Satisfying virtual reality experiences are unlike anything you’ll experience on your living room TV. Unfortunately, satisfying VR experiences are, for the most part, dependent on additional hardware. That makes it nearly impossible to just grab a headset and start playing, and elevates the price of admission by a few hundred dollars at minimum.
That’s not true of the Oculus Quest. The Facebook subsidiary’s newest portable headset ditches the wires and expensive hardware found on other high-end VR hardware, cramming it all into a self-contained headset with motion-tracking controllers. If the Quest is able to build up a library of quality VR games and experiences, it could turn into the coolest game console you’ll ever own. But it could also be the most painful game console you’ll ever own.
The $399 Oculus Quest ($499 for the 128GB version) is the company’s third major attempt at nailing virtual reality. Its first, the polarizing Oculus Rift, brought VR to high-end PCs, requiring users set up stationary sensors to play. Its second, the smaller, self-contained Oculus Go, ditched the PC for some newfound freedom, but its single controller, limited degrees of freedom, and underwhelming experience eventually left many bored of the entire affair.
Like the Go, the Quest is a self-contained VR headset — it has no wires to get tangled in and no cameras to mount or position for tracking purposes. The Quest supports six degrees of freedom: up, down, left, right, front, and back. Unlike the Go, the Quest’s integrated cameras and motion-tracking controllers do a great job of keeping you properly oriented, and allow you to move freely throughout a virtual environment with your actual body as long as you’ve got the space to do so.
The headset has the heart of a smartphone, down to its 64GB of storage, Snapdragon processor, 4GB RAM, headphone jack, and USB-C charging port. Its adjustable straps require you to spend a few minutes dialing in the fit. But the Quest is comfortable enough to wear for the device’s three-hour battery life, though it gets less so as your VR session goes on. Integrated speakers provide adequate sound, getting plenty loud should you need to crank it up when casting your gameplay to other devices — the Quest can beam the visuals you’re seeing to a smartphone or Chromecast-friendly device for others to watch along, albeit with a slight delay and some severe audio lag.
The Quest includes revised versions of the Rift’s Touch controllers, one for each hand. Those Touch controllers — used to map your play space and interact with your environment — are both comfortable to hold and fun to use. They move when you do, and are equipped with joysticks, triggers, and grip buttons, mimicking your hand’s movements in virtual space. There are also built-in wrist straps you should wear to prevent slippage. One tip: Their magnetic battery cover is weak enough to come loose during intense gameplay, so be mindful of how tightly you’re gripping them.
Speaking of play space: to get the most out of the Quest and its VR games and experiences, you’ll need space. A lot of it. The Quest recommends you establish a 6.5-square-foot perimeter in which you can safely flail to your heart’s content. You map your space yourself, drawing a virtual “box” around yourself and any obstacles (like furniture) with your controllers, creating a Holodeck-style boundary Oculus calls the Guardian.
You won’t see the Guardian during gameplay; the invisible blue grid will only appear and turn red when you’re in danger of violating your preset boundaries. Sticking your head out of the Guardian’s space will activate the Quest’s cameras, showing you a black-and-white view of what you’re about to run into until you literally get your head back in the game.
While only a dozen Quest games were ready in time for this review, over 50 will be ready for launch on May 21, many of them ports of Rift titles. Oculus is working with developers to provide a curated library of titles, similar to your traditional game console maker. Games and apps are managed using the Oculus smartphone app, which lets you purchase and download Quest-compatible titles to your headset without putting it on. Popular VR titles like the cube-cutting rhythm game Beat Saber and the boxing-based Creed: Rise to Glory are available, and highlight how much fun can be had when you are simply able to use your actual hands in a game. Bigger, more anticipated titles, like Epic’s Robo Recall shooter and Lucasfilm’s Vader: Immortal, are also on the way.
Unfortunately, Creed’s visuals are underwhelming, and Beat Saber’s general feeling of emptiness can only keep you slicing for so long. A great deal of these VR games provide short bursts of entertainment, but finding a title with console-caliber quality might take some time. That isn’t to say there’s nothing to keep you interested. Games like I Expect You To Die and Ballista offered unique experiences that would’ve been either too difficult or too boring as a typical game. And Angry Birds VR managed to turn me from a vocal detractor of the franchise to someone genuinely curious about whether or not they’ll add more levels to the entertaining slingshot-shooter.
There’s also the issue of space. After moving nearly every piece of furniture out of my way, and telling the Guardian where I planned on playing, I still felt cramped. Just a few steps in any direction would reveal the borders of my experience, constantly reminding me that just inches away was a real boundary and not an endless sea or swarm of robots. That feeling of restriction turned into rage when, during a particularly intense Beat Saber session, I swung my arm in a wide arc, colliding with the brick wall behind me.
While the Touch controller’s unorthodox shape helped cushion the impact, the dull pain that remained demonstrated that the Quest’s location tracking isn’t perfect, and made me wonder if there was more the Quest could do with its array of cameras and sensors to paint a more accurate picture of what is or isn’t lurking beyond the borders of reality. Yes, the option to play in a stationary position, either sitting or standing, is available, should space be an especially pressing issue.
Game catalog aside, the Quest just reminded me how magical all this VR stuff feels. Interacting physically with a video game is an experience unfamiliar to more people than not. Reaching out for door handles, craning your neck to see hidden items, turning around to find different angles of attack — it changes the way games are played, or what even constitutes a game in the first place. Hell, the zany Job Simulator turns you into a literal button-pusher, and it’s a blast.
But it all comes at a cost. Virtual reality remains a solitary experience, especially when you consider how blind you are to the real world until you wander out of your virtual one. But when someone’s there, watching you flail about with no context, it just gets uncomfortable. Throughout my time playing, I felt my partner sitting on the couch, somewhat wary of crossing my path in case I decided to slice a box in half, or reach for a ham sandwich (yes, games are weird now). I couldn’t look at her, and unless I was streaming my view to my smartphone or the TV — crushing her hopes of watching any prestige dramas — she was cut off from me. That reason alone means VR might be a pleasant part of entertainment’s future, but only a part.
The Oculus Quest is the most capable iteration of the portable VR headset yet, and promises to be a much-needed boost to the viability of the industry as a whole. By incorporating the best features of Oculus’ high-end devices with the portability of its cheapest, the Quest is able to ditch the extraneous and focus on its strengths to great success. The current gaming experiences themselves remain minor diversions at best, but upcoming titles could be enough to change that perception for those on the fence. Whether the Quest is enough to get you to move your couch and risk light bodily harm for the sake of entertainment depends on how much you’re convinced escapism is the future.