really feels like it’s in its early days. These are the first commercially available headsets and there’s a lot of room for improvement. And that’s okay! Who knows where we’ll be five years from now? But unless you really want to be one of the early adopters, as a gamer I don't see much reason to buy one for myself.