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The virtual worlds that keep us coming back to the HTC Vive

April 6, 2016 12:09 PM
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The virtual worlds that keep us coming back to the HTC Vive

Eight launch games to check out on your simulated holodeck.

Typically, the excitement for a new game hardware launch is tempered by a lineup of rushed, undercooked games. Devs throw all kinds of stuff at the wall while coming to grips with new hardware—and that’s only worse when it looks like the system hinges on a “gimmick,” like the Wii or the Kinect.

That said, the HTC Vive has one of the most diverse and satisfying selections of launch software we've ever seen. Sure, the selection of more than 100 games listed with “VR Support” on Steam includes plenty of instantly forgettable clunkers, nearly unplayable experiments, and demos that need another coat of polish. But after trying our hands at dozens of VR titles in recent weeks, we can heartily recommend all eight of these games that really highlight the appealing new kinds of experiences that are possible with full, room-scale virtual reality and accurate head and hand-tracking.

These are the games that have kept us eagerly coming back to the Vive's simulated holodeck again and again on the review hardware, and we'll keep coming back to these games in the weeks to come. And if you're looking for compelling non-gaming content, check out our fuller write-up of the magic of 3D painting in Tilt Brush.

That's not “boo-hoo, so-and-so died” crying, nor “jarring existential plot twist” crying. Audioshield found some neuroreceptor in the deepest cavern of my brain—one that can only be stimulated by an incredible combination of sight, sound, and motion—and flooded it with a sensation that has left me reeling for days.

The core game is just as I described it in my gushing January preview. Audioshield, like Audiosurf before it, analyzes your MP3s (or songs pulled from Soundcloud) and converts them into playable rhythm-game levels. But where Audiosurf was stuck in an Amplitude-styled 2D track, Audioshield has a full virtual world’s space to work with. As such, the game sends colored orbs at players from the sky, which they must strike with colored shields in their hands to the rhythm of whatever song is playing. (Strike the blue orbs with the blue shield in your left hand; strike the orange orbs with the orange shield in your right.) You’re punching to the beat. You’re Rocky, fighting the music.

Not every song works well in Audioshield; in particular, vocally driven, repetitive tracks such as hip-hop don’t play out in interesting ways. But any song with even the slightest instrumental intricacy will produce a pretty cool playable level, one in which you thrust your hands across your body in tricky fashion to keep up with the rhythm.

Since these levels are all algorithmically generated, you can expect a certain amount of gameplay repetition in terms of the directions orbs fall and the patterns you have to wave your hands in. The secret, I have found in extended play sessions, is to pick out songs I have a pre-existing attachment to. It’s the Guitar Hero effect: plucking away at the same colored buttons in that game stays fresh so long as you love the songs, and that’s only with a dinky plastic controller. Fill your entire visual and aural field with such a song, conversely, and you will feel a level of synesthesia so intense, it could unfreeze Walt Disney from his ice tomb and make him create Fantasia all over again.

Any person who values the idea of “music gaming” should run, not walk, to their nearest friend who owns a Vive—with a flash drive full of their favorite songs—and prepare to be overwhelmed.

Of the HTC Vive’s three pack-in titles, Fantastic Contraption comes closest to resembling a classic video game. But that’s not what makes it the system’s most exciting freebie. This puzzle game, like its free, Flash-based forebear, is composed of a series of rooms where the goal is to move a small pink orb to touch a larger pink target.

The method for moving the ball is building a machine made of wheels, sticks, and connectors that can either carry the ball as a payload or push it toward the goal area. This requires some clever industrial design to build machines designed to move through 3D space in specific ways—whether to cross giant gaps, automatically make big turns, climb walls, or push things on opposite ends of a puzzle.

With the limits of a mouse and keyboard or standard controller, building detailed 3D machines like this would likely be a cumbersome and frustrating mix of strange button and motion combinations. Ask anybody who has built giant 3D Halo levels in the Forge mode, and they’ll reply to you in a confusing, foreign language of menu and button-combo requirements.

In the Vive, perfectly placing an object in 3D space, adjusting junction points, or rotating pieces of the structure at whatever axis you please is as simple as moving your arms. A wheel goes here, a rod connects there. You can yank another rod up and over to connect to the other end. Let’s pick one part up to rotate it. Now pick the whole thing up and move it.

There’s no confusing menu system, either; you just grab new parts from a glowing helper-cat at your feet, test your creations by hitting a single button, and then fine-tune and try again. Using your hands to virtually construct feels amazing. Fantastic Contraption has limited its number of building elements to let players focus on learning—and enjoying—this new style of game control.

The only catch, honestly, is that this comfortable building system is too freeing. FC lets players solve puzzles pretty much however they want, with the notable exception of the rods' maximum length (otherwise, players could sometimes auto-poke the solution target). As such, gamers who appreciate narrowly designed puzzles will probably feel intimidated. Other levels would have benefited from specific limits (“use only one wheel,” “create something no bigger than one meter tall,” etc).

Otherwise, Fantastic Contraption isn’t just a fun game, it’s an excellent proof-of-concept that the future of computer interfaces may very well be something beyond mice or touchscreens. We may not wear vision-suffocating VR headsets in a few years' time, but when you think about the future of computing and how 3D-tracked hands in virtual space can change what we can do, forget Minority Report. The new blueprint has been drawn out by Fantastic Contraption.

While Space Pirate Trainer rocks as a solo, high-score-challenge game, Hover Junkers could be the more impressive VR shooting experience. For starters, it’s the only “first-person online shooter” currently available on any VR platform (Eve Valkyrie cockpit-based space battles notwithstanding). Even better, it’s actually really, really good.

Running around with a gun as in Call of Duty could never work on the Vive—unless its tracking system is ever upgraded to work in a giant warehouse space, at any rate. The team at Stress Level Zero still found a way to recreate gunfights with the Vive’s limited maneuverability. Players pilot a small hovercraft around a giant arena, using one of their hands to handle acceleration and direction while using the other to shoot a pistol or shotgun. (Players can also put the steering mechanism down to dual-wield in a pinch.) Then, whenever enemies approach, players can physically sidestep, duck, and roll around their hovering deck to line up shots while dodging enemies doing the same.

You won’t find upgrade trees or loadouts in Hover Junkers; in fact, the arenas don’t even hide weapon upgrades a la Quake. Instead, players can find scrap and junk, which they can either stick to their ship interior to create cover or feed to their “loot chute” to accrue ship health and match-winning points. (Meaning you can win a match even if your kill/death ratio isn’t the best.) We were wondering where the weapon upgrades and beefier options were, but we came to appreciate the simplified “pistol or shotgun” options, along with the chunky, flick-to-reload system.

Sadly, the game has launched with some rough edges, including a few arenas that struggle to lock at a 90-frame-per-second refresh and some wonky multiplayer matchmaking. But the extended online battles I’ve gotten into have felt pretty incredible in terms of offering a combination of large-level maneuverability and granular showdowns. Dancing around an online opponent by strafing with my ship until I pull up to a foe’s under-protected hovercraft side and then jumping out of cover to blast them to bits is among the most satisfying deathmatch scenarios I’ve ever encountered in my decades of gaming.

There's a joke from an old episode of The Simpsons where Bart is eager to play a virtual yard work simulator, despite slacking off from actual yard work earlier in the day. If every joke has a bit of truth to it, Job Simulator gives truth to that decades-past Simpsons gag.

Job Simulator takes the idiosyncratic setting of a far-future world where robots (basically faces displayed on clunky, hovering CRT monitors) have taken over the world, and they seem to have only the vaguest memories of how the old human world actually functioned. The game takes place in a museum where these robots can relive their slightly twisted memories of what a human's day-to-day life was.

In Job Simulator's world, you can repair a car by simply taking out the engine and pouring in some hot sauce as coolant. You can make a sandwich by stacking a whole tomato and a wedge of cheese in between two slices of bread. You can use the office copier to actually make full-fledged copies of physical objects or use a "super sizer" in a convenience store to increase the volume of cans of soda.

A curator leads you through 16 pre-set tasks in each of the four available jobs, but there's also a freeplay mode where you can just play around with all the interactive bits and bobs in each setting. There's a real sense of childlike joy to this physical experimentation and discovery. You're like a baby surrounded by shiny new toys, each with some familiar elements but also plenty of unexpected interactions you'll be eager to find.

The game makes great use of physical space in the virtual world, forcing you to turn and reach in place to find the next item you need. The presentation is top-notch, too, rendered in an appropriately bright and clean style that feels like being inside a cartoon. There are tons of hidden jokes buried in background scenery and signage, too, and some great, amusing voice work on the part of the robots. I particularly liked the faux human radio station in the mechanic's shop area, which glosses over details .

There's not much in the way of actual challenging gameplay in Job Simulator, but it's the kind of off-kilter playground that's just a joy to inhabit and observe without a real goal.

#SelfieTennis is an admittedly thin offering at $20, and it may very well be trumped by some other Wii Sports-like compilation before long. But even Wii Sports never had such a genius “play against yourself” twist.

The game (which, yes, uses a titular hashtag) drops you onto a tennis court in the sky, and a bunch of goofy biped creatures made of tennis balls watches you play tennis against yourself. Serve the tennis ball, hit it to the other side, then magically warp across the court to return your own shot. The devs at VR Unicorns rewind time just a smidge when you’re warped, which means you get to watch your shot’s initial arc and have enough time to step into a good return-shot position.

With the Vive’s movement limitations, this makes way more sense than trying to deliver a true two-player tennis game that forces you to run around the entire court. Still, we hope VR Unicorns’ promised updates include some Mario Tennis-style challenges (hittable targets, special challenges, etc.). For now, finely tuned physics and a cute, simple design—which encourages you to murder the smiling bystanders with tennis serves—make this a Vive launch standout. Be warned, though; it does require physical exertion and enough ceiling space to accommodate wild tennis serve motions.

The HTC Vive has launched with all matter of gun games, and for good reason: the controller doubles very nimbly as a virtual gun. But if you forced me to pick only one gun game to hand to a new SteamVR player, I’d already have Space Pirate Trainer loaded and ready to blow your mind.

This simple, slick arcade shooter puts players on a virtual stage, where they must stand and shoot guns at waves of flying, laser-shooting drones. Enemies come from above and slightly to the left and right, as opposed to a full 360-degree zone of battle, making it manageable enough for new players. When a drone's lasers come close to your position, the surrounding game world slows down, Matrix-style, so that players have time to either physically dodge the shot (step, dodge, roll) or pull up a cool-looking, semi-transparent shield from behind their back.

The shield is huge, which is a great boon for new players as they get used to holding a controller up to aim guns at enemies, but players come to learn that they can get much higher scores by ditching the shield and dual-wielding. Besides, Space Pirate Trainer’s true appeal is in unlocking players’ inner, twin-pistol badass. Guns come with unlimited ammo (though they can frequently overheat) and a range of five shot types (from a Glock-styled pop to machine gun fire to a chargeable railgun), while robot flight and attack patterns recall Galaga in a very fun, comforting way.

The end result is a game I’ve been hooked on for weeks—always eager to hop on for a quick high-score challenge against online leaderboards. The slow-down effect, the cool music, the clearly visible foes: every element in Space Pirate Trainer seems tuned to impress VR-newbies with easily readable thrills.

For a collection of free mini-games to show off new hardware, Valve has gone above and beyond the minimal effort required with The Lab. Some of the games and experiences in this collection could easily stand on their own as full games, with just a bit of fleshing out.

"Xortex 29XX" is my favorite demo on offer. The mini-game has you grab what looks like a tiny spaceship in one hand and fly it around virtual space like a child with a model plane, dodging incoming lasers and energy balls while automatically firing back at enemies as you point the ship in their direction. It's amazing how much speed and precision this control method gives you as you easily weave in and out of bullet hell patterns that quickly surround you on all sides. It frankly makes all other space combat and bullet hell shooters feel a little clunky in comparison.

In another demo, "Longbow," you take a position on a rampart perch where you have to be ready to notch a bow and arrow and fire at stick-figure invaders wandering toward the castle door. Things start out pretty simply, but soon you have to quickly aim around shields and helmets to take out huge hordes of invaders (as well as floating balloons that can help you regain health).

It's a bit repetitive, and it's over too quickly, but it's still a great showcase of how Vive games can rely on your actual physical prowess and visual acuity. Actually lining up a bow and arrow shot in VR is a far cry from simply aiming a targeting reticle on a 2D screen, after all. (See video of Longbow in action here.)

"Sligshot," meanwhile, is basically a blueprint for Angry Birds in VR. You man a huge slingshot that's used to fire spherical "calibration cores" at piles of boxes in a warehouse far in the distance (including boxes of pleasantly explosive TNT). The more destruction you cause, the more cores you get to cause even more destruction. Aiming precisely is tough and satisfying in 3D first-person view, though subsequent attempts are aided by a hovering outline of your last release point.

The real highlight here are the cores themselves: talkative AIs each imbued with their own personality and character traits, who chatter away with lively voice acting as you prepare to launch them. Their surprisingly deep (for a mini-game) scripts are all imbued with a twisted sense of humor that will be familiar to Portal fans. We dare you to not let out a nervous chuckle when the spider core threatens to unleash millions of hairy spiders on launch.

There are a few other minimally interactive experiments in Valve's VR lab, but these three are the ones we could see serving as the basis for compelling games on their own with just a little bit more work. Hopefully Valve or another developer will be inspired to take up these experiments and convert them into fuller experiences.

Wandering around in the Vive's virtual playspace is inherently limited by the physical walls of whatever room you're in. Most exploratory games get around this with some sort of system that can simply warp you to another location in the distance with a quick point and click.

Unseen Diplomacy is different. The game's automatically generated rooms and passageways are slotted perfectly into the physical bounds of your world, constantly twisting and turning so you never have to stop walking around. By the time you see the familiar Chaperone grids warning you there's a real wall in front of you, you can be sure there'll be a door to your side letting you turn away into a new room. When you fully run out of space, an elevator takes you up to a new floor and the process repeats.

A single run through Unseen Diplomacy can be completed in five to ten minutes or so, but the specific rooms and challenges are randomized each time, forcing you to figure out new strategies with each race. We could ask for even more variety and length to the virtual spying on offer, but for a $3 indie game, Unseen Diplomacy shows off the full potential of using an entire room for VR better than perhaps any other Vive game so far.


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Comments - 1

April 6, 2016 12:10 PM

Waiting for them to adapt Papers, Please into VR.