We’re nearing the end of our week of coverage from reviewing the HTC Vive, with a fairly in depth look at the hardware for this fascinating VR system, as well as an exploration of the many games that are available for it. However, while many of these games are well made or offer up exciting visions of where developers can take VR in future, they’re not currently the kinds of meaty games that most people will expect to see before they consider jumping onto the VR bandwagon.
Those games do already exist in some capacity, but generally do so with VR as a secondary thought to conventional monitor-led gaming, and aim to be accessible to all three VR platforms. By their very nature, with you sat in a cockpit and with minimal body movement needed, space games and driving games have gone hand in hand with VR through the last few years of development.
Immersion is a term that get bandied around a lot, when it comes to VR, and that’s a big factor in what will draw people to try it for the first time, but the important thing to realise is that immersion doesn’t equate to the spectacular. You should feel completely at home in this environment, and the act of driving a car or flying a space ship should be completely unremarkable. Instead, the spectacle comes from what lies outside the cockpit and what you’ll generally find yourself focusing upon.
Looking back at the recording of my driving in Project Cars, I find it surprising just how much I tilt my head and look into the corner, when I’ve not driven a car for several years and video games only ever let you look straight ahead. The thing is that it’s become a subconscious action very quickly. It’s a much more conscious decision to keep checking my mirrors when racing against other cars, especially when trying to race with a much slower car than the competition and you have to keep a watchful eye as they try to pass you, but the driving itself is natural.
A lot of that will come from my familiarity with a racing wheel and racing games, though my seating position and wheel height didn’t really fit with those in game. That point wasn’t particularly jarring unless I thought about it too hard, so the only thing that’s really been missing for me was more force feedback from contact, but this is something that can be adjusted within the game’s sprawling and in depth settings.
Still, it’s hard to get over how cool it is to drive round the Nurburgring Nordschliefe in heavy rain, as in the video above. The same can be said for Elite: Dangerous’ portrayal of travelling through space, and it’s a game that really brings home the staggering scale of what’s out there. Dropping out of hyperspace as you reach your target star system is a show-stopping moment the first time, as you’re suddenly confronted with a bafflingly vast star filling your view and a split second of panic as you steer away and try to slow down.
Now that your in the right star system, you still need to find your way to the space station you want to visit, travelling at faster than light speeds for minutes, in order to get there, being careful to slow down and drop out of supercruise mode at the right point.
Gazing to the left and right in your cockpit brings up menus to communicate with the space station and request a berth to land in, or activate various ship functions, such as lowering the landing gear. Unfortunately, the game still feels awkward at times, such as when you call up the galaxy and system map and find that it’s too big to take in all at once, or when you realise that you need to lift the HMD for just a second to press a key on the keyboard, because there’s only so many buttons on a DualShock 4. You can remap important functions, but keyboard input still matters.
Dogfighting is another area where Elite: Dangerous makes great use of VR. Those trying it for the first time will take a little coaxing to do so, but you quickly learn that you can look up and around you, with a large glass canopy to look out of. Targeting doesn’t make use of your head tracking, but you’ll still be trying to keep the enemy ship in sight as much as possible and stave off having to resort to the radar in front of you.
But for all their brilliance, these are also the two games of the many I’ve played that most suffer from the open platform of PC gaming. HTC and Oculus have both created a pseudo-closed platform, with minimum bar for entry that’s high but which ensures that you’re going to have an enjoyable experience with the games that you play. Developers, whether aiming for photorealism or featuring bright and colourful graphics, can use these specifications to guarantee a minimum level of performance, with an absolutely steady 90 frames per second the target. In doing so, they can avoid exposing graphics settings to end users.
Such niceties can’t really be extended to players of Elite: Dangerous or Project Cars, but they do both feature VR oriented presets. In Project Cars in particular, with the number of cars it can feature on screen at any time, you might decide to use the lower graphics preset to try and hit 90 frames per second, or live with the Vive’s ability to reproject and play with a smoothed out 45 frames per second game. That’s what I did, and the game still looked and ran very nicely on the Nvidia 980.
But I also found that there were problems just getting up and running, and then fine tuning the experience to suit me. Elite: Dangerous needs to be launched twice before it will actually run in VR, for example, while I’ve come to accept that Project Cars will never, ever remember the specific VR settings to recenter my viewpoint where my head is at the start of a race, let alone my HUD preferences.
And then there’s the pixelation and the lens flare, which I highlighted in our hardware review. When racing in Project Cars, you’re generally focussing on points off in the distance, but that means you’re trying to focus on objects that are, in reality, just a few pixels in size and just a few centimetres from your eyes. There’s only so much that the lenses can do to diffuse that, and it means that things like fence posts shimmer as you race in their direction. It’s moments like this that you hammer home that the future of VR depends so much on increasing pixel density.
It’s worse in Elite: Dangerous, with a high contrast user interface and lots of menus to navigate from within your cockpit. The light from the UI in your control centre blooms and flares across the fresnel lenses, giving the game an ethereal look at times, but much worse, the text is hard to make out and aliased edges are rather noticeable. It’s a known issue for the developers and the Oculus Rift reportedly has fewer problems with the text and aliasing, but personally, I feel it’s an issue that I could live with for the Vive’s many other advantages. It helps that I don’t have a Rift handy in order to do a side-by-side comparison.
It’s a little disappointing that both of these games, which grew up alongside VR and the Oculus Rift development kits, have these teething problems in VR and on Vive. To be fair, they’re not really ‘one size fits all’ games, and you will want to tweak their settings to suit you at the best of times. It’s worth it though, with two fantastic games that can easily suck up hours at a time and have given plenty of people reason enough to invest in VR.