A games platform is nothing without games, and that’s a key concern for anyone looking to buy a VR system this year. After our hardware review, it’s time to turn our gaze to the games that are available for the HTC Vive. There’s a lot of games to cover though, so this is just the first batch and some of the more likely starting points for your adventures into other realities.
Truthfully, one of the main criticisms levelled at the games currently available for VR holds up under even the lightest scrutiny. Without AAA developers devoting themselves fully to VR, a lot of these games feel like tech demos, feature simplistic graphics – partially out of necessity – and are best enjoyed in small doses.
There are plenty of exceptions to this, but the bigger the game and the budget, the more likely it is that VR is an additional mode, instead of the sole focus of development.
The Lab | HTC Vive | Valve | Free
After the SteamVR tutorial and introduction, The Lab is the most natural place to start your adventures in VR. Developed by Valve and leaning on the stylings of the Portal universe, it’s more of a showcase and collection of minigames that demonstrate how they feel you should be able to interact with the world.
One of the key tenets is how you move around the world, which expands well beyond your play area. Moving from one part of the lab to another, you point and teleport yourself to a new place, blending the freedom of movement with the technical constraints. It’s in this way that you can move from one attraction to the next, picking up each pocket universe and pulling it over your head.
Some are simple tech demos, like the Human Medical Scan’s rendition of a human body, or Robot Repair puts you face to face with GLaDOS in a very amusing situation, but others focus on play. Longbow tasks you with defending a castle with a bow and arrow in hand, which works incredibly well, Slingshot gives you a catapult and lots of malfunctioning AI cores to fling at everything in sight, but Xortex is the pick of the bunch, letting you pick up and move the ship around as you see fit in a fully 3D bullet hell arcade shooter.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the brilliance of the robotic concertina dog that you meet. It’ll fetch sticks, it will chase after the Xortex remote control drone that you bring back to the lab, and it’s just thoroughly adorable. It’s just a shame that you can’t actually reach out and pet it…
Valve have absolutely perfected a number of the necessary ideas for room scale VR, it’s just a shame that they’re not tackling a more fully fledged experience.
Tilt Brush | First on HTC Vive | Google | £22.99 (Free with an HTC Vive)
This one most definitely is not a game, but a 3D painting tool courtesy of Google. It’s also quite possibly the best way to demonstrate what VR is and can be, for those without any real interest in games. One hand is your brush, the other your tool picker, letting you switch brush types, colours, undo, save, and so on.
It’s so easy and simple to get going that, almost before I knew it, I’d created a cartoon-like bull’s head. What makes it magical is when you start to see these things in 3D space, walk around them and create sculptures, paint in the sides, add ears, create horns that jut out of the forehead. Other people are far, far more talented than I…
Certainly, there’s lots of gimmicky brushes to add sparkling rainbows, flames, and so on, but just viewing the gallery of images in Steam shows the potential for VR as a genuine creative tool. At the very least, it’s a nice and gentle stepping stone, before jumping into the tech demos and first wave of games on the system.
Job Simulator | HTC Vive, Oculus Touch, PlayStation VR | Owlchemy Labs | £22.99 (Free with an HTC Vive)
Job Simulator was one of the game’s that sold me on the Vive when I first tried it. It puts you into the shoes (well, disembodied floating hands) of a human, well after robots have made us obsolete in the workforce. It’s a surreal and colourful look at how life in the workplace might be viewed from the outside.
Whether in the office, working in a garage, as a chef or a store clerk, it’s always just a little bit off in its approximations, not just in your duties, but also of how our contemporary technology works. In the office, you’ll be plugging in and then using a ludicrously simplified computer – the better for your big clumsy hands to use – but then there’s the water cooler, the copy machine that copies anything, the hiring and firing process. You’ll pop a hood when working as a mechanic, and replace a potato battery with a potted plant, if you like, or follow your boss’s instructions to fix emissions by blocking the exhaust pipe and putting an air freshener in the car.
And there’s always plenty of leeway to mess around. You can follow instructions poorly, diverge from what you’re meant to be doing, or simply pick things up and throw them around. It’s fantastically silly, but as with many of these “simulator” games, it’s a concept that can wear thin after a while. It’s a well rounded game that’s definitely worth playing, and perfect for showing VR to people, but that’ll be the main reason why you load it up after having played it for an hour or two.
Fantastic Contraption | HTC Vive | Northway Games | £29.99 (Free with an HTC Vive)
Another poster child indie game for VR, by virtue of pioneering the mixed reality videos in the run up to the Vive’s launch, comes in the form of Fantastic Contraption. it’s a relatively straightforward puzzle game, in which you have to get a small purple orb into a target area. That can be easier than it sounds.
You build your contraptions using stretchable wood for the frame and wheels, connecting each part together with a satisfying snap and pop. It’s all very intuitive, and quite easy to create the contraption you have in mind, but as soon as you press play to let it loose, you’ll discover that you’re an idiot, that you need more support struts, that it’s too tall, that it can’t handle a particular slope… and you feel like you’re back to square one.
It doesn’t help that there’s a lot of context sensitivity when trying to alter your design, that can see you contort a machine out of shape in the process, but the puzzles quite quickly ramp up in difficulty and challenge not just your logical thought but your ability to implement what you want to create.
It’s also really, very odd at times. As with many early VR games, it’s bright and colourful, with simplistic graphics, but that does nothing to explain the green cat with building items sticking out of its back or the magical hat that you pop onto your head to reach the game’s menus. Those just help to add a touch of whimsical charm to a very well done puzzle game.
Audioshield | HTC Vive | Dylan Fitterer | £14.99
Audioshield is a slightly unexpected contender to be the Vive’s killer app, as a first person rhythm action game that sees you combatively facing off against orange and blue orbs heading your way. You block orange with your right-hand shield and blue with your left, and they come at you from a great range of different angles, before exploding in showers of colour as they hit your shields. It just feels indescribably awesome to be standing there, fighting the music.
The pattern of orbs you face are generated afresh each time, so the same song can feel quite different, even if certain key moments have the same style of special pattern. However, it’s interpreting the audio files themselves, and the orbs don’t seem to be quite in time with the music. They arrive at about the right time, but it’s like they’re synced up to the booming bass of a house party down the road, lacking the fine tuned precision that bespoke levels and tracks have in other games from the rhythm action genre.
The user interface is another of the rough edges in the game, but it suffices to let you dredge up tracks from your PC or from Soundcloud to play along to, as well as from the three styles of shield available to you. But after the few moments of waiting in a blank void, it’s straight into the game, and you’ll be moving in time, as it verges on getting you to dance to the rhythm.
#SelfieTennis | HTC Vive | VRUnicorns | £14.99
Many people will tire of SelfieTennis by the first time its music loops back to the beginning, but for me, it’s a glorious exercise in simplicity. You play tennis… with yourself.
You’d think that playing tennis in VR would require a lot of running around and physical exertion, but SelfieTennis barely needs you to move a foot in order to work. You’re the only player on the court, with a trigger pull letting you spawn a ball in one hand and racquet in the other. Hit a ball that’s going to cross the net and you’re teleported to the other side and tasked with trying to hit a return, with time cleverly rewound a second or two to let you react.
Even then, it’s tricky to get the hand eye coordination right, and the game only has simplistic ball physics, while the motion tracking can’t cater to very fast racquet swings. You’re better off hitting the ball upward, instead of trying to hit accurate ground strokes. Without clear upward momentum, you lose the fight against gravity after a few hits, and are more likely to hit the ball into the net.
But that’s really all there is to it. Your only goal is to keep a rally going for as long as possible, and the luridly colourful world holds little else, except for the bizarre tennis ball headed people that you can hit balls and throw racquets at to “kill”. Still, I find that simple back and forth oddly compelling in its own right.
Space Pirate Trainer | HTC Vive | I-Illusions | £10.99
Another game that’s designed to do one thing and do it well, Space Pirate Trainer is an arcade shooting gallery, putting a gun in each hand and having you fire away at the robot droids that come your way. It’s actually rather difficult!
Your guns are both capable of firing in different modes, from single shot and burst fire to laser beams, but the game throws bigger and bigger waves of drones coming at you. You might be able to shoot at two things at once – trickier than it looks in the movies – but you’re often trying to keep track of half a dozen droids that are floating around you and occasionally firing back. Thankfully, there’s just a slight hint of slow motion to give you a chance of physically moving out of the way in time, but it’s damned tricky to post a respectable score on the leaderboards.
As far as shooting galleries go, it’s a good one, but it’s the prelude to a VR light gun game in the vein of House of the Dead and Time Crisis.
That’s the overriding feeling with some of the games that we’ve highlighted here. Don’t get me wrong, all of these games are very well done and show off what the HTC Vive and VR can do very well, but they’re not the lasting experiences that will keep you coming back to play time and again. There’s also the subject of price, with the small, niche market for VR pushing even curios like SelfieTennis past the £10 mark.
Having said that, there are games that can provide these kinds of lasting experiences, both now and in the future, which we’ll return to explore in the next few days.
Our thanks to Nvidia for loaning us a VR capable laptop for the purposes of reviewing the HTC Vive.