Virtual reality: say it aloud a few times, and taste the honeyed words of a better videogaming future on your tongue. We’re pretty excited about the possibilities contained within the unbecoming goggles of Oculus Rift, HTC’s Vive and the like, so we’ve equipped ourselves with a DK2 with which to peer into tomorrow and tasked Phil with seeking out the best (and most unsettling) virtual reality experiences out there.
Based on your suggestions, and new releases, he’ll be donning the goggles every Friday and will tell you what his eyes have gazed upon, what brave new futures he’s witnessed, and whether or not they made him feel sick.
After some pick up and play experiences? Check out the best VR games on PC.
4th February, 2015:I’m going to do this week’s instalment of our regular VR feature slightly differently. Rather than offering dispatches from far-flung virtual worlds, this update is all about giving you the tools to go off and do your own thing in a game that everyone will make one of their first ports of call in VR: Grand Theft Auto V.
It’s actually a fairly involved undertaking, and unfortunately does involve a financial outlay to get all the software you’ll need. But if you’re serious about adding VR functionality to games that were developed with no such platform in mind, you’ll get some value out of VorpX. Which brings us to…
Step 1 – Get a copy of VorpX
VorpX is a 3D driver for DirectX 9, DX10, and DX11 applications that effectively makes them compatible with VR HMDs, and it costs £24.99. There is a free alternative, Vireio Perception, but it’s lagging behind VorpX for DX10 and DX 11 support and sadly can’t work the required magic to get GTA V up and running, which is what we’re here for. I’ve tried to find a way to get Franklin, Trevor and Michael working on my DK2 for free, but have yet to find one.
VorpX, like the ENBSeries lighting software, comes with a whole host of presets designed to produce optimal settings for different games including GTA V, and that’s a big help. Its creator Ralf Ostertag wrote a full config guide which you can read here, but you might not need to follow every instruction on it if you take the following steps.
Step 2 – Adjust the in-game graphics options
Load up GTA V without VorpX, head into the graphics menu and set all options to max – except MSAA, which you’ll want to disable entirely as it messes with the 3D effect once you’re using an Oculus HMD. Set the game to run in a borderless window while you’re in there.
Step 3 – Download and install the GTA V headtracking mod and ScriptHookV
You can download the headtracking mod file directly from here without having to navigate one of those pages filled with ‘DOWNLOAD NOW!’ buttons of different shapes and sizes, each one leading to nothing but pain and hate. Once it’s finished downloading, place it in your GTA V install directory.
Grab ScriptHookV from here, where there are admittedly a few erroneous download buttons but the page is actually fairly easy to navigate. Pop that into your GTA V directory too.
Step 4 – Add these graphics settings .txt files to adjust in-game fidelity
For high settings, grab this file, and for medum it’s this one. Pop the one of your choice into your GTA V install folder with the others from the previous steps. You should have five new files in there now.
Step 5 – Launch VorpX, configure settings
Don’t worry, we’re nearly there. Open the config settings in VorpX by hitting [delete] while it’s running. Turn headtracking completely off, aspect ratio 1:1, zoom: 1, 3D weighting: max, cinema mode: off. Now hit the middle mouse button to enter EdgePeek, and select Story Mode from the menu.
Next, launch GTA V with VorpX still running in the background, and press the middle mouse button again to turn EdgePeek off. You’ll see a VR options menu pop up in front of you, which you can navigate to access VR mode. You should be all set.
Thanks to Riftinfo, who did the legwork figuring all this out. It’s not an easy process, but that’s the nature of VR gaming at the moment.
28th Jan, 2015:Last week’s misadventures led me to feel a bit disillusioned about Oculus Share, the marketplace for developers to share their VR demos on. It’s great that so many of them are free, but I find it less easy to be enthusiastic about the considerable number that crash my system or don’t seem to have an exit menu.
Based on your recommendations, I’ve changed my approach this week and have instead been fiddling with well-known games instead of tech demos. It’s involved the use of Vireio Perception, a free open source program that in theory lets you play games that were conceived without a second thought for VR support on Oculus. It’s also involved a lot of .INI fie tweaking, just as much crashing as before, and a growing desire to just throw in the towel and buy VorpX, a similar program that sadly isn’t free but has a longer list of compatible titles and features DirectX 11 support.
I had mixed successes with Skyrim and Bioshock, and was about to try what third-person gaming might be like when I came across The Caretaker, an Unreal Engine VR demo inspired by The Shining. Obviously I had to go there.
The thing about Vireio, at least on my particular system configuration, is that it doesn’t so much add backwards compatibility to your old games as render them on a flat screen via your VR headset. I’ve seen it implemented more effectively on other setups, but my personal experience of Vireio is closer that of being in a darkened cinema, in the front row seat, and playing the game on a massive screen in front of you.
That isn’t a hugely satisfying experience in Skyrim, for several reasons. One: it’s always been an immersive, rather than cinematic, game, so it doesn’t feel appropriate to be playing it in a massive virtual IMAX. I’d much rather have a 360-degree landscape around me to explore – if anyone has any pro tips on how to achieve this on Win10, DK2, firmware 0.8, please do let me know.
Secondly, there’s an odd, Esche-esque depth paradox that occur due to my character’s limbs appearing as though they were my own, and yet simultaneously on a screen in front of me. My brain is never really able to square away where the bow I’m carrying actually IS, in relation to the landscape and the distance between my eyes and the screen in this virtual cinema. Also: the HUD becomes teeny-tiny and basically unusable, and in a game such as this that requires a lot of map-gazing and inventory-browsing, that’s an issue. There are tweaks you can make to the SkyUI mod to alleviate it, but the end result isn’t really worth it, sadly.
Time just can’t take away from the brilliance of Irrational’s best game (seriously – it edges even System Shock 2 to my mind). Neither can virtual reality, as it turns out. Vireio works in the same way with Bioshock as it does Skyrim on my system, turning my immediate surroundings into a darkened cinema, the game projected onto a massive screen, and all menus rendered useless by their diminshed size. But simply due to the differences between Skyrim and Bioshock, the latter provides a much more enjoyable experience.
Seeing water splashed onto the screen in the game’s aquatic intro is an odd experience in VR. It highlights that, as much as middleware wonders such as Vireio try to bridge the gap, there are many visual effects that simply don’t make sense in the medium. Motion blur, for example. Any kind of on-camera splatter or throb effects. HUD positioning. The very existence of a HUD, in fact. It really underlines that a really meaningful VR game experience requires a radically different design approach to the one most game developers have been honing for decades.
This is the kind of taster menu offering I can really get behind. It works on my system without a hitch, it looks lovely (thanks to some stellar work in Unreal Engine 4) and most importantly, it’s an unbearably vivid recreation of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel for me to tiptoe around in, terrified of every bang and rattle I hear.
The Caretaker is the work of Bristol-based developer Franbo, and bridges the gap very effectively between game and virtual tourism. Interaction’s kept to a minimum, but atmosphere builds successfully with every passing minute you dare to stay in that horriffically ’70s environ. I’ve never been as scared of a tangering balloon.
However, the sickness got me before the fear did. I played The Caretaker after a fairly lengthy session trying to get other games to work, so I don’t blame the game itself at all – it doesn’t throw you around in loop-the-loops or anything, it’s actually quite tranquil. Nevertheless, the old familiar nausea reached a degree that halted my exploration of the Overlook (in all but name) before any nameless horrors got the chance to.
You should play it, though.
22nd Jan, 2015:I’ve had a frustrating week of VR gaming. I was one bobbins Unity demo away from writing an entire section for Games That Don’t Work With Your DK Model/OS/Firmware Version, such is the slender chance I have of getting a game up and running on Windows 10, DK2, firmware v0.8.
Of the diminished pool of games I can get running, the proportion that also include a viable escape/exit/shut down option once I’ve had my fun are almost nil. That’s to be expected at this point in virtual reality gaming’s gestation period, because the titles people are putting out there are first and foremost intended as proof of concepts. But it doesn’t stop me getting in a huff about it. Harrumph.
European Truck Simulator 2
It’s obligatory to point out that one’s enjoyment of Euro Truck Sim 2 isn’t ironic but haha, no seriously it’s actually a really good game, haha – so let me get that out of the way. It’s also an early pioneer of VR haulage, offering support for the Oculus Rift since the first DK1 units shipped.
However, my initial elation at their pairing was quickly punctured by a nauseating drive from Strasbourg up to Belgium in a lovely Volvo truck pulling a load of construction materials. Firstly: I appear to be standing up inside the cabin, work boots muddying the seat. Unable to adequately adjust the camera, I resort to a real-world solution, lowering my office chair to a proximity with the ground I usually reserve for F1 games.
I take a while to survey the splendour of my walnut interior. You really do get the sense that you’re sitting in a lorry, and on those terms Euro Truck Sim 2 absolutely delivers on its VR promise. The menus are still presented in basically 2D, but the 3D engine works surprisingly well without taxing the GPU too hard.
Heading out onto the open road, it’s striking how well the head-tracking feeds into the gameplay. It’s so easy to check my mirrors!I remark silently to myself, watching my trailer scrape along the wall of a nearby office building. I can check other lanes in the blink of an eye, running a rival company’s lorry clean off the motorway in a manouevre that results in a surprisingly lenient fine for simply running a red.
At this point I’m sold on the idea of a long-form driving sim meets Elite clone running in VR. Once I hit the city limits though, the VR sickness that plagued me in Dirt Rally’s more boisterous driving returns with vehemence. I’m not going to make it to Liege, I realise, sweating visibly.
And that’s that. Hopefully the consumer versions of HMDs will render all this a thing of the past. Until then, it’s up to me to get over the nausea. Get down with the sickness, if you will. That’s why the next game I elect to take on is…
NoLimits 2 Roller Coaster Simulator
It’s the Rolls-Royce of rollercoaster sims, this. The production values aren’t quite up there with the Unreal Engine 4 demo you can find on Oculus Share, but No Limits 2 is still unnervingly good at tricking your brain into believing you’re going very quickly in unusual directions.
I take a seat on the game’s most pathetic, patronising, snorefest of a ride in a bid to overcome my nausea. Odd thing: I feel my stomach drop as I plummet down the first swooping descent, and though all the horrible corkscrews, and all the bits that real roller coasters probably couldn’t quite get away with – but I don’t feel sick afterwards.
Buoyed by my early success, I skip ahead to a much nastier-looking ride. It’s ridiculous. Again, as far as my brain’s concerned I’m on a roller coaster. One that should, by any real world health and safety guideline, be closed immediately. But the VR sickness is kept at bay.
Conclusion: the key’s in the code. The games and demos I’ve played that haven’t made me queasy have also been the games and demos exhibiting the most polish. The production values are high in No Limits 2, so I’m led to believe that if developers are inclined to do so, they can minimise VR sickness even when using a DK2.
About the game, though: try it. There’s a demo available at Oculus Share, and the sensation of looping-the-loop while in fact remaining completely motionless is not something to be passed up. Having learned a little more about nausea and ruled out reverse-parallel parking an articulated lorry in VR, I head to the next best thing.
3D Parking Simulator
There are a few factors that led me to this sobering, unglamorous experience. 1: Euro Truck Sim 2 gave me a hankering for tricky parking manouevres, 2) this game actually works with my system, unlike the vast majority I try, and 3) I’m learning to drive IRL at the moment, so…
Look, it’s not Assetto Corsa. What it is, though, is a little hint at what a developer with a bigger budget could do to help learner drivers. I’ve used TrackIR in a few driving sims and found it genuinely additive, but VR is next-level stuff. Driving instructors won’t encourage it, but you can reverse-park by literally turning your head to look out of the rear window, like everyone does immediately after passing their test.
The handling model does leave something to be desired, I must say. And though the graphics were doing their best, I’d be lying if I said I was totally immersed in the 3D environment. But it’s a start, isn’t it?
Side note: if you’re also wrestling with an Oculus Rift DK2 with the latest firmware and Windows 10 and have found a workaround to all those games that won’t play nice by default, throw me a bone in the comments below, will ya?
15th Jan, 2015: It’s been another fine week for the VR enthusiast. The world’s still trying to decide if Oculus costs too much, guessing the Vive’s price, and most importantly a community of developers are beavering away on VR-compatible free demos that show some of the platform’s potential in the long term.
Oculus Share has a big pile of great content already, but it’s also conceptually satisfying for anyone who grew up with game demos. I feel like a kid with a brand new demo disc full of treats when I peruse the Share apps. What follows are the highlights of my perusal, two of which also happen to be among the highest rated apps on the site. By pure chance.
I Expect You To Die
Come come Mr Bond, you take just as much pleasure in VR demos as I do
Last week I came a cropper trying to drive a car in VR thanks to Dirt Rally, working up a fine dose of motion sickness after about ten minutes. The solution is clearly venturing straight back into the driving seat, but keeping the actual driving – and therefore motion – to a minimum.
Schell Games’s superlative ’60s spy movie spoof meets VR demo, I Expect You To Die, offers exactly that experience. The Bond pastiche brings back happy memories of No One Lives Forever, and the mouse control is impressively well implemented, given the demands it puts on you.
Here’s the concept. See that car? You’re stuck in it. Or rather, you’re stuck in it while it is also stuck in an aircraft’s cargo bay. Anxious not to see out your final hours surrounded by quite so much luxurious walnut trim, you must solve a series of puzzles to survive and drive the car safely into thousands of feet of free fall. A watertight escape plan.
It’s wonderfully inventive, harnessing every possible interaction with great comedic effect or as the solution to a puzzle. The demo’s designers are very good at getting you to look around and actually scan the full breadth of the environment for help. It should feel clunky and perfunctory to scrabble around for a key with the mouse, but it doesn’t. With proper controllers like Vive’s excellent nunchucks, those controls will only get better and experiences like IEYTD can easily sustain themselves at full game length.
Also: it didn’t make me feel sick in the slightest, so I love it.
Mythos of the World Axis
Hold me closer, tiny Dark Souls
The quality of the lighting and environments in this Unreal Engine platformer can’t be conveyed through these flimsy words of mine. If you have a DK2, go and try it out for yourelf this very instant. Mythos of The World Axis takes the traditional platformer, dresses it up in ominous Dark Souls garb and spreads the environment all around you.
It’s an odd feeling, controlling a little hooded figure to run directly at your face along a miniature ledge. And whie the controls themselves of Ats Kurvet’s demo leave much to be desired (I fell off things a lot, and I’m not entirely ready to assume complete responsibility for that) the potential within it is clear to see.
Watching movies and games in 3D very often produces an odd miniaturisation effect. Seeing a game miniaturised intentionally, its pathways and gothic structures laid around you like a gaming Gulliver, is a unique pleasure. Often you’re forced to peer around corners or above obstructing scenery to plot your path. Then you’ll miss the jump anyway. But with lovely candlelit effects like this, your patience is extended.
Would I play a game-length experience based on this demo? I’m not sold as easily as I am on I Expect You to Die. The format brings new enjoyment to simply navigating environments, but Mythos of the World Axis needs to harness the medium in a deeper way to work in a feature-length form.
Back to Dinosaur Island
You can’t dodge the mosquito. I’ve tried.
This what happens when a big developer with its own engine and a history of being very interested in pushing the tech envelope get involved in VR. Back to Dinosaur Island looks great. Like, triple-A VR game ready to hit the shelves great.
It’s very much a visual showcase though, and as such it lacks the clever ideas of I Expect You to Die (did I mention I really, really like that one?) in its means of interaction. What you’re actually doing is playing a game of stick-in-the-mud with an enormous prehistoric predator among their young. Unable to move, you’re a casual observer of the land before time. First a mosquito shows up to encourage you to move your head about in pursuit and thus survey the full 360-degree scene. Then you hear the rumble.
If there’s something oddly underwhelming about the whole thing, it’s because you know you don’t have the tools to do anything except stand there. Nontheless, it’s an encouraging show of interest in the medium from Crytek, and a bit of graphical muscle-flexing too.
Which VR demos and games should Phil try out next? If you’ve discovered an unknown gem, or you’re working on a title of your own, let us know in the comments below and we’ll investigate in the next instalment of VR Your Friends.
8th Jan, 2015: It’s all kicking off in 2016, isn’t it? Some are surprised by the $600 Oculus pricing, some aren’t, and some probably are but are pretending they’re not. In any event, the world of VR is gathering steam rapidly in the early days of this new year, so it’s the perfect time to begin this regular series, in which I share my best and strangest virtual reality experiences. In this week’s edition, we go from outer space to Wales via Everest. There is some puking.
Deadly stare-out contests in deep space
EVE Valkyrie was the first game I ever played in VR, back in 2014, and I wasn’t impressed. The problem didn’t lie in the game itself, but in the way I was experiencing it – as silly as it sounds, when someone straps a massive headset over your eyes and chucks a controller in your hands in a room full of people, all watching you while queueing for their own go, you get a bit self conscious about waggling your head around like Palmer Luckey on the Time cover.
As it turns out, not moving your head about very much really kills a purpose-built VR space game. Evidently I wasn’t the only person CCP games spotted failing to maximise the potential of the medium, because when I reuinted with Valkyrie in late 2015, I found the game retooled, with head movement now absolutely crucial not just to navigation but weapon operation and even using the HUD. And it works really well.
Maybe in the interceding twelve months between my hands-on sessions with Valkyrie we all just got used to swivelling our heads around like lost kids in a supermarket, or maybe it’s testament to the leaps forward in VR software and hardware. Either way, using your actual line of sight as a targeting reticule for homing missiles is genuinely enjoyable – feels like a game mechanic, not a tech demo.
It means that dogfights are actually just high-tech stare-outs. If you’re able to keep your eyes trained on an enemy ship long enough while priming a stack of homing missiles, they’ll release and hit their target. However, if you lose sight of them your arsenal finds nothing but airless space. Quickly, everyone in the matches I played learned what felt like fairly advanced evasion techniques, and when I momentarily slid the goggles off my own eyes, I saw a room full of people moving their heads around in all directions, totally immersed in their fights.
I’ve never been a devotee of space combat games, but I absolutely get Valkyrie’s appeal. After selecting a ship (by looking at it and pressing ‘confirm,’ which works 99% better than you’d imagine) and being flung out into a galactic battlefield at stomach-churning speed, it takes genuine bravery to perform that first barrel-roll. My knees went weak. True story. CCP have really tapped into the power VR has to play tricks on your brain as it tries to make sense of the extreme forces that seem to be being exerted on you… and yet somehow, not.
Valkyrie isn’t the only star in the sky, though – Frontier’s Elite: Dangerous is embracing VR too, and I’ve donned the Vive headset to play among the stars in that game too. Like Valkyrie, it’s every bit as stomach-churning to perform those first manoeuvres. Unlike Valkyrie, which plays like a frenzied Unreal Tournament match in space ships, Elite: Dangerous feels a bit more comfortable and considered. It’s the kind of game I could imagine playing for an hour or more. In Valkyrie’s case, I felt beaten to a pulp by its pace and simulated G-force after 15 minutes.
Everest VR Demo
Wearing thermal trousers to climb a pretend ladder
You haven’t truly experienced virtual reality until someone hands you an expedition parka and insulated waterproof trousers, waits for you to waddle into an absolutely freezing backroom at a London events hall and straps a Vive to your head. Welcome to the Everest VR demo, the closest you can get to summiting the world’s highest peak without developing a hacking cough and losing a toe.
Did I mention that the freezing cold room in question was equipped with Vive’s positional tracking cameras? I probably should have. Those cameras mean I’m able to walk around the deadly rockface of Everest, rather than just gawk at it. The developers of Everest VR use that newfound dimension to add some terror to virtual tourism: after a few minutes of gazing at my surroundings in relative comfort, I’m next instructed to walk along a ladder that bridges an enormous ravine.
In my ears I can hear the howling wind. I can see fragments of ice falling off the ladder. A Gurkha on the other side gestures at me encouragingly. Now, you know that I could have hopscotched over that ladder, or moonwalked it, or purposely stepped clear of it into hundreds of metres of clear air, and I know it. But the fact is, I chose to walk very carefully and gingerly across it, covered in goosebumps (it was, as I mentioned, quite cold).
Immersive VR doesn’t have to be that visceral, though. There’s a fantastic sense of place throughout Everest VR even in its less interactive moments, when you’re allowed to simply walk around for a bit and admire the totally unique view. I’d go as far as to say it loses something when you’re forced to ‘climb a ladder’ by moving the Vive’s excellent handheld controllers out in front of you and ‘grasping’ with each trigger. But these are early days for virtual tourism, and I’m sure the subtlety will come.
Everest VR’s art assets were created for the filming of Baltasar Kormákur’s 2015 movie Everest, and as such this Vive demo exists as a gratefully receieved by-product. How long will it take for virtual tourism experiences of a similar scale and budget to emerge? Don’t expect 2016 to shower you with them. But I’m in agreement with the masses on the subject: non-gaming applications are every bit as attractive as games in VR, both intrinsically and from a business perspective as system sellers.
Dry-heaving in a hatchback amidst the Welsh countryside
So far I’ve been sharing the VR experiences I’ve consumed in controlled environments set up by game publishers and platform holders. My VR experiences in the comfort of my own realm were… different.
In actual fact, the very first thing I did when the Oculus DK2 arrived at PCGamesN was download the Dirt Rally VR patch, placed myself at the driver seat of a mid ’00s Impreza and gazed across at my co-driver who sat patiently waiting for me to do something – anything – in the gloomy, damp Powys woodland. This is VR, I told myself. A game I know well, transformed by new tech.
Haemorrhaging time at every turn as I adapted to this dizzying new sight, I ventured off into the Bidmo moorlands. After completing one stage with the grace of a man in a barrel descending Niagara Falls, I was hooked by the sense of place. Oh god, the sense of speed.
Two minutes into the next stage, the sickness set in.
It’s at its worst when I drive down into a ditch or up a rise by the side of the road. My visiospatial perception just can’t hack it. “You’re being propelled upwards or downwards!” my brain shouts. “Why aren’t I getting data to reflect that from your central nervous system!?” Then I do a little sick in my mouth.
It isn’t Dirt Rally’s fault, nor is it a damnation upon the Oculus experience as a whole. This has only happened to me using the DK2. EVE Valkyrie and Elite: Dangerous both involve a heck of a lot more brain-bending movement, and as I played the former on a later version of Oculus and the latter on Vive with neither resulting in nausea, I can only conclude it’s symptomatic of the DK2 and a game that sort of supports VR.
The sickness is all the more frustrating because of all the short demos, bespoke games and big-budget experiences I’ve tried so far on VR devices, Dirt Rally is the game I want to play for hours and hours. Looking into a corner or over a crest adds so much to the enjoyment, minor as it sounds. For now, I’ll keep diving in for a stage here and there, building up my tolerance and then sitting very still in a quiet room for a long time to recover.
Which VR demos and games should Phil try out next? If you’ve discovered an unknown gem, or you’re working on a title of your own, let us know in the comments below and we’ll investigate in the next instalment of VR Your Friends.