I’ve just emerged, blinking, from City 17. I’ve been tinkering with Half-Life 2 on the Oculus Rift. And I’m a bit breathless. Speechless.
The Oculus has drawbacks: the screen is too low resolution. To get a decent effect you need to tinker with calibration settings. Motion sickness is a real problem.
But know this: playing a game of the quality and caliber of Half-Life 2 in Virtual Reality is an astonishing, incredible experience. It works. It’s as good as you’re dreaming it to be.
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Trying to articulate why VR feels so right is hard. I think it’s easy to just assume VR will be two screens strapped close to your face. When we talk about it, you forget that the images it creates are 3D. They’re solid, real. You can move around them. They move around. It’s such an obvious and odd thing to describe, but it’s so important.
Half-Life 2 starts with the G-Man right up in your face. It’s not a good first impression: he’s so close he ends up creating a double vision effect; breaking VR the moment you enter the game.
Then you find yourself in the train, coming into City 17. It feels tight and enclosed. You examine the two workers up close; marvel at how they turn and look into your eyes. But you don’t catch their speech; you’re too busy moving back and forth around a briefcase, looking forward and back, dazzled by its position in space.
Then the doors open, and you step out onto the platform.
I pretty much lost my shit at this point.
VR makes the spaces in a game feel right in a way videogames haven’t quite managed so far. City 17’s station’s cavernous ceilings feel so far away. You stop moving and just look, turning left and right. There is Breen, lecturing the city from the screens at the far end of the platform. A you watch, a hover-scanner gently drifts down, moves into your path, and waits.
You tilt your head, examining it. It gets closer, and blinds you with it’s photo-flash.
It’s the motion of it; the way it drifts above the air. You expect something weird and alien in a videogame now: that’s just what they’re about. But seeing this thing, this clump of metal hovering six inches from your face, taking your picture... I don’t how to describe it. It’s unreal? Hyper-real? It’s beyond immersive: it’s frightening.
Somehow, games feel more dangerous. There’s a moment early on where you have to jump out of a relatively low window. I got vertigo: my brain telling me not to do it. That bit where you throw the can back at the guard*? I flinched when he smacked me. Those times when you’re alone in a courtyard, ready to move on to the next area? You pause, take stock of the place, explore the corners. I’ve played Half-Life 2 so many times; I dash past that playground at the start. Here, I took a moment to pick up the doll, lay it back down. I tinkered with the swings and pushed the roundabout. The space felt more inviting, more like a place to be. It was no longer a funnel towards the next checkpoint: it was a world to explore.
I still get motion sickness: those who are experienced in VR say it takes time to get used to the effect. I had to stop at this point. But I’m back in in an hour. And I pray I can last longer this time.
One last thought: I’m getting all hot and bothered about a great game I’ve already played.
The real question Oculus will face is this: is it just a novelty way of reliving your favourite games? Or would I be prepared to play a brand new, unfamiliar game on the Oculus, with all of its flaws and problems over a standard PC?
After Half-Life 2: if I can get over the motion sickness... then holy hell yes.
*You do throw the can back at the guard, right?