When I had an appointment to see the latest round of virtual reality games for the Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR at the Oculus E3 booth, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I hadn't experienced a VR game before and it was hard tell if it was going to be phenomenal or just gimmicky. After all, seeing people on stage with masks strapped to their face and their mouths hanging open is hardly a selling a point. But then I played Wilson's Heart.
In this game, you wake in an insane asylum reminiscent of 1940s horror flicks. You wander the halls trying to figure out who you are, why you are there, and what exactly is roaming the building assaulting the staff in the shadows. The premise of the game isn't anything revolutionary, but the execution was amazing.
Using the as yet unlaunched Touch control pads, one strapped to each one of my hands, the arms in the game responded as natural extensions of my own movements. I could grab bottles and throw them any direction, watching them shatter against the wall. I could pick up clipboards and flip through the pages. I could turn handles and push open doors. Just like turning your head would reflect your head movement in the game, your arm and hand control was so fluid and natural that you forget that those floating limbs aren't really yours.
It's not just the natural controls of the Oculus Rift and the Touch controls that makes Wilson's Heart an experience. It's the level of detail the developers put into the game. There is a narrative to follow, but you can explore as well and be rewarded for it.
At one point I decided to take a break from following the creepy blood trail smeared on the hallway floor to check out a coffee table in the waiting area of the hospital. There were a few magazines on it which I thought were just for show but when I reached out with my virtual hands I was surprised to discover I could pick up the comic book on the table. Not only that, but it was fully illustrated with a complete story of its own! That's the attention to detail that I found throughout the demo.
Wilson's Heart, due sometime in 2017, is a game that shows what VR can do: fully immerse you in an interactive story in a way far beyond a traditional video game stuck on a 2D screen. My only regret with floating hands and natural arm movement responsiveness was that I couldn't throw fireballs because I'm that kind of nerd. When I made that off-hand comment to the Oculus people after the demo, they grinned slyly and walked me into the demo room for Unspoken and I just about lost my damn mind.
Developed by Insomniac Games famous for Ratchet & Clank and Spyro, Unspoken takes the Oculus Rift and Touch controls specialty of natural hand movement in-game to create the street wizard war game of my dreams.
Seriously, folks, it's time to get your Dresden on.
Your right hand throws fireballs. And when I say throw, I mean you literally need to make a throwing motion with your hand and aim at your opponent or it's just going to splash against the wall next to them. Oh yeah, and they're throwing balls of fire at you. Good thing your left hand can throw up a shield that you have to line up to block the incoming flaming projectile. And if you want to really get clever, you can avoid attacks by teleporting around the arena because you're a mage, right? And that's just the basics.
There are power ups around the arena to collect. Snag those and you can call upon even more powers. Ravens that home in on your target for damage no matter where they are on the map. A large stationary shield that can stand up to more hits giving you time to line up your bigger spells. A magic anvil that lets you forge a powerful spear that can do major damage to your opponent.
Every map has an extra objective to help win the game. In the demo I played, I took down a mystical target before my opponent and was able to assemble and summon a gigantic scrap golem. That kept the other wizard busy long enough for me to finish them off and win the duel.
Briefly talking to the developer after the demo, they told me there are more maps being created as well as more spell sets to play with. Honestly, I couldn't get enough of Unspoken. It pushes every button of the fantasy of being a badass street wizard. If there is a game that makes me want to invest in an Oculus Rift, this is it. Unspoken is due for the Holidays 2016 for the Oculus Rift.
Sometimes all it takes is a simple game to show off what a system can do. Recoil is that game. It requires the Oculus Rift and Touch controls and places you in an arena against an opponent. You take turns throwing a Frisbee-style disc past each other to score. You can catch the incoming disc or punch it to send it flying back as your guard your goal. You can also bank it off the walls for trick shots. By leaning left or right you can slide either direction in front of your goal which is your entire back wall.
That's it. The first person to score 10 points wins. Using the Touch controls and normal arm movements to catch and throw the disc is amazingly natural. Sliding your avatar back and forth in front of the goal by leaning takes some getting used to, but you can adjust the sensitivity at the beginning of the match. This isn't a must-have game, but a fun party game if you and friend have a Rift with Touch controls. Recoil is due later this year.
Drop Dead is a zombie shooter that uses the Samsung Gear VR headset. The difference between this and the Rift headset is that it is a shell that you slide your current gen Samsung phone into. The video quality isn't as good and you don't have access to the Touch controls so no in-game hands. There is a controller pad on the side of the headset and you can sync a wireless game controller as well. You also need to provide your own headphones.
Whew, that out of the way, Drop Dead was a fun, if simple shooter. Standing in a graveyard, zombies would advance toward you. You aim by turning your head towards your target until a reticle in the middle of the screen lines up on the zombie and fire by tapping on the controller pad on the side of the headset while swiping down to reload your ammo. When you take down the current wave of zombies, the game will automatically move your forward to the next part of the graveyard for another round and eventually the boss.
I found Drop Dead to be fun and straightforward. The ease of control makes it a great game for all ages comfortable with the content. Drop Dead comes out on Halloween.
'Castle Storm VR'
Castle Storm VR was another game I tried on a Samsung Gear VR headset, this time with a wireless game controller in hand. This title is already a popular game app making the transition to a VR game. I was eager to try it out as I enjoy tower defense games, but this one failed as a VR game on a number of fronts, unfortunately.
First, it was too complicated for a VR game. There was far too much to keep track of which is not easy to do in the limited field of vision of the Gear VR. Second, it's a 2D game that gains nothing in a VR environment. It feels like an app ported to VR with nothing gained by the transfer. Third, everything was very small on the screen making it hard to see what was going on and control. Overall, it made for frustrating game play.
This game looks like great fun on a tablet where ample screen space and easy of controls will let it shine, but as a VR game, it's not a good fit from what I saw. Castle Storm VR comes out on July 7th, 2016.
What's next for VR
Talking about VR games is a little strange. Almost nobody, including me, has a headset at home yet. Saying "this game is great and this is when it's for sale" doesn't do you much good when you haven't dropped $500-$3000 on a hardware set up (some of which isn't even released yet.) So let me say this. The games are starting to look pretty damn good. And let's face it, it's the games that get us to buy the hardware.
Is there a must-have game that justifies a hardware investment that costs this much? A Call of Duty or Final Fantasy? Not yet, though for me Unspoken makes it very tempting. But as time goes on, you're going to see the hardware price come down and the titles get better. And then it's going to be game on.