It wouldn’t be a Gamescom visit in 2015 if there wasn’t any Virtual Reality. Fortunately there were no shortage of options to experience even if I myself only managed a few.
The great problem with virtual reality is that it is one of those things that needs to be experienced. I am not sure that I or any other writer is equal to the task of describing properly the sense of being somewhere else, someone else. In a way it almost like a cult initiation. There are the uninitiated and the converts.
Sometimes you get lucky and get to see the moment.
One Of Us! One Of Us!
Saturday on the convention floor, some of the MMOGames team got together to prowl around and check things out. Amanda Dunn is our resident EVE Fanatic and the one telling you all the myriad ways to die in EVE. Amanda is now one of us.
The Oculus Rift booth in Hall 9 was a very swish affair with multiple little cubicles for people to try out the games. Amanda got to try out the Rift for the first time and I am sure will be along soon with her own impressions and feelings. Naturally enough the EVE junkie had to skip right into Valkyrie and I cannot blame her.
This is where the first shared experience comes in. You can see someone with the headset on in any number of YouTube videos and pictures. It’s a squat black box strapped to the head. No matter what model or make of VR headset, that’s just how it is. You strap a thing to your head. Editor in Chief Shannon Doyle and myself have both had the experience previously, both played Valkyrie, so we knew what was coming.
I think that’s the first failing of trying to describe the whole experience. Unless you know what it feels like with one of them on, seeing someones body language even if there is a handy screen showing you what they are seeing, is just so much noise. After you’ve tried? You know that little jump is the moment where they’ve slipped into the new world. You know about that sense of wonder.
You know why the Wolf pilot immediately tried to shoot the incoming fleet.
I’ll leave Amanda to detail her experiences but I am comfortable saying that she is one of us now. The religious experience of a sort has left her changed. Is the future VR? That all depends on what you want…
Another Sort Of Show
The staff at Oculus were constantly battling with high interest and long queues. Still there was time enough in the booth for me to have a quick whirl myself. The last time I tried an Oculus it was the SDK 2 version. This newer one didn’t sit quite as nicely on my head but that may just be something to correct at home with a bit of fiddling. The area for the bridge of my nose wasn’t quite sitting pretty and at first it was distracting, but soon I was gone again.
If you know anyone who has a Rift or has tried one, ask them if they’ve played Edge of Nowhere. If this simple little Rift adventure isn’t a stealth prequel to The Secret World, I’ll be surprised. Edge of Nowhere was the game originally suggested to Amanda but well, EVE fanatic. It seemed only fair that I try it out for the booth staff. Apparently the view on the PC screen for others in the room was much smaller than with Valkyrie for whatever reason. Still, it was enough for people to get the gist of what was going on. Here I was, floating over the shoulder of an arctic explorer looking chap while he reads a note from a lost love. To seek her out? That way lays madness. So of course we’re going to do it.
The early games of VR are going to face three little issues I faced in Edge of Nowhere. The first is something managed to kill my brave (or insane) explorer and I re-spawned. Ladies and Gents, it may well be time to have that reasoned discussion on permadeath again. Re-spawning is fine if your game is about getting in and bullet spamming something else to death or jumping on the heads of mushrooms and turtles. Extra lives and the ability to get back into the action are utterly necessary in some games, but when the aim of your game and indeed your technology is immersion? Re-spawning breaks that for a moment. It takes you out of the experience and reminds you that whatever else happens, it’s all just a game rather than an experience.
Second problem. Third person view. At first when I loaded into the blizzard that was Edge of Nowhere I leaned over to check out the gear on the explorers backpack and then decided to move past him. Pushing the stick on the controller didn’t move what I assumed would be me, but moved instead that explorer. For whatever reason I was relegated to floating immaterially over his shoulder. This may be because of the platformer nature of the game and if so, that’s fine. Hopping from one game where you are the main character to one where you just are following them in a new way may cause issues.
Third problem. Third person view. Well that and the accumulated mental baggage that goes with it. I heard something behind me. I knew that there was something …. other… in the blowing snow. Trying to turn the character around was a pointless exercise in frustration. Sure I could turn him around but not the camera. Those first few moments into the game I had forgotten in the disconnect of operating someone else that I myself was the camera. I should have looked over my shoulder to see what was there, not fiddled with the controls. So we’ll never know exactly what it was.
The rest of the experience though? It was as wonderful to play through as it was funny to look at me playing. When I realized I was the camera, that meant I had to move to look. Your explorer sliding down a rope in a dark cavern where things lurk? If you want to see where he is going you have to lean forward and look down at the floor. No stick on the controller is going to move the camera, you need to peer towards your feet if you want to see down into the depths. If you watch someone having a VR experience and you see them peering in odd directions, that’s whats going on. There’s something to see, even if from the outside it looks silly. Other times well.. I’m not ashamed to admit it, I jumped at the jump scare. I leaned back to avoid the face of an eldritch horror thrust into my little cave. I squirmed when the tentacles surrounded me and …well. The experience came to an end.
An Experience Or A Distraction
I had the conversation before with Shannon that having a VR experience is a lot like having a date. You have to set the mood at home. Make sure no one is going to call unexpectedly when you won’t be in a state to receive guests. You have to make sure that nothing is going to boil over or catch on fire or all the other little hiccups you have to tend to when it’s time for a nice night in for uninterrupted fun.
The HTC Vive and Oculus Rift are going to be date nights. Project Morpheus, you are already on a console which is a little date preparation in itself. Preparing for the experience means some time where no one is going to ask you to pause or distract you. What do you do though if you want just a distraction? Here we go to one of Oculus’ partners and also back to CCP Games.
EVE Gunjack is at its bare bones level an arcade shooter that has been jigged up for the Samsung Gear VR. If you have a Samsung Note 4 (sadly I only have the 2), Samsung S6 or S6 Edge, you can slot it into the Gear VR headset and have a quick and easy VR experience with your phone. This isn’t exactly new, look at Google Cardboard if you want to have a VR experience for the price of some lenses and cardboard.
As a game and an app though? Gunjack is something that Valkyrie cannot be. A fun little distraction for a few minutes on the bus. All you need is your phone and headset. The controls are seated on the right temple area. Tap to shoot, swipe to perform special actions. The experience for me was as immersive as other VR experiences I have had. I ended up in a turret hanging out the side of an EVE ship having to blast fighters out of space. I’m happy to report that I beat the convention average score, coming in at just under 300k points. Sadly no prizes for the achievement beyond the satisfaction of another strange new experience.
Gunjack and Samsung Gear VR are aiming for that few minutes you have when you don’t want to deal with the world. They’re not trying to suck you into a deep space adventure like Valkyrie might and Elite: Dangerous does. It’s a few minutes in another world blasting things out of the sky while you wait for something to happen back in reality. Is Gunjack a killer app for phone VR? No. It’s not meant to be. It’s meant to be fun and look great. It was both of those things.
Ultimately VR will be a lot like [REDACTED] where you either settle in for a good long session of play or a cut down fast and dirty quickie.
Just like [REDACTED] you’ll either be into it or you won’t. I totally am.Related: EVE Valkyrie, Gamescom 2015, Gunjack, Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR