The opening salvo in the high-fidelity, high-price virtual reality wars kicks off in less than two weeks, when Oculus VR rolls out its $600 Rift headset to consumers. TIME spent a day at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco test-driving the final version of Rift, and some of the experiences you can expect to have when it launches on March 28.
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Radial-G: Racing Revolved
Futuristic race cars hurtle over pulsing tubes that snake through 3D-space with hazards you can only anticipate if you snap your view toward the ceiling. Except there is no ceiling, because this is Radial-G: Racing Revolved on Oculus Rift, the virtual reality version of Tammeka Games’ breakneck anti-grav racer staged on tracks that weave crazily through a derelict asteroid mining station.
Its twice-Bafta-nominated producer Sam Watts told me the game took some 4,000 human hours to make, and that the VR version—a non-VR version for PC launched in December 2014—has been in the works for more than two years. It’s also one of less than a dozen launch titles to earn an Oculus “Intense” comfort rating, though Watts told me the studio came up with some clever field-of-view tricks to mitigate queasiness when you’re executing barf-prone maneuvers.
Radial-G launches on March 28 for $24.99.
Hand over hand, ledge by crack, I’m pulling myself along the face of a rust-red cliff that soars thousands of feet above anything like safe ground. I swivel my head and there’s a view that makes me think of the Paramount Pictures logo: a hyper-majestic Olympian mountain aglow in the engine’s killer sunset. I’m playing The Climb, studio Crytek’s thrilling rock-climbing game for Oculus Rift, feeling simultaneously contemplative and scared you-know-what-less.
The Climb uses the Rift’s forthcoming Oculus Touch, a pair of bracelet-sized controllers you hold, one in each hand, to simulate that signature primate feature: opposable thumbs. In the game, they control a pair of virtual hands you can move freely along a cliff wall, reaching for handholds identified by faint chalk lines. Hit a dead end and you may have to jump, terrifying lurch-of-faith moments that had me gasping repeatedly. Or dangle from one hand for too long, and you’ll lose your grip (and maybe your lunch), plummeting backwards into the waiting arms of a blessed checkpoint reload.
The Climb arrives in April for $49.99.
If there’s a point that spending the day with an Oculus Rift strapped to your face reinforces, it’s that sufficiently conveying the experience of virtual reality with mere words is impossible. In videos, Lucky’s Tale looks like any other cutesy 3D game where you dash and jump between platforms. But pull on the Rift, and there’s no way to translate what happens, save that buzzwords like “presence” become eerily accurate, the immediacy of being a movable head inside a box of wonders driven home by your ability to scoot towards or crane your neck over or peer around the corner of virtually anything at all.
So imagine, if you can, the extraordinary feeling that arises when you can lean down until your face is inches from Lucky, the game’s anthropometric fox-hero. Do so and he’ll “notice” you, then mug for…well, it’s not really the camera, because now your head’s doing the looking instead of your fingers waggling a joystick. And it’s that ability to perceive objects in uncanny detail up close, or perceive them from any direction by subtly shifting your head just as you would in real life, that finally overwhelms your brain’s logic centers, immersing you completely in studio Playful’s dazzling carnival of the imagination.
Lucky’s Tale comes bundled with the Rift at launch on March 28.
Dead & Buried
When I heard that someone at Oculus VR had gone nearly prone playing Dead & Buried to dodge bullets, I scoffed—until I wound up doing the same thing myself instinctively. In fact I found myself doing a form of instant-yoga as I played Oculus Studios’ ghostly arcade shooter, which pits teams of two against each other in Western-inspired settings wielding pistols, futuristic rifles and fizzing sticks of dynamite.
Reach for your holsters using the Oculus Touch controls and you’ll draw a pair of guns that reload by snap-swiveling your wrists. Or grab a stick of dynamite off the rail you’re crouching behind, then wing it at your target like a pitcher hurling a ball. And since the Rift’s cameras keep track of where the headset is in the environment, you can use cover just as you would in real life, crouching to reduce visibility and leaning left or right to around rails or support beams to pop off shots while avoiding damage.
Dead & Buried doesn’t have a release date or price yet, but should appear when Oculus Touch arrives in the second half of 2016.
Finally, a game that had me reaching for handfuls of the ginger chews Oculus kindly situated around their demo rooms. Ubisoft’s Eagle Flight lets you pretend you’re a bird of prey soaring over a near-future version of Paris devoid of humans (I didn’t catch why, nor did I much care, since it’s probably just a narrative excuse to lay off already hyper-stressed PC graphics processors). After spending 30 minutes arrowing over a stunning reproduction of the Ile de la Cite, all I can say is that if this doesn’t make you at least a trifle green, you’re not of this world.
Learning to fly happens even more instinctually than the first time we all hefted a Wiimote. Move a dot on screen with your head and you fly in that direction, or tilt left or right and you’ll turn respectively. You can go faster and slower, or fire the equivalent of a shockwave blast (dubbed an “eagle scream”) at other eagles by tapping a button. And the game’s 3-versus-3 multiplayer mode, where each side tries to snatch a rabbit and schlep it to a distant nest without crashing or being shot, made Eagle Flight the only game you could easily hear people playing between floors, so loud were the cries of frustration or triumph.
Eagle Flight doesn’t have a price yet, but Ubisoft says it’ll ship sometime this fall.
It’s the kitchen of the future meets a recipe book of the uncanny. I kid not, by the time I’d finished playing Owlchemy Labs’ clever, quirky demo for Oculus Touch showcase Job Simulator, I’d whipped up a can of “magazine, compact disc and cookbook“ soup for some unfortunate soul, who I can only presume ate it.
Imagine the kitchen transformer Hasbro has yet to make, wrapped around you, a solo robotic line chef who can summon unique cook-spaces and appliances with the flip of a dial. Snatch slips of paper off an order wheel with your virtual hands, then follow recipe instructions—or take them creatively sideways by adding “extra” nearby ingredients—to craft delicacies along a spectrum that ranges from the tasteful to the tastefully bizarre.
Job Simulator doesn’t have a release date or price yet, but should appear when Oculus Touch arrives in the second half of 2016.
A real-time strategy virtual reality game? Did someone get hit over the head before green-lighting this thing? No? Well thank goodness, because playing an RTS like a tabletop game looks pretty dang cool, even if the interface for zipping around the battlefield needs work.
That may be partly because AirMech: Command predates virtual reality, one of the Rift launch titles that’s been ported over rather than being designed from the ground up for VR. It’s a real-time action game in the online battle arena mold where you play a transforming robot that can shift between bipedal and flying forms, snatching up allied units to redistribute around the battlefield in the latter.
Getting to lean in and see your unit squads trundling around like toy soldiers is both startling and incredibly satisfying. All studio Carbon Games needs to do is figure out a way to make panning around the battlefield smoother, since at this point you can only do it spasmodically by tapping a button to re-center the camera on your robotic avatar.
AirMech: Command launches on March 28 for $39.99.
Who doesn’t want a giant killer robot virtual reality game? Answer: the little guy who has to fend off all those giants. Damaged Core lets you play as both, but not at first. And boy is it chilling watching evil Terminator-esque robots twice your size arc fluidly over your head, thrusters firing as they land, then lumber towards you, guns-a-blazing.
But target key areas on some of the biggest enemies and you can “possess” their sparking husks, teleporting across the field of battle by “looking” at a target, then towering several stories above foes as you unleash geysers of destruction. You’re more like a turret than a robot, incapable of locomotion as you leap from host to host, but capable of swiveling 360 degrees (by simply moving your head) to spray enemies with bullets and more. Just don’t let your host body die, else you have seconds to find another to leap into—including any of several strategic battlefield cameras—before the screen goes black.
Damaged Core doesn’t have a price yet, but High Voltage says it’ll ship sometime this spring.
Playing Gunfire Games’ Chronos had me thinking what might happen if you married Alone in the Dark to ICO, then dropped players’ heads into the space where the fixed cameras would be. It’s a third-person roleplaying game, only you watch your hero navigate each screen from a static position that automatically shifts as you cross invisible thresholds between one area and the next.
While in that position, since this is virtual reality, you can peer in any direction, sticking your head out from under a ledge to eyeball the panoramic sweep of stratospheric cliffs, or notice a pair of smoldering yellow eyeballs waiting in the darkness at stage left or right. The other twist is how the game handles dying: each time you perish, your character ages a year, though the person demonstrating the game admitted his desire to make it a serious caveat—to let players age right out of the game—was overruled by his teammates, so it’s apparently more a vanity thing.
Chronos launches on March 28 for $49.99.
Defense Grid 2: Enhanced VR Edition
Oddly my favorite Oculus Rift demo, Defense Grid 2 is another virtual reality port of an existing tower defense game. But again, as with AirMech: Command, the allure is how simple and intuitive it is to stick your face right down in the action, scrutinizing intricate sci-fi battlefields littered with marching, ant-like robots trying to bypass your matrix of defensive turrets from any angle.
The VR version adds something essential you don’t fully realize was missing from this sort of game until you’ve yanked off the headset and looked at the standard flat-screen version, which now feels lifeless by comparison. I hate to use that buzzword again, “presence,” but there it is. And with a tower defense game, where you’re already meant to hover and peruse and fuss over each level’s splendid minutia, it’s as natural and simultaneously uncanny as watching a real-world diorama come to life.
Defense Grid 2: Enhanced VR Edition launches on March 28 for $29.99.