In what shall henceforth be known as ‘VR Day – BOOM!’, I spent my last afternoon at Brasil Game Show strapping various contraptions to my big old head, spinning and bobbing around like a drunk pigeon, and just generally looking like a bit of a tool. Here’s the thing, though – I really didn’t care, and it was totally, totally worth it. I’ve been ridiculously excited about the coming of VR for ages now, and this was a great opportunity to have a crack at a few variations of it, and just generally see what our glorious VR future looks like.
My first observation (and personally, quite a happy one) was that I didn’t vomit everywhere. I’ve covered the potential for queasiness before – it’s basically some science-y stuff – and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t something of a concern for me, so, all things considered, I’m calling that a win. Why, well because regardless of how much I might want to join the VR revolution, not being able to do so without constantly losing my lunch would probably take the shine off it pretty damn quickly. Again: winning!
Anyway, I tried the Oculus Rift first, and because it was my first experience, and because I was standing up, there was a bit of unsteadiness – but nothing more. It was a fairly simple simulation, involving wandering around a house and some gardens, and for the most part, it was comfortable enough to use. Going up some stairs proved to be the trickiest part – but that was mainly because I kept trying to physically climb actual stairs. That weren’t there. Like a tool. Once or twice I’d accidentally turn using the controller and the headset at the same time, and that resulted in whipping round at an ungodly speed – which was weird and slightly dizzying – but again, it wasn’t particularly nauseating per se. Graphically speaking, the sim was fairly basic, so I wasn’t blown away by it – but just being able to, for example, look down and examine a book by moving my head, felt way more immersive than doing the same thing on a TV screen ever could.
And, just like that, I’d tried out VR for the first time.
I then moved on to try the Samsung VR thing – which is basically an S6 smartphone strapped into some headgear (sold separately, I’d imagine because you know, capitalism). This is obviously going to be the lower end of the VR market, but it’s also likely to be the “gateway” end of it too, so I was keen to check it out anyway. Bearing in mind the relative simplicity of the set-up, I was actually very, very impressed. I was playing a 3D/VR angry birds game, which was pretty good fun. Actually, it was a lot of fun. Using the accelerometer in the phone (as opposed to holding a controller), and the 3D/VR capabilities of the game, you fly around the level, trying to pass through rings, – basically turning and steering with the headset.
It was genuinely commendable how smooth it all was, and it was perfectly possible to perform a quick 360 without any juddering or lag whatsoever, and without getting disorientated at all. Possibly just because it was all colourful and cartoon-ey, this felt more like 3D++ than, say, full on VR-simulation, but nonetheless, it was thoroughly enjoyable, and if that’s indicative of the stuff we can just download and enjoy casually, I think at least that aspect of VR’s future looks bright!
So, with two tentative steps into the world of VR under my belt, I then headed off to what I hoped and expected to be the pièce de résistance – not only of VR, but of my whole Brasil Game Show experience. See, for over a year now, whenever I was reading about VR, the name Eve Valkyrie kept popping up, and it genuinely looked fantastic – and a good indication of what top-end VR simulation would/could be. To say I was excited would be an understatement, and even the fact that I knew I was going to have to queue for two hours-or-so wasn’t enough to dampen my enthusiasm.
I’ll get to the actual game in a minute – but first, if you’ll indulge me a slight digression/rant – my overall experience of Eve Valkyrie (perhaps even the whole event) was tainted by the folks over at the main Nvidia stand at BGS 2015. Nobody likes queuing, and I get that after queuing for a while, people tend to get a bit fractious and irritable, but even so, I felt they would’ve been taking the piss in any circumstances. See, even though everybody had been waiting for more than two and a half hours, Nvidia felt it’d be, like, *totes* fine to practically close off the VR room so some eejit from IGN Brasil could film in there for 30 minutes. I mean, this is a grown man who makes his living dicking around in a cat(?) mask, yet he was considered better than every man, woman and child who’d been waiting patiently for nearly 3 hours. And if that wasn’t enough, after we’d watched them filming (there were windows into the room), we then had to go through the further indignity of watching the whole entourage piss around on the game we were all waiting to play ourselves. Like all 20 of them. Then, in a stunning display of pissing on the regular people, after that lot had finally fucked off, Nvidia thought they’d go right ahead and give priority to yet more members of the “Press” and people with “Fast Track” tickets who’d just walked up to the booth, so as not to, you know, inconvenience them (what with them having waited two whole minutes). There were a few young kids waiting around me – and in all fairness to them, they’d been patient and really well behaved – and they were close to tears after all of this. So, if you’re reading Nvidia Brasil – well done guys – and fuck you very much!
Anyway, if you’re still reading – apologies, and thank you for your patience – let’s cover the actual game. Eve Valkyrie is a Spaceship Simulation, and a really rather good one at that. Once you’re strapped into your funky head gear, you actually feel like you’re sat in a cockpit. Look down, and you can see hands holding the controls, and just above that, a beep-ey, boop-ey dashboard with plenty of flashing lights and whatnot. Glance to your left and right (or upwards) and you can see first your cockpit window, and then, out beyond that, the vast infiniteness of space. It all very much reminded me of the first time I went in an Imax dome as a kid, complete with that same sense of wonder. Honestly, it really was awesome. The controlling stuff felt brilliantly responsive, and I was whizzing around, barrel-rolling and such within a matter of seconds.
This was fun, admittedly, but I was doing it primarily because I’d wanted to test out the whole nausea thing in a truly fast, hardcore setting. I’d heard that barrel rolling (for example) had made some people feel queasy – even if they’d had no other problems with VR generally – so I wanted to test that out. The good news is that I didn’t feel queasy at all – and, actually, I felt less so than when I “fly” in other games. When I was doing the knife-flights in GTA for example, I couldn’t stop myself moving along with the controller, so I’d often be playing along with my head turned horizontally (again, looking like a tool), and because what I could see was relatively fixed to where I was going, I found it all quite disorientating.
However, what was really cool about Eve Valkyrie is that, because you’ve got the headset working primarily for what you want to see, and your movement controlled by a totally separate system (the controller) I actually found it more comfortable, and ultimately easier to use. Looping, and rolling was a lot easier (and considerably more intuitive) precisely because you could look first, and snap through with the controls to meet where you were facing. The best way I can think of explaining it is how Ballerinas spin without getting dizzy – essentially focusing on one spot until the very last moment, then whipping their head around to the same spot again. So, say I wanted to turn 90 degrees to the right: I’d face 90 degrees to the right, then start the turning with the controller until both the ship and I lined up. Bish-bash-bosh, job done. In essence, all of this stuff gave me a much better grasp of – and control over – where I was, and where I was heading. I don’t normally love flying games and simulators (precisely because I get “lost” quite easily), so this was a really pleasant surprise.
In terms of the actual gameplay – it all worked exceptionally well within the VR context. Firing off a stream of bullets from right in from of your face was phenomenally cool, and perhaps even cooler was dodging out of the way of an incoming one, and then turning and watching it fly all the way along the side of the ship. If it’s a feeling of total immersion you’re aiming at – that shit comes pretty damn close. Again, think of it in comparison to playing on a TV. Sure, you might get a vague sense of how close a laser, or volley, or whatever is to hitting you, but once it’s hit the outer-edge of your TV it’s effectively gone. But now imagine if you could follow that laser as it went past you, turning your head to see it scrape the side of your craft, or hit your wing, or whatever. Or say you notice a shot going across your bow, now you can just quickly turn and look to assess the danger, without turning your whole ship in that direction.
Just in everything, and at all times, it really felt like I was IN the game – not just playing it. Honestly, it really was absolutely fantastic, and takes gaming to a whole new level of immersion and interactivity. Now – and here’s where things get really exciting I think – extrapolate from that and consider the possibilities. Imagine genuinely being IN an FPS map, climbing, shooting, dodging in a true first person experience. Imagine playing a game like The Last of Us, and actually creeping up on an Infected yourself, like it was you there doing it. Think about what playing a VR version of something beautiful and haunting like Journey, or Unfinished Swan, or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture would be like if you were actually right inside that world.
I mean, holy-shit-balls, that just has to be incredible, right!? I get that some people might think VR is a bit gimmicky, or something they might, personally, not be interested in, but I honestly, honestly, can’t see any reason to think it’s not going to fundamentally change gaming – and open up a whole new world of wonder and exploration – and I think that’s objectively a very, very exciting prospect.
And if it means I’m going to spend a lot of my future looking like a complete tool – it’s a price I’m more than willing to pay!