Second Star to the Right: A Journey into Virtual Reality Gaming

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In much the same way that the landscape of the real world is littered with the ruins of fallen civilizations so too is the landscape of gaming history festooned with its own monuments to thwarted ambitions. Every generation of gaming technology has had its fair share of boondoggles, unwise gambits and misguided experiments. From the Sega 32X and the N-Gage all the way up to the Vita and the Wii U, the remains of these conceptual misadventures in digital entertainment could turn any landfill into a mausoleum of gadgets and gizmos. Innovation and experimentation are vital to the ongoing health of the games industry, but it’s a shame to see such vast amounts of R&D time (not to mention money and resources) squandered again and again for the sake of progress or just making a quick buck. When it comes to money-making schemes it would be a mistake to overlook the trio of currently available virtual reality headsets: the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift and PSVR. As the only viable consumer VR options to date, these are some of the most expensive gaming accessories available – not counting diamond-encrusted mice or gold-plated console cases that is.

Virtual reality devices have been the next logical step for interactive entertainment for quite some time, but no one has really taken the idea seriously since a plethora of failed attempts back in the days of yore – a.k.a the early 1990s. However, at this point in time what could once be considered the fly-by-night fantasy of overly ambitious tech-wizards is definitely gaining ground. It’s not just gaming where VR products are making their presence felt. The aeronautics and space exploration industries, medical research and healthcare initiatives, as well as the the automotive and tourist trades among others are all exploring the applications this technology has for causing a quantum leap in revolutionizing client and end-user experience. Cutting edge technology always comes at a price and presently that price is still a huge concern for the vast majority of gamers, with the PSVR and required peripherals together costing as much as a brand new 4K console and the PC set-ups needing rigs that make the HAL 9000 look like a murderous abacus.

This may make such peripherals prohibitively expensive to all but the most dedicated of gamers, but as of late 2017 the PSVR had sold over two million units. The Rift and Vive might have failed to gain as much traction by comparison, but that’s understandable considering they don’t have the brand recognition afforded by the PlayStation name and an established legion of loyal fans who would probably sacrifice their first born children if it meant that the Final Fantasy VII remake released tomorrow. Even though the PC-based set-ups aren’t doing as well as analysts anticipated and shareholders would like, both competitors are still in the running with the Vive Pro supposedly set for release in the first half of 2018 and Oculus having recently established their Start initiative to help budding developers get to grips with the technology. With billions of dollars already invested in it there is no doubt that VR isn’t going to fade into the mists of silicon history any time soon.

Even if you’re willing to set price aside for a moment, it’s still a hard sell as it’s almost impossible to understand just how much of a step forward this technology represents unless you’ve actually experienced it for yourself. Being naturally skeptical and cautious by nature I was under the firm impression that VR was just another flash in the pan, a gimmick, something that was definitely too good to be true. I was certain of it. So certain in fact, that I hadn’t even really given VR much thought at all. That was until my long time friend, project collaborator and co-founder of his own production company graciously loaned me his HTC Vive, which along with the Oculus Rift is being used for their research into VR film making. It wasn’t until I’d spent some time with the technology and experienced what it was capable of with my very own eyes that I finally came to understand that as far as home entertainment is concerned, virtual reality is literally a game changer.

It’s more than fitting that my conversion from skeptic to supporter began with a game that was guaranteed to take me out of this world. Elite Dangerous developed by Cambridge-based (UK) company Frontier Developments was originally crowdfunded as the third proposed sequel to the 1984 BBC Micro classic but in reality it’s more of a spiritual successor. It’s a vast and complicated game that rewards patience and persistence with exponentially increasing mission payouts as well as the ability to buy ships ranging in size from nimble fighters all the way up to mighty warships. Players can outfit their vessel of choice for piracy, combat duty, cargo and passenger transportation, as well as mining and exploration all in a to-scale model of the entire Milky Way galaxy. It’s a beautiful game in and of itself, and is one the most captivating space simulations, being that it is actually a proper game rather than just an almost 200 million dollar tech demo like the current iteration of Star Citizen. If you’ve ever looked up at the night sky and dreamed of what might be waiting for you out between the stars, then at present the closest you’re ever likely to get to realizing that dream is to play Frontier’s lovingly crafted contribution to the Elite series.

From the moment you boot-up the game and take your first glances around the cockpit, with holographic HUD elements popping up in response to your head movements, the true appeal of VR is immediately apparent. Immersion is an industry buzz word so overused that it’s almost meaningless, that is until you put on a VR headset. Once you cross that threshold it’s entirely possible that you may never want to return. Seeing fractured asteroids and gigantic space stations like silver fortresses gracefully revolving seemingly close enough to touch, or watching planets glimmer like precious gems set in a tapestry of pristine black velvet, or being able to look out of your cockpit canopy and see the swirling vortices of hyperspace warp and twist around you, as if you’re being hurled through every oil painting set on canvas all at once, legitimately made me gasp in awe the first time and still makes me gawp in wonder even after just shy of 80 hours played.

Speaking of interplanetary experiences, I played and adored 2016’s Doom for it’s fresh spin on a classic franchise. Bethesda and id Sofware’s bold new entry in the series managed to balance slickly updated and old-school mechanics with the same pulse-pounding gameplay that made the original outings some of the gaming highlights of my youth. As much as I loved it however, nothing had quite prepared me for exactly how hard my adrenal glands were going to be milked for every precious drop of epinephrine they could produce when I went through Doom VFR. Beyond the hastily but carefully ported versions of Fallout 4 and Skryim (which I’ve yet to play but have watched closely) this is the most technically accomplished VR game on offer that I’ve played thus far. I’m not a massive fan of games that feature visceral violence just for the sake of it. For example, the original God of War trilogy failed to appeal to me even as a young man, in the main because it glorified excessive violence and bloodshed. Moralizing aside though there are some games that just manage to get away with it and the Doom series includes most of them.

I’ll admit that I’ve never exactly wanted to take the place of any of the characters caught up in the reality-warping madness that transpires in any of these games, but Doom VFR makes participating in the events on the demon-riddled UAC complex on Mars not exactly a joy…but more like a guilty pleasure. Rather than a full port of the 2016 release it’s a custom-built game replete with a stunning macabre cyber-gothic aesthetic and bone-rattling soundtrack. It clocks in at the four to five hour mark, which is just about perfect as any longer than that and your eyes…or your heart might just give out under the strain. It’s by no means a perfect game, with the rapidity of movement necessitated by the frenetic combat resulting in a tendency to wander out of the designated play space and the attendant controller responsiveness issues. Once you get used to it though you learn to restrain yourself and have no difficulties elegantly teleporting around rooms, making use of available cover and differing elevations to deftly dispatch all manner of demonic foes.

But Doom is far from being the only interesting title available. In 2011 Rockstar released L.A. Noire which at the time was lauded for its use of groundbreaking MotionScan technology to accurately render human facial movements down to the tiniest of tics to make it possible to distinguish guilt or innocence just by interpreting their expressions. Loosely inspired by the works of crime writer James Ellroy, the game had you solve a series of crimes in 1940s Los Angeles, all of which were tied together in a tangled web of murder, greed and lust. L.A Noire: The VR Case Files is not quite as much of an accomplishment as the game it’s based on, and the facial expressions once formerly so impressive now more often than not come across as unintentionally hilarious, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience set in an environment that’s more realistic than most currently featured in VR games.

That’s a brave move considering that one of the main selling points of the technology is its ability to take you out of conventional settings and into fantastic or bizarre realms. It’s amazing just how tactile the experience feels, as even though you know you’re not actually in the game world it gives the strong impression of what it’s like to be at a crime scene, finding and examining objects for clues to help you piece together a series of events before moving on to question witnesses and interrogate suspects to establish the guilty party. The end result is a compact but compelling experience which proves that VR games don’t all have to be walking simulators, or rely on interactive puzzles and basic point-and-shoot systems to be interesting and entertaining. It will certainly be interesting to see what Rockstar and other AAA developers are able to do with the VR format later down the line.

That’s just a few of the many, many standout offerings available but at present it’s hard to say that a lot of the games being released can qualify as stand-alone titles. Given that the mass market technology is in its relative infancy and developers are still learning how to make the most of its capabilities, the majority of titles available are essentially works in progress and have only received soft launches via early access. At least that’s the case with most of the titles on Steam. Regardless of their quality, even the more polished games are more akin to extended demos and are most accurately compared to the kind of game excerpts that used to be bundled with monthly magazines back when I was a teenager.

Yet considering that I’m still adapting to the physical requirements of using the new format I’m somewhat thankful the games are relatively bite-sized when compared to the type of AAA games we’ve all come to know and love. It’s hard to imagine being able to enjoy playing a game like Assassin’s Creed Origins for the 50 hours it took me to complete the main storyline using a VR headset, at least not while the resolution is still so low. Although the upcoming Discovery Tour mode for Ubisoft’s franchise-saving game could be the perfect opportunity for them to test the waters for a more substantial move into truly large scale VR gaming. There are some more feature complete titles available at entry level prices, and we’re still a long way off from having a proper stable of industry standard AAA games, but with games like the ones mentioned above already setting an incredibly high bar, that time is not far off.

No matter how amazing VR gaming is, even at this early stage, it’s plain to see that it is not without its share of problems. Motion sickness is a serious issue reported by many users, one that renders them essentially unable to participate in any experience that this new medium has to offer. It’s especially evident in games that use pseudo-physical locomotion rather than teleportation methods of traversal. It hasn’t as of yet been an issue for me (except when trying to walk in L.A Noire) but I can certainly sympathize with those who are more seriously affected. Whilst playing through the early stages of Stonepunk Studios’ Primordian I found that overcoming it is a matter of training your mind to realize that your body isn’t actually moving, and that the sensation is just the product of a perceptual aberration resulting from the incongruity between physically standing still and seeing a moving image. Admittedly playing a Jedi mind trick on yourself is a bit more effort than a lot of people would probably be willing to make just to play a game, especially considering the hundreds of awesome titles on current gen platforms that can be enjoyed without even a hint of discomfort.

Space requirements are also likely to be an inconvenience for home users. Very few of us are able to reserve a dedicated space large enough for full room-scale play, myself included as my gaming space also happens to be my bedroom. The need for a large open area will not be a problem for anyone looking to set up virtual reality arcades as they will obviously be able to tailor the facilities to their business needs. The PSVR is more flexible in this regard as given its obvious ties to the console, the majority of its titles feature full functionality whether you’re sitting on the couch or stood up and spinning around like a berserk ballerina. For the rest of us however the higher end PC-based Vive and Rift do present a limitation on the kind of games that can be played. Consequently this directly impacts the range of experiences that a VR headset can provide as you might be restricted to games that function exclusively in a standard seated position. But if you don’t mind the possibility of bumping controllers against overhead lamps or stumbling over soft furnishings then that’s a moot point.

There are also some minor technical kinks that still need to be worked out as well, with tracking dropouts and limited resolutions being the most apparent and at times off-putting. It can be incredibly frustrating to be in the middle of a fight, whether with fists or firearms, only to step outside of the designated play space and lose sight of what’s really going on because the headset has shifted a few too many inches out of view, or to have controllers no longer respond because the motion sensors can’t quite get a direct line of sight on them. I’ve only encountered issues like that a few times so it’s not like it’s a constant problem but it is more than a little annoying when it happens, especially since controllers used in conventional gaming have no such issues.

I find myself in an odd position (sometimes IRL depending on combat and traversal within each title) when it comes to VR gaming. As a lifelong gamer I’m eager to embrace this new technology in a way that I never really have been before. For me gaming has always been a physically static experience beyond outbursts of controller-chucking rage or button-mashing exuberance, so having to stand up and move around to sometimes literally get into the swing of things is something I’m still in the process of adapting to. The extra effort and initial period of discomfort are things I’m willing to put up with as the rewards if the gaming sensations are more than worth it. Far from being a pointless gimmick as I originally expected, virtual reality has made me excited for the actual experience of playing games in a way that I’ve not really felt before, outside of the anticipation of trying a new entry in a beloved series or getting to grips with a new IP.

It’s the same genuine child-like delight that has a similar allure to back when I was playing Pokemon Go and actively looked forward to my morning walk to catch the bus to work. Watching some developer-guided let’s plays of VR games, one thing that a lot of them have in common is the repeated gleeful laughter of the player as they settle into the experience and start unashamedly enjoying themselves. How often these days can you honestly say that you feel such pure joy when playing a game? Not often I bet. Setting all other factors aside that’s a huge plus point in and of itself, but I’m very much aware that virtual reality is definitely not something for everyone.

If you’re serious about trying out new things and going beyond your gaming comfort zone then I wholeheartedly suggest that you give it serious consideration as not only is there an already tantalizing catalog of games to play, but going forward into 2018 and beyond with titles like Starchild VR, Ark Park, and Transference to name just a few in the cards, it’s a promising new dimension of gaming that genuinely has to be seen to be believed.

Chris is a Cambridge, UK based freelance writer and reviewer. A graduate of English Literature from Goldsmiths College in London he has been composing poetry and prose for most of his life. More than partial to real ale/craft beer and a general fan of sci-fi and fantasy. He first started gaming on a borrowed Mega Drive as a child and has been a passionate enthusiast of the hobby and art form ever since. Never afraid to speak his mind he always aims to tell the unvarnished truth about a game. Favourite genres: RPGs, action adventure and MMOs. Least favourite genre: anything EA Sports related (they’re the same games every year!)

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