A few months ago, on my final day in the office before self-isolating, I received a large box in the mail. The side of the box held a tiny picture of a Companion Cube. This end up, the cube said. The Valve Index, one of the newest virtual reality headsets, had arrived. Taking it home that night on the subway proved tense, eyes shifting towards anyone even thinking of coughing.
As of this writing I have yet to take the subway since. Things are different now, I’m sure you’re already well aware. Even the rock that you might have been living under is now practicing social distancing. Maybe you two keep in touch with a weekly Zoom call. For myself, one of the most reliable ways to pass time is, and always has been, video games.
Immersion—actually feeling like you’re in the game—is something most gamers have fantasized about for decades. Only in the last few years has it become something achievable. If you have the cash for it, at least.
My very first experience with VR was a simple rollercoaster demo I tried a few years ago. No interaction at all, just sitting down for a minute or two as the coaster did a quick lap. What sold me on this first experience was the drop I felt in my stomach as I crested the first hill. That lurch proved to me that this stuff works, and the technology has certainly come a long way since then. In this roundup I’ll be covering the VR experience as a whole and my impressions of Valve’s Index and I will offer thoughts on two of the most outstanding games I’ve played since.
Setting up the Index was fairly simple, with the most difficult step being mounting two receivers on opposite ends of a play area. These had to be drilled into the wall, though you can simply set them on a stand for the time being. Beyond that it was simply plug-and-play. The headset and controllers synced up with my computer painlessly. The only sore spot was setting up a play area within Steam VR, the VR software Valve puts out with its Index headset. Getting the play space just as I liked it proved a bit annoying. That said, it’s likely due to my layout instead of problems with Steam VR.
The headset itself is comfortable to wear, with the weight of the headset feeling almost non-existent after the first few hours of use. The virtual reality effect, the main selling point of all headsets on the market, allows you to view long corridors and dizzying heights as if you as if you were physically present. It’s difficult to put the experience into words, other than that clichéd phrase I’ve used once already; It feels like you’re in the game!
Most games allow for multiple locomotion types. In simple terms, it’s how you move around the level. The two most common are teleport locomotion and smooth locomotion. Teleport locomotion displays a marker that shows you where you will end up after teleporting. I found this one to be the most agreeable with my stomach. Smooth locomotion uses one of the controller’s thumbsticks to move you similar to traditional games. I found that after playing for an hour or so I would become slightly nauseous and have to take a break.
One of the more standout features of the headset are the speakers, which hover in place next to your ears. The sound quality was shockingly good, better than a lot of headphones I’ve worn in the past.
The controllers mimic your finger movements, as well. Both your head and hand movements are tracked in game, allowing you to crouch behind objects and aim weapons like you would in real life. Personally, I’ve found myself ducking instinctively behind walls and taking cover where possible.
Gun raised, fully loaded, it’s time to talk about Hot Dogs, Horseshoes, and Hand Grenades (H3VR, for short).
The developer describes the game as a “lazy Sunday trip over to your friend’s house… if your friend was a retired gun-nut with a warehouse full of toys, a few irritating pets, and a bizarre obsession with meat.” While true, H3VR is one of the tensest games I’ve played, cut by constant puns of talking hot dogs. The mode I spent most of my time in is Take and Hold, a survival mode which pits you against waves of sarcastic hot dogs out to kill you. While a simple mode, I find myself coming back to it repeatedly, trying to last a bit longer each time. The stars of the game are hundreds of guns, realistically modeled and operating similar to life. Guns have to be loaded, charged, the safety taken off. Reloading in the middle of a firefight is more engaging than pressing a button. You have to eject the magazine, pull a fresh one from your inventory, insert it, and charge the gun again. A big part of the challenge is figuring out how each gun operates while under fire.
There are more leisurely modes as well, including a Skeeball game (with grenades for balls), a firing range for testing anything from muskets to mini guns, and even a full “survival horror” styled game with zombie hot dogs for enemies. While the screenshots of the game don’t look like much, there is a vast difference between seeing pictures and actually playing the game for yourself. This is one I would highly recommend if you ever get the chance to try it out. Replay value is high, making it a game I will return to.
Over twelve years ago Valve released Half-Life: Episode Two, leaving gamers with an infamous cliffhanger. Finally, they’ve released the newest game in the series, Half-Life: Alyx.
Half-Life: Alyx is considered the flagship VR title by many. It represents much of how VR can change a game with increased immersion and 1:1 tracking of your head and hands. Nearly every object is able to be picked up and interacted with to some degree.
At the start of the game there’s a radio with an antenna you can raise and a dial you can tune. A few feet away there’re some markers and a window you can write on and erase. Past that there’s a little alien called a Snark in a jar. Next to the Snark sits a tiny tin can which you can use to feed it. Scattered all over City 17 are tin cans which you can pick up and—if you squeeze the controllers hard enough—crush.
While H3VR has no story elements, Half-Life: Alyx is a much more narrative- driven experience. You play as Alyx, your main sidekick from Half-Life 2 and the subsequent episodes. Taking place before Half-Life 2, you scurry through City 17 hunting and hunted by the Combine, alien forces which have conquered Earth in the Seven Hour War.
Gunplay is similar to H3VR. You can take cover and must manually reload your weapons. I would have to give a slight edge to H3VR when it comes to combat. The guns operate more realistically in H3VR, and Half-Life: Alyx opts for a small weapon selection pool of three one-handed weapons. While the design choice of only having one-handed guns makes sense, H3VR proves that two-handed weapons can be pulled off in VR.
Regarding presentation, Half-Life: Alyx is the top dog of VR games. Sound and visuals are top notch, with character motion capture and facial animations being some of the best I’ve seen. Couple that with the VR effect and I found myself yelping as a Headcrab jumped at my face on more than one occasion.
The ending—without spoiling anything—was something that left me thinking for well after I shut off, so much so that I did a second run through a few days later. Playing a game in full a second time is a rare occurrence when we’re spoiled for choice and limited by time. If anything I’ve said left you in doubt as to how much I enjoyed Half-Life: Alyx, let my second playthrough dispel those thoughts.
Overall, while there is a bit of a shortage of high-quality games such as the ones I’ve mentioned above, the games that I’ve played so far have all been worth the price of admission so far. I realize I haven’t covered other big hits such as Asgard, Vader Immortal, and a whole slew of fan-made VR mods, this article would likely be a full Berry issue before too long. If you’re curious to try it yourself, once things start to return to normal see if there are any VR cafés near you, this way you’ll be able to try VR for yourself without breaking the bank. While the price of entry; a PC up to snuff and a VR headset ranging from $300 to $1,000 is high, it’s an experience I’ve never had before, and I’ll be buying and playing VR games quite some time.