The last time I used Oculus Rift was at E3 2013. It was in the early days of the HD dev kit, and while I was impressed with the experience of finding myself in a virtual world, I wasn’t convinced about the practical applications. Two E3s later, a lot has changed. The Crystal Cove prototype was announced in early 2014, followed by Crescent Bay later that year. Facebook acquired the company and the consumer version was given a first-quarter 2016 release window. And as for the hardware itself – wow. As it turns out, two years can make all the difference.
The first part of my E3 demo had me going hands-on (or head-on, really) with the Oculus Rift to try a variety of different games taking advantage of the virtual reality technology. The Rift was fit snugly over my head, with headphones plopping down over my heads, and it was a lot more comfortable than I remembered. I played three of the available titles, starting with Lucky’s Tale, an adorable platformer starring a smiling fox. What’s interesting about Lucky’s Tale, despite the fact that it’s not in first person, is how moving your head changes perspective. Makes perfect sense – this is VR after all – but after so many years of a familiar control scheme, not being able to change the camera with a thumbstick was a little jarring.
Lucky was cute, but his game didn’t have any particular depth. I enjoyed looking back and forth to check out the environment and stay ahead of obstacles and enemies, but I didn’t see any reason to play ever again (as opposed to a really excellent platformer without VR technology). So I moved on to Hockey, which is… exactly what it sounds like. You’re a goalie; move your head left and right to follow the puck, block left and right to keep your team from suffering an embarrassing loss. Once in a while you’ll get a shot at a breakaway and the perspective changes to a player on the other side of the ice. Now it’s your job to find an opening in the opposing goalie’s defense. Aim, shoot, and score! Hypothetically, anyway. I had some trouble predicting the goalie’s movements; I can confirm that Oculus Rift does not make you psychic.
Hockey was fun in a Wii Sports kind of way: a simple game based on a familiar concept made to show off new technology. It’s not the kind of game you’ll rush home to play, but it’s entertaining enough. The real standout, though, was Edge of Nowhere, made by Insomniac Games. It’s simple in execution, yet creepy and atmospheric. As a lone traveler on a snowy mountain, you move your character with the controller and change perspective using your head.
I had already seen this mechanic in Lucky’s Tale, but Edge of Nowhere uses it more effectively in a couple of ways. One, you don’t have any weapons, but you are being pursued. Creepy-crawlies emerge throughout, giving chase, while shadows and sounds imply that even bigger beasts are nearby. This sense of urgency means that there’s no time to stand around and take in the environment; you need to move, preferably towards safety. Additionally, your surroundings are much more deadly. There were a few times I had to make split-second decisions to jump from one ledge to another; I did hesitate once and the ground disappeared beneath me, forcing me to start over. I was also impaled by stalactites a few times until I figured out I needed to watch for signs of crumbling rocks while evading the ever-present danger behind me.
The blustering cliffs aren’t the only locale shown in the demo; the protagonist soon made his way into a cave and shimmied down a rope to see what was hiding below. Turns out: more monsters! Once again it was time to run, this time with limited lighting. Finally, I emerged in… an impeccably decorated living room, with the fireplace blasting and phonograph turning. I knew something wasn’t quite right, so I checked out the room cautiously, and was soon overcome with tentacles that completely covered my field of view. That’s how Edge of Nowhere‘s demo came to an abrupt and surreal end, but honestly, I could have played more. If any game I saw makes the case for the Oculus Rift, it’s that one.
I was already reeling about how different the experience was from two years ago when I stepped into a different demo room, this time without an Xbox controller. It was time to get my hands on (literally this time) the half-moon prototype controllers that make up Oculus Touch. Aside from the fact that they’re strapped to you, it’s really like holding half a controller in each hand. Each has a thumbstick, trigger, and buttons, but they won’t be included with the Rift or even launched at the same time. And that’s kind of a shame, because they really enhance the experience.
To be fair, what I played was only a tech demo, not an actual game, so I’ve yet to see how the controllers work in a consumer product. The toybox, as the developers called it, had one of them guiding me through it (appearing in virtual form in the demo) as I figured out how to point, wave, pick up objects, and toss them around. In front of me was a table stretching to the left and right, on top of which were lots of items to play with. Unlike the regular controller, with Touch I could actually see my hands (or virtual representations of them, anyway). When I moved my fingers or made a fist, my onscreen hands did the same. This made a huge difference in immersion; as cheesy as it sounds, I actually forgot I was standing in a dark, cold demo room within a bigger meeting room at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
At one point, a ping pong paddle appeared on the table just out of my reach. I’m pretty good at ping pong, and wanted to see how the VR version stacked up. So I leaned against the table to reach it – except there was no table in real life, and I stumbled forward, almost falling over. A little embarrassing, sure, but the developers said it’s not an uncommon reaction. Of course, it’s possible they were just trying to make me feel better after such a dorky move.
Oculus Rift with an Xbox One controller is good. Oculus Rift with Oculus Touch is great. The latter feels like the true Oculus experience (though I’m not sure how it would work with a third-person game), while the former keeps you slightly grounded in reality. I’m impressed with both control schemes, especially since I was skeptical during my last Oculus Rift E3 experience. Is it enough for me to invest in a beefy PC, since I’m primarily a Mac user? I’m not sure – 2015’s game releases are going to be hard enough on my wallet, and I’ll likely still be playing this holiday’s titles well into 2016. But for the first time, I’m actually considering it.