Prior to Gamescom, I was firmly in the camp that felt virtual reality remained more of a very expensive gaming gimmick than a platform destined for future industry dominance. Everything I'd played had been brief, exciting but ultimately quite shallow and short-form: nothing that you'd want right up against your face for longer than the forthcoming features reel at your local multiplex. Capcom's Kitchen showed me that VR horror can be properly pants-shitting of intensity, but I'm not sure how that genre would work over sessions lasting a few hours. Tammeka's Radial-G: Racing Revolved, meanwhile, is a terrific Wipeout-like racer that locks you into its gravity-disrupting competition for a few laps, but it's unlikely you'd be able to stand after a couple of circuits played back to back, such is its brain-sloshing speed.
And after Gamescom, I feel the same way – at least, for the time being, as the conference made it clear to me that there are developers out there attempting to do more with VR than produce experiences that pin you against a wall, be that a physical one in the room you can no longer see or a strictly digital one that's stopping your avatar's head from being left behind that weirdly stiff body beneath you. One such company is nDreams, a small British studio whose forthcoming The Assembly promises several hours of free-roaming, explorative gameplay. It casts you as two separate characters, both of whom find themselves in a secret underground bunker somewhere in the American wilds, where science had a free reign to go wild and crazy far away from the prying, critical, censoring eyes of any government.
My demo begins on a gurney, as the female character of the two, Madeline Stone, something of a famous doctor in this fiction, is wheeled into the facility in question, the headquarters of the shady organisation of experimental shenanigans that gives the game its title. She's meant to be sedated. She's not, which means we can look around us and hear everything our kidnappers are saying, which provides backstory on who we are and also points to some seriously bad shit going on in the outside world: birds are dropping out of the sky, dead, for one thing. It's all very X-Files-y, and that's just fine with me.
It's not the shiniest VR game visually, not in this preview build anyway, but The Assembly – once you're off the on-rails opening – permits great freedom of movement via a control scheme that lets you look at where you want to be and flick a stick back and forth to go there. It takes a second to get used to, but that's all – soon enough you're poking your face into all kinds of secretive nooks and classified crannies, tapping X to investigate what's in front of you. And what you're seeing won't appear the same way for the other playable character, veteran Assembly "employee" Cal Pearson. nDreams is aiming to have the game finished in time for it to launch beside Sony's Project Morpheus, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Steam VR – find out more on its official website.
New on Motherboard: This Man Has Been Trying to Live His Life as a Goat
Much shorter, and not really much of a game at all, more a holding-stuff-simulator, is Crytek's impressive tech demo Back to Dinosaur Island 2. I get my hands on it, and face in it, first thing after rushing into the Koelnmesse, and given that its main challenge is to scale a sheer cliff face – tilt the headset down, looking beneath your feet, and there's just the most acrophobia-rushing abyss imaginable – while winged beasts (a kind of large pterosaur, perhaps, looking at the crests, something from the azhdarchidae family) do their best to prevent you getting too near their nests, it proves quite the knee-trembler.
All I need to do is use the pad's triggers to activate my hands' grip – left for left, right for right, with the direction of my gaze controlling where I want to place a hand once I release it. Powered pulleys carry me up the cliff, so long as I don't let go and meet my maker somewhere down there. I'm told to look behind me as I near its summit, and the view is, frankly, stunning: this demo, which serves as an impression of what Crytek will produce with their forthcoming CryEngine-powered VR game proper, Robinson: The Journey. As I haul myself up and get some dirt underneath me, gigantic sauropods bend their necks to bid me welcome. In the distance I see some kind of life-support unit, and my HUD locks onto a source of water – this is either the prehistoric Earth being visited by time-travellers, or a planet much like our own, perhaps a parallel world, as there's plenty of evidence of man leaving a mark – I spin around and there's a crashed spaceship across the gorge. Also: someone must have put all of these lines into this rock, right? I don't suppose these squawking flapping things are handy with a hammer.
Article continues after the video below
I stagger away from the encounter impressed, but wary, as I'm unsure how this kind of thing will work as a full game. There's no doubt that Crytek knows how to make amazing VR worlds, full of life that you can (almost literally) reach out and touch, but if Robinson – which doesn't have a release date, yet – features many sections like the Dinosaur Island ascent, delivered in succession, people are going to lose their breakfasts. One VR game on show, though, totally understands the value in a short-play, maximum-explosions-for-minimum-exposure experience. Gunjack is a petite but perfectly formed arcade shooter set within CCP's EVE universe, designed for the Samsung Gear VR. It places you in a turret on the side of a mining rig, and you have to repel enemies that come small, in Space Harrier-like waves, and massive, filling the screen and firing bloody great laser beams at your comfy little cockpit.
Gunjack's great fun, and will release alongside the official commercial launch of the Gear VR (hopefully later in 2015), but it's really just a teaser for EVE's bigger VR game, the spaceships-everywhere dogfighting thriller of Valkyrie. Now, I know nothing about EVE Online, and have zero interest in learning about its vast lore, but I know what I like when I'm playing it, and Valkyrie is brilliant. The chap who slips the headset on me mentions that the shoulder buttons are for "advanced flying" – they'll roll my ship, barrel style. So naturally, the first thing I do when the enemies emerge is turn myself upside down and gun straight for the nearest thing to blow up.
And there's a lot of stuff to blow up – the downside being that it's moving mighty fast, and can shoot you back. It's spectacular, just the most fantastically "real"-feeling space combat I've ever experienced, and I immediately want another turn when I'm finally blasted to pieces by the bad guys. Unfortunately, Gamescom's a pretty heaving place, and as soon as I'm done there's someone else stepping across my shadow to have a go.
There's a load more VR on show at Gamescom 2015, with Oculus occupying a large booth on the public-accessible show floor. Secret Shop VR, based on Valve's Dota 2, was demoing on the HTC Vive, while Oculus hosted both an impressive-looking, first-person ice hockey simulator and Edge of Nowhere, which placed its player in an icy environment full of creepy, tentacled threats. But my four hands-on bookings are enough to get a feel for where developers are taking the possibilities presented by virtual reality. The emphasis remains on showy but slight experiences, and I'm not sure that VR is destined for home popularity – I can imagine it being great in bars and arcades, though. But there's some shifting in the tide, signs that, maybe, fuller experiences of complete immersion are almost upon us. And when they are, do not begin playing while the oven's on. "I was obliterating aliens," is not the kind of excuse you want to be giving a fire crew after your kitchen's been gutted.
More from VICE Gaming: