E3 2016 Marked the Moment That Virtual Reality Gaming Finally Made Sense
I didn't come to LA expecting to travel home desperately wanting a headset to call my own, but then <i>Arkham VR</i> and <i>Resi 7</i> happened, and here we are.
I've played a lot of virtual reality games in the (recent) past, from sci-fi racers and fantasy puzzlers to horrific sit-downs, vertigo-stirrers and more. Some have been enjoyed because of their unprecedented technological qualities; others, for their brain-testing gameplay, wrapped in a new world of interactive immersion. Few have felt like the proverbial real deal, though, most coming over more like first-impressions-maximised demos than fully realised video games.
E3 2016 has changed that, for me at least. During the annual conference in Los Angeles, I've strapped all manner of new VR experiences to my face, and largely walked away with my legs wobbly not through nausea, but the very palpable sense that this is the turning point, the moment that matters for this new tech and all the fascinating fun and games that's about to come with it.
Sony's PlayStation VR is the driving force behind this games culture sea change, releasing as it is as soon as October the 13th and promising 50 games, at least, available between then and the end of 2016. With so many PlayStation 4s in homes already – the company's shipped over 40 million of the consoles to date – this gives PS VR a head start over its rivals, foremost amongst them the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. For under 400 dollars, PlayStation owners can bring VR home, and plug it directly into their existing hardware. Yes, you need a camera, and (for some games) special Move controllers, but the price of entry remains well below the alternatives – the Rift is a shade under 600 dollars RRP, for example.
'Batman: Arkham VR', E3 2016 reveal trailer. Believe me when I say that this shit gets dark, fast, when you play it.
Forgive me for sounding like a cheap-suited salesman, just then, but because of the PS VR's imminent market entry, E3's VR line-up is dominated by titles running on Sony's headset. A special demo for Capcom's Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, subtitled Beginning Hour, is on show using said equipment, playable within a mocked-up haunted house inside one of the LA Convention Centre's giant halls. Also available, for press at least, was Batman: Arkham VR, made by the architects of the celebrated Arkham trilogy (sorry, Origins), London's Rocksteady Studios.
Both of these are dark, distinctly M-for-mature productions. Resi 7, which shares both narrative and atmospheric DNA with Capcom's Kitchen demo of last year, might only be a short-run-time affair, (available now through the PS Plus service) but you only need to dip a toe into YouTube to see how players are already exploring all of its hidden collectibles and secret endings, extending its longevity. I flinch just the once on my playthrough, because I am largely dead to emotions, as a harmless mannequin makes a too-sudden appearance into my field of vision. What don't show up are zombies, a series staple since the original Resi of 1996, though they may yet shuffle into headshot range in the full game, a first-person overhauling of existing formulas coming to both PS4 and Xbox One on January the 24th, 2017. The entire thing will be playable in VR, and having survived Beginning Hour at its most intimate, I'm very tempted to tackle the complete release in the same manner.
'Resident Evil 7: Biohazard', TAPE 1 "Desolation" trailer. Capcom say that the whole game will be playable in VR, if your heart can handle it.
Arkham VR is merciless of tone – no spoilers, but the situation depicted in one of the two "missions" I play, after you suit up, takes me by surprise with its brutality – and very different of mobility. In Resi 7's demo, movement is controlled by the left stick on a regular pad; Arkham, though, uses the point-and-twist Move sticks first seen back in 2010, one for each hand, with Batman's (your) location in a stage determined by warping to a pre-set position indicated by a marker. By squeezing the trigger and pressing the main top button, as well as flicking the wrist accordingly, the player can pull useful gadgets from their utility belt, toss Batarangs around the grim back alleys of Gotham, and analyse a crime scene in a fashion very much like the Arkham franchise's patented Detective Mode. Being the Bat has never felt like this before in gaming, and seeing yourself in an in-game mirror as the Caped Crusader, his head nods matching yours, is a surreal and wonderful sight that I'm not about to forget in a hurry. Early adopters of Sony's VR kit can try it for themselves when it comes out in October.
Arkham VR will be an hour long, give or take a few mistakes, when it launches. The hospital-gone-to-shit-set Wilson's Heart, a stylishly monochromatic 2017 release for Oculus Rift and Touch controllers, will run for more than eight, say its makers at Austin's Twisted Pixel. I play a short slice of it, where my character wakes up on a ruined ward, the walls broken down and blood smeared on the tiles. I am Robert Wilson, voiced by RoboCop actor Peter Weller, and something's really not right with me. Moving about the hospital using the same system as Arkham VR, I find some x-rays of a chest, a chest with some strange circular contraption where a heart should be. Hang on. That's my chest, and my heart that isn't there. What, the, fuck, right?
Wilson picks up a strange book, filled with ominous drawings and indecipherable lettering. Whatever's happened here, it's almost definitely (I mean, come on, no almost about it) supernatural. Just as things approach full Twilight Zone levels of fuck-this-I'm-out weirdness though, with a teddy bear stepping off a canvas and into three-dimensional reality with deadly results for a pair of nurses, it's time up for my session. A shame, as Wilson's Heart is shaping up to be a phenomenal VR experience based on this brief impression, the Touch controllers bringing (as) lifelike (as this stuff gets right now) flexibility to the title character's hands as they use a rotary-dial telephone, punch through glass to retrieve a fire extinguisher, and frantically search for the right key to open a door as a murderous stuffed toy inches towards him. I don't know if I'll ever be able to play it at home, given the current cost of an Oculus, but for those whose pockets reach deeper, do look out for this sometime in 2017.
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'Wilson's Heart', E3 2016 teaser. While it's more of a psychological tickler than straight horror game, expect a jump scare or three.
Rebellion's reinventing of 1980 arcade cab Battlezone is another PS VR around-about-launch title, pitting the player against bright and aggressive bundles of shooting-right-back polygons in fast-moving 3D. It's a great deal of fun, simultaneously throwback and fascinatingly futuristic, and its randomly generated levels will guarantee that all-important replay value, essential when it comes to games that aren't stuffed to the gills with great swathes of content. Eagle Flight by Ubisoft, also out this year, takes up a lot of floor space at the LACC, and offers full-VR PvP airborne gameplay for PS4 and PC systems, available on both the Oculus and Vive. Star Wars and Star Trek games are revealed, with the latter, the four-player co-op of Bridge Crew, causing all manner of attendees at E3 to coo like you over another kitten video, be they Trekkies or (more often) not. While I'm sceptical that anyone will enjoy the game as it's supposed to be played, locally with four headsets, outside of expos like this, there's no doubt that Bridge Crew is a hit with everyone who tries it at E3.
I stick my glasses into a VR psychic-powers puzzler based in the Psychonauts world, Rhombus of Ruin, and withdraw them smiling like an imbecile having tossed several rolls of toilet paper at Coach Oleander. And first-person sci-fi shooter Farpoint is a fine title to showcase Sony's new Aim VR Controller, a (kind of) gun-shaped device that makes me think of the old SNES Super Scope. (Although the internet shows me that my memory of Nintendo's old light gun is very different from the reality of it. Probably just the white-and-grey colouring.)
There's unmistakeable critical mass to VR gaming, unprecedented support for it both monetarily and in terms of good will, and E3 has made that crystal clear. This isn't a niché technology, a branch of the industry destined to be on the side-lines, and these productions aren't all quick fixes designed more to impress technically than they do as entertainment. We're past that corner now. For the first time in my life, I can realistically see virtual reality being a part of my home. What kit yet, I can't say, but I really did not travel to Los Angeles expecting to come home feeling this way. The science works. Now all we need is the wider acceptance of it (coming industry wide, this autumn), and all I need is for someone to loan me 400 bucks and immediately forget about it.
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