HTC Vive Review – Joie de Vive

by

Virtual Reality has come a long way since the idea was first seriously explored in the ‘60s. The days of dichromatic wireframe models may be gone, but will the financial disaster that came with investment in to VR follow suit?

The HTC Vive seeks to smash that paradigm. Their partnership with Valve is a positive sign that it has the potential to be a legitimate gaming platform and not just an expensive novelty.

The Vive comprises of a large headset, two 360° motion sensors and two Wii-style handsets which act as your sole means of interacting with your new digital environment. The motion sensors need to be mounted 6-7 feet up so get yourselves some lampstands. They also need to be a few feet away from the play space so you will need to clear a decent amount of room in order to be able to use the Vive comfortably. Sound comes via any normal headphones and aren’t included.

The headset was comfortable enough but a bit heavy and needed to be well secured before use. As anyone who has watched Jurassic Park knows (who hasn’t seen JP? Honestly.), weight is directly proportionate to expense.

The Vive kit retails at €899, which isn’t exactly cheap, and this was on my mind as I span around chopping zombies’ heads off. Should I get a little too immersed in my slaughter then I run the risk of smashing a very expensive bonnet. I’m sure that after a time this would have bothered me less and it was only during the more action-based games that it came to mind.

Another minor grievance I had was the amount of cables one had to contend with. This isn’t really the developers fault, it’s just the nature of the technology. It’s easy to become entangled which can be a nuisance as well as distracting from the overall experience. There is talk of wireless adaptors being developed but no release date for these have yet been given.

These two points are minor but given that total immersion is the goal of the Vive it’s important to note what detracts from this. It is also important to mention that you will need a pretty good gaming PC in order to run the Vive. You can visit www.vive.com and run a diagnostic to see if your computer is up to the task.

A word of warning for the handful of you using a Mac to play games, like the Oculus Rift there is no official support for Apple products nor is there likely to be. This shouldn’t come as any surprise given the delicate constitution of your average Mac but it would be remiss of me not to mention it.

 

bh1

 

In the two hours I had to test out the Vive, I got to try several different experiences and saw a how different developers use the technology. The first game I was shown was The Brookhaven Experiment, a fairly straightforward First Person Shooter in which you fend off waves of zombie attacks.

Visually dark yet with lighting used to impressive effect, this was immediate confirmation that VR is capable of creating convincing environments. I am a real sucker for zombie wave games and got stuck in straight away, pistol in my right hand and flashlight in the left. After a while I began to worry the light was giving my location away so I swapped it out for a machete. I imagine I cut a fine figure for the (giggling) ladies in the office next door watching me swivel about slashing wildly at invisible hordes and hooting “YAASSS” every time I scored a clean headshot.

The hitbox sometimes felt inaccurate when using the machete but it could just be that I was overestimating the length of the blade. The play space was sufficient to dodge and swivel but ultimately I was a static defender. This aside I thoroughly enjoyed The Brookhaven Experiment and had to be crowbarred off it in order to try some of the other games on offer.

A much more unconventional offer, Job Simulator: The 2050 Archives posits a future where robots have taken over the workplace and the only way to experience what it is like ‘to job’ is through VR. An office, shop, mechanic’s, and kitchen are all recreated for you to enjoy in a bright, playful graphical style which draws heavily from 1950’s American design.

While the premise may seem dry, Job Simulator was entertaining and genuinely funny at points. Granted I may have spent too long lobbing donuts across the office or filling car engines with hot sauce but I got the sneaking suspicion that this game was in part a prototype for virtual workplaces. While there are tasks to complete it’s more sandbox than arcade. Not being able to type made the virtual office an unworkable prospect for now but watch this space, one day soon you may well be able to work from home and the office simultaneously.

  Everest VR toys further with the traditional format for a computer game and merges beautiful cinematic vistas of Mount Everest with first-person action. This game was visually striking and a great example of something VR can do which other formats can’t, namely it allows you to explore somewhere in the real world which is inaccessible to you for whatever reason. I am highly unlikely to climb Mt.Everest and Everest VR lets me get a feel for it better than a traditional documentary. Ultimately Everest VR consisted mostly of set pieces designed to show you what tackling the world’s greatest peak entails, interspersed with narrated cinematic sections which further impressed upon you the grandeur of such an undertaking. It’s certainly neat but I’m not sure how long it would hold my interest for.

By far my favourite experience came in the form of Tilt Brush, Google’s 3D paint programme. My left hand acted as a digital palate, rotating to reveal a wide array of effects and tools, while my right hand was my ‘brush’. In moments I was pirouetting about my virtual canvas, carving neon rainbows in to the void and spraying electric blue embers at the points where they crossed streams. It took very little time for me to have fun and I found the ‘palate’ to be a very intuitive interface. I take it as a good sign when I really want to press every button in a game or programme.

Links to Youtube and Twitch were built in, encouraging people to share videos of their art. I can easily imagine people using this to create wonderful pieces of dance or modern art and Google were canny to make it so easy. As well as being the standard MS Paint-style tools on offer, you also have the ability to manipulate your art as 3D objects and to change the environment you paint in. Again this was very easy to do and I can imagine showing Tilt Brush to non-gamer friends and family as it is immediately accessible and can’t fail to get you excited by VR.

My only real critique was that the ‘delete’ function was pretty brutal, deleting your entire ‘stream’ rather than just the piece you are touching. It would seem everything you draw is one distinct object from the moment you press the button to the moment you let go, rather than being a collection of pixels or polygons. Maybe I just couldn’t work it out but this also fits in to the fluidity and motive energy your creations take on.

 

office_02

 

So, when all is said and done, can the HTC compete as a gaming platform or will it join the numbered ranks of failed VR products? The launch games are neat but nothing essential is yet available. The cost is also an issue, at least initially. Why spent €899 on the Vive when for a third of the price I can buy an Xbox One and play Skyrim for the rest of my life? Maybe because Fallout 4 is coming to the Vive in 2017!!! Given that a VR open-world RPG was perhaps my third thought after putting the headset for the first time, you can rest assured that other games developers have already carved the same brainwave. Sword Art Online is looking one step closer…

Cost aside, the tech is good and the user interface is intuitive. I felt no motion sickness nor did anyone I spoke with who had also tried it. Yes there are a few too many cables and no I can’t afford it right now but the HTC Vive might just be the start of something special and I can’t help but get excited at the thought of what may lay beyond the door HTC just opened.