My head is spinning. I’m fresh from an Oculus event at GDC 2016, where I played – yes, played – nearly half a dozen launch titles for the Rift headset.
The quality of the games is superb. These were more than just mere “demos” or “experiences”: these were full-fledged worlds where I could shoot, race, play and even die.
Oculus took a backseat at the event, though founder Palmer Luckey and head of content Jason Rubin were roaming the floor and ready to answer any and all questions.
Still, this event was about the developers, the creators that are going to help Oculus Rift sink or swim. Based on what I saw, I think it’s going to swim just fine.
Let’s get the hardware out of the way. I was using the final consumer Oculus Rift, and it’s the lightest and sleekest headset I’ve worn yet. Oculus staffers helped me strap it onto my head at every stop, so we’ll see how it transitions into people’s living rooms as they adjust it the first few times themselves. But with the headset situated properly (wearing my glasses the whole time), I felt like I could wear the Rift for hours – with a few breaks – without fatigue.
The games were running on Oculus-certified machines, and most I was told were optimized to use Oculus Rift. Running at 90fps, it was the optimal set-up to play VR games on, and if you decide to get a Rift when it launches later this month, I suggest you follow the recommended specs, based on what I experienced.
Oculus Rift games
The games I played in small private demo rooms off Market Street in San Francisco were a potpourri, a taste of the 30 titles Oculus Rift will have ready at launch. In all, 41 games were shown over the course of several days at GDC. Most of the games I tried will be available when Rift launches on March 28, and I’ve indicated the their release dates along with prices below.
It’s important to note that Oculus has refined its game comfort level scale: titles are now rated as Comfortable, Moderate or Intense. An intense game isn’t necessarily uncontrolled mayhem – a roller coaster experience could be labeled Intense. As someone who tends to feel a bit disoriented and can get motion sickness in VR, it was helpful to know what I was walking into ahead of time.
I started off with a game that was firmly in the Comfortable zone: Colopl Titles’ Fly to KUMA (March 28, $14.99). In it, I had to help little bears maneuver over bridges by manipulating blocks. It was a cute puzzle game with lovable teddies that, sadly, all too often met their untimely demise thanks to my poor planning.
I later transitioned to a Moderate, mellow VR Tennis Online game (March 28, $24.99) by Colopl that I could easily see myself spending an hour or so playing after work. It was very much a video game in the sense of having bubble-gum colors and unrealistic-looking characters, but it didn’t detract from my feeling present in the game. I was really good at it, and I was so invested that I wanted to keep playing even after I lost the match.
Radial G: Racing Revolved (March 28, $24.99) by Tammeka Games was cut from an entirely different cloth. A space racing game with tracks suspended in some sort of galaxy, I basically raced a pod against other competitors (the game will be multiplayer). It was fast-paced, gritty and exhilarating. At one point, with techno music pulsing in my ears and after a particularly good series where I hit a few green boosters in a row, I thought, “How cool is it that this is how I’m spending my Tuesday morning?”
I did begin to feel motion sickness as the vortex of movement pushed my limits: I was moving my head to see more of the VR world and steering my pod around the tube-shaped track as it was rotating. It was trippy in a neat way for a split second before I decided – or, rather, my stomach did – that I needed to cool my jets for a minute.
ADR1FT (March 28, $19.99) was another game where the line to nausea was very thin. I was basically an astronaut stuck on a badly damaged space ship. I had to propel myself with boosters to reach scattered oxygen canisters. The kicker was that boosting caused my oxygen to deplete as it was being used as a fuel source. This, all while the effects of zero gravity were causing me to float upward and bang into the space ship. I had to correct this by descending, thus depleting more oxygen.
There were times when my rising, falling and the movement of floating space junk became too disorienting, but a reset button allowed me to re-center myself when needed. The game was a bit too much for me, but the level of detail and the relentless sense of danger – get to the oxygen tanks before I suffocate – left an impact.
Switching gears entirely, Dragon Front (Spring, F2P) had no movement on my part at all, but it was still completely immersive. I was essentially a giant floating mask with a chessboard-like grid in front of me. I had to draw cards and populate my grid with units or fortifications. All the while, my opponent was drawing cards to build up his forces to either attack or defend against mine.
Producer Keith Hladik of Dragon Front-developer High Voltage told me the team came up with over 130 unique characters for the game. Each specific character type had its own voice and personalized movements.
The rules were too complicated for me to grasp in my 20-minute playtime, but I relished the opportunity to chill out after two Intense games while still experiencing a completely immersive VR world. Imagine Hearthstone with all original characters in virtual reality, and that’s what Dragon Front was like.
Next up – and not on my schedule, but what the hell – was Project CARS (March 28, $49.99). I’d heard good things about this racing game, and had to check it out for myself.
It did not disappoint. The actual racing was as good as it could have been, but it was the attention to detail and the realism of the experience that struck me most. I felt like I should reach up to adjust my review mirror, and found myself checking my side mirrors before I went back on the track. I crashed into a barrier at one point, and my windshield was so badly cracked, I had to move my head in the real world to try to get a good angle to see. Instead of being frustrating, it felt completely appropriate.
Game Director Stephen Vilijoen said players can follow the career path of a Formula 1 racer, progressing in their careers just as a competitor on the circuit would, though no level is off limits.
Damaged Core (Spring, price not announced) was next on my list, and was my favorite title of the day. This was the first Rift game I’ve ever played standing, and I loved it.
In the game, I was a good robot created to taken down my evil brethren, though I had the added ability of swapping bodies with them if my health depleted to a too dangerous level.
When I targeted and swapped bodies with another robot, I was immediately put in their shoes and picked up right where they were standing. I could swap with an automaton who was above, many feet away or right next to me. Each time I swapped, I was able to get my bearings almost instantly and start killing robots until I was discovered, turned upon and had to start the whole process over again.
It was just the right level of intensity without being overwhelming. Producer Doug Seebach of High Voltage said it took the team three months to find the reticle (the aiming guide) for Damaged Core so that players could swap bodies without losing their bearings in a VR world. The dedication paid off: I seamlessly transitioned from body to body and barely missed a beat. I killed a lot of robots, and it felt great.
One question I had, however, was about the Rift’s tether when you’re playing standing up. After trying on the AMD-powered Sulon Q, which lays claim to the first tether-less VR headset, I asked Seebach if the Damaged Core developers felt it encumbered the game’s development or the player experience.
“We designed it for PC,” Seebach said of the game. “With the tether, we take into account the zero position. You always go back to that zero point, so you don’t run into the cord.”
The fact that the Rift is attached to a fixed point didn’t seem to bother him in the slightest. And, honestly, I didn’t notice it in any measurable manner while I was shooting down killer robots.
I sat back down for Chronos (March 28, $49.99), a Comfortable RPG that took its time getting to the action, but was beautifully rendered. I could almost feel the wetness of game’s rain puddles as they splashed around me.
Oculus Rift is ready – are you?
I left the Oculus Rift GDC event thrilled for the headset. Neither it nor the games were absolutely perfect, but it was more than enough to convince me that I want one, and there will be plenty of content for me to choose from once I get it.
The one sticking point, of course, is the price. And it’s not even for the Rift itself, but rather the PC required to run it. If not for the $1,500 (about £1,061, AU$2,011) compatible PC price tag, I’d buy a Rift at launch just to try more of the games and other content it will run.
The developers at this event, which was organized by Oculus, had nothing but good things to say about what it’s like to work with the headset maker. They called it supportive and a true partner, which isn’t often the case in the cutthroat world of game development.
While VR presents particular challenges to developers – one said it’s like relearning to solve the problems they already figured out for non-VR games – almost all said they believe VR is the future, and Oculus is doing everything it can to make the journey a smooth one.
Oculus has invested in its developers because it wants them to succeed, and it knows it will benefit as a result. It’s an investment I think is poised to pay off many times over, and I can’t wait to play these games again, plus the many more that will surely follow.