Why the real next gen of gaming may be virtual reality
Written by: High Priest
I have written a few articles that touch on the wonders of the next generation of console and PC gaming. I chased cutting edge tech with a new PC built around a RTX 3080 and marveled at the beauty of 4K ray tracing neon lights of Cyberpunk 2077. So imagine my surprise when a stand alone VR headset that cost less than half of my unobtainium RTX 3080, made my jaw drop and brought back feelings of amazement that I had not felt since dropping into my first 3D game on the N64. The Oculus Quest 2 has changed my outlook on gaming at least for the immediate future.
Full disclosure, I am not a retro gaming purist. I love retro games, but I also love modern gaming, pinball, pub games and exciting new tech as well. I am like the town junkie of gaming/tech. I will never question what's in my hand... I am just going to enjoy it and look for my next fix. I have fallen for more than a few tech gimmicks over the years, from 3D TV's, double sided cell phones, and the Sega 32X... take this with a large grain of salt if you have more specific gaming tastes.
Gaming on a VR headset requires you to completely reset your approach to gaming. You need to designate a "safe space" to game where you won't trip of furniture, kids, dogs, or spouses. You also need to be aware that you are going to look like a crazy person to everyone around you. The thing is, you wont care. When you are "in" VR, you don't really think about what is going on around you. You are in a different world that sucks you in, and makes the world around you sort of melt away. It is weird to feel a sense of nostalgia when talking about a technology that is still in its infancy, but before I bought my first real VR headset I had already absorbed a decent amount of VR related pop culture. I went down an "Audible" rabbit hole, listening to a long list of audio books revolving around VR. By the time that I put a VR headset on, I had a laundry list of mental experiences to call back to, and surprisingly, Sci-Fi was closer to actual (virtual) reality than fiction.
VR related book recommendations: Ready Player 1 & 2, Otherworld, Otherlife, Otherearth, Snow Crash, Warcross/ Wildcard, and Armada.
Before we get too far into this article, I want to be very clear that VR is still a new technology, and while it is really impressive, it is not what is depicted in the movies. It is, however more inventive and unique than what the newest consoles can offer. Your typical VR game has cartoony graphics that rely on the overall experience to draw you in vs hyper realistic graphics. People scrutinize the frame rate and draw distance of PS5 and Series X games when they come out. When a popular VR game comes out the conversation has nothing to do with how it looks, or the buttery smooth frame rate, but more of simplistic "does it work". that sounds like a low bar, but "does it work" really means "does it trick your brain into believing what you are doing in VR is real?" I used to think that in order to be immersed into a game, I needed 4k graphics or a monitor with a blistering 144hz refresh rate. With VR, the entire game can literally consist of 2 or 3 colors with wireframe shaded NPC's and I am ducking and sweating like I am actually throwing a wine bottle at a baddie, or grabbing a hand gun out of mid air. VR connects to a part of your brain that sort of fills in the pretty graphics, and just responds to the physics and controls. The best way I can explain it to someone who has not experienced VR is to think back to your favorite N64 or PS1 games and how you remembered them when you first played them vs how they look when you go back to them. When you first played those early 3D games, your brain took ques from the game and your imagination filled in the images where the polygons failed to do so. Now that we have games that do not require us to do that anymore, when we go back to those first 3D games, we see them for what they are. VR is still living in that space that Mario 64, Goldeneye and Doom occupied in your brain. The mark of a good VR game is not that it looks so good someone would mistake it for reality, but for it to feel so good you don't care.
VR Headset Options
I bought the semi-controversial "Oculus Quest 2" for my first real dip into VR. The Quest 2 is the most popular VR headset right now according to Steam, but it does come with what some people see as a massive draw back. You have to have a Facebook account. I already signed my digital life over to Zuck years ago, so this did not bother me. I was concerned about how closely the two would be linked, but I was pleasantly surprised by how little Facebook has to do with the overall experience. You can customize how much Facebook you want to see in your VR experience and how much you want your Facebook friends to know about your VR experiences. The biggest thing that sets the Quest 2 apart from the other headsets on the market, is that it completely stand alone and wireless. Normally you would need a decent gaming PC and a few long cables to get into VR. The Quest 2 handles all of that internally. After using the Quest 2, I could not picture playing certain games with a cable attached to the headset. The downside is that the battery only lasts a couple hours, which when you are playing VR games, goes by pretty quick. The screens are high resolution and greatly reduces the screen door effect that VR headsets have been plagued with since they came out. Not everything looks like your 4k TV in your living room, but keep in mind you are staring at a display maybe an inch or two away from your eyes.
The other style of headsets are more of what has been around for a while, and will offer the best overall performance if you have the PC hardware to back it up. These headsets will have better displays than something like the Quest 2, but will be more expensive and have some wires to power it and send video to the headset. The king of this space is probably the HTC Vive, which offers better resolution, refresh rates and full body tracking. All of those extra features come at a high price though. Whichever option you choose, focus on the games and the experiences, don't get caught up on the hardware. You will have a good time regardless. If you are enjoying yourself on something like the $300 Quest 2, then maybe think about diving into the more expensive rigs as an upgrade down the road.
One of the most appealing aspects of VR gaming is that the majority of the games are made by smaller indie devs who are not chained to decades old franchises. With the next generation of consoles, we are seeing games that are sequels to games that came out 20 years ago. These games are great, but they don't leave a ton of room for innovation due to how insane fan bases get when they change any aspect of the game. With VR, most devs will create totally new games without having to meet fan bases expectations. That freedom really allows them to branch out in their games to make really cool experiences. There are some standards that have emerged into the VR scene as must have games, that will probably start their own lineage of games, but for now, they all feel fresh.
Beat Saber is the game that most people get their feet wet with. Like the title implies, you have two light sabers that you use to slash blocks on the beat of a song. This is a game that kids and adults can play and really enjoy, and is one that will make you look ridiculous to those around you. There are ways to "hack" Beat Saber to add your own songs, or you can have a great time with the ones included. I like to upload my own music so people can play with songs they are familiar with! This is also a really good game for anyone who gets motion sickness playing VR since you are standing still. VR motion sickness usually happens when your brain thinks your body is moving, but its not. Beat Saber has you planted nicely on a platform. If you liked games like Guitar Hero then this is a no brainer to pickup. It is a fun, casual way to get some cardio in. You will work up a sweat!
There are also games that look for a more realistic music experience. There are games that allow you to build your dream drum set around you and go crazy on it, guitar games that track your hands in real time and let you pluck strings in VR and a DJ game that our own "Doc Claymore" swears by called Tribe XR. These more realistic experiences are fun, but more of a tech demo to me. They are great outlets for skills you already have, but not great at turning music into an approachable game for everyone.
I have never been in a boxing ring, but with a couple VR boxing games, I feel like I would like it. There are two popular boxing games, one based on the movie series Creed, and the other is an attempt of a boxing sim called Thrill of the Fight. I played the demo for Creed and it was fun, but it felt closer to Punch Out than Fight Night. I decided to buy Thrill of the Fight and have been hooked on it. You start out in a dingy gym fighting low level opponents and gradually work your way up to more difficult fights in more elaborate venues. Thrill of the Fight was the first boxing game that I noticed there was timer set between rounds, and by the 3rd or 4th round, I was taking advantage of all my downtime. I was gassed by my 3rd fight in a row and was sore the next day. The freedom that the Quest 2 provides with its wireless experience allows you to throw punches and block without fear of getting tangled in wires. I do think the inherent fault with VR boxing games is that obviously you are not punching anything/one in real life, so you end up shadow boxing with more effort than you probably realize. The satisfaction of landing a knock out blow is hard to explain, but one of my favorite feelings in all of VR. I am not one to physically react to video game wins, but I do with this game. This game also has the honor of causing my first VR injury as I punched a shelf in my office with enough force to break the skin on my knuckle and send a few things flying off the shelf...
I have played a couple of other sports games, that were really just demos of what is coming in the near future. Baseball is a blast, as is tennis and hockey. Honestly anything that was fun Wii Sports will thrive in VR. These games need more time to percolate, but the experiences are going to be so much fun once they arrive.
One of the best represented categories in VR are shooters. There are more than just your standard Call of Duty clones, and instead they lean into the freedom of VR to innovate and really explore what can be done in VR. One of my favorite shooters available in VR is Superhot. This game has been around forever and features an interesting mechanic that links time to the players movement. So time only moves forward when you do. This results in some Matrix level bullet time effects and really makes this one more of puzzle game than a shooter. This is another game that though me the lesson of "know your surroundings" in real life when you are playing in VR. In Superhot, you can throw anything around you. So you find yourself needing to pick up a clunky ash tray that is just outside of your "guardian" or play space boundary. I have smacked my hands on shelves, desk and anything else around me. Superhot will make you dodge, dip and duck to kill all the badies around you before they get you.
The most popular shooter in VR is probably Population One. This one for lack of a better description, is Fortnite in VR. It is a really well done shooter that encourages exploring the map vertically vs running over massive maps. climbing and gunning someone down in VR is addicting and has been one of the most complete VR experiences I have had. I have been playing a ton of Population One and they have been regularly updating the game. This is up there with Beat Saber on the list of "no brainer" pickups.
There are a handful of games that look to their more traditional counterparts for inspiration. Games like Onward, Pavlov and Contractors, all look to games like Call of Duty and CS Go for inspiration. These games are more realistic, and make you realize how much you took reloading in a normal shooter for granted. In these games reloading can be a pain, especially in the heat of a gun fight. You need to reach down and grab a magazine, load it into the gun, then pull the bolt back all before you can fire. It is fun the first couple times, but I miss hitting "X" to reload... Most of these games come with a shooting range section that is a ton of fun and a great place to get your reloading and aiming actions down.
Retro Inspired Games
I could not talk about VR gaming on the Emulate This site without touching on the coolest way to play NES games could I? 3DSEN is a NES emulator that transforms your NES games into 3D and allows you to rotate the camera to play games in first person if you want. Playing through Super Mario Bros. in first person is a trip and once you get used to it, it works well. I hope that this dev moves onto SNES because 16 bit games in VR would be amazing. There are also arcade rail shooters that are inspired by games like Time Crisis that I really get lost in. Games like Cybercade and Pistol Whip 2089 are intense callbacks to arcade light shooters. There is no shortage of these games, and the ones that I have played have been really fun.
In a reverse of the traditional gaming industry, the AAA game scene makes up the smaller section of VR games. While VR is growing in popularity, there are still not enough headsets out there to justify sinking 200 million dollars into the development of a game. There have been attempts recently with Half Life: Alyx and Medal of Honor, but that has been about it. Bethesda has warmed over a few ports for VR, but reviews have been just ok for them. I think we are a ways out from seeing yearly Call of Duty VR entries, or GTA VI being released in full VR. The money is just not there yet. That is ok, we have great ways to play those games, and honestly I am not sure I would want to play a 60 hour RPG in full VR. When I play VR I am usually standing and moving around, that does not always mix well with longer play sessions when I just want to relax and sit on the couch or at my desk.
VR has surprised me when it comes to how often I play with my Quest 2 and how varied of experiences I have had. Even simple things like the YouTube app can give you an idea of what a rock star see's when they are on stage, or you can relax while having a few beers sitting on a beach in Mexico. The games can be simple, but addicting and still feel like a full experience. If you are on the fence about VR, a Quest 2 may be a good entry point that will give you access to most of the VR landscape, without costing you thousands of dollars to play. We have a VR section of the Emulate This Discord, so if you have any questions about VR, pop in and say hi!