Oculus Rift has been grabbing headlines left and right lately thanks to its long-awaited price announcement, but Rift is just one of several high-profile, mass market virtual reality headsets primed to reach consumers at some point this year. Chief among its competitors: HTC Vive, a motion-tracking collaboration between cell phone manufacturer HTC and gaming juggernaut Valve.
If you've been following the VR arms race, you already know that, unlike the Rift or Sony's PlayStation VR, Vive allows users to move around an area as large as 15 square feet thanks to the headset's built-in, front-facing camera and the accompanying "Lighthouse" base stations. This, coupled with the bundled-in motion controllers, makes Vive the headset with perhaps the most potential for rendering immersive entertainment.
Still, there's a lot we don't know about Vive. Units are tentatively scheduled to start shipping to consumers as early as April, and HTC recently confirmed you'll be able to preorder your very own Vive starting February 29. However, there's still no clear price point, and that ship date, again, is only one piece of a still hazy release schedule. Until recently, we weren't even sure what kinds of games and experiences to expect on Vive.
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Thankfully, Valve finally decided to fill in that particular blank with a recent invite-only press event that showcased 12 titles coming to Vive at some point this year--either at launch or shortly thereafter. This not only gave us a substantial and pleasantly intimate look at Vive's varied lineup, it also gave us more time with a near-final version of the consumer hardware, which I wore in 15 minutes bursts for approximately three hours of total wear-time.
The headset proved far lighter and more comfortable than earlier models thanks in part to its adjustable velcro straps and foam-lined face mask. Though it's really no more or less cumbersome than its competitors, I found it relatively easy to adjust to having a sizable chunk of plastic strapped to my face--at least, enough that I was able to feel immersed in the experience and simply forget about my awkward headgear.
Similarly, the thick series of cables connecting the headset to a nearby PC only rarely became an issue despite dangling precariously over my shoulder for much of the day. For the most part, I remained aware of how the cable cluster was situated and successfully stepped over it, or just ignored it altogether. Overall, I could see myself wearing Vive headset continuously for at least a couple hours without issue, which should prove more than sufficient for most VR experiences.
More importantly, I was impressed with the fidelity of the motion controls and consistency of the frame rate in all 12 games I tested--though frame rate stability mainly reflects the high-end PC hardware powering each setup. Regardless, I experienced no noticeable latency or calibration issues whatsoever, which is an amazing feat and, hopefully, an indication of the final product's ability to deliver consistently smooth gameplay. It also might explain why I found it harder and harder to re-acclimate to reality every time I took off the headset.
My only real complaint lies with the physical design of the motion controllers. The circular touchpad on the topside of the controller--which is nearly identical to the pads on Valve's Steam controller--works fine. However, there's a recessed button on the underside situated approximately where your curled fingers rest that's designed to be triggered when you squeeze the controller. Because it was difficult to feel, I also found it difficult to press at times.
That's a pretty weak complaint all things considered, though, especially since the lineup of games on display at Valve's event rarely relied on this particular button. Instead, each game seemed to utilize inputs that stemmed organically from its particular approach to VR. Each found its own way to capitalize on VR's unique strengths, from stealth mechanics to object manipulation.
VR still faces an uphill PR battle in that it must convince gamers that, no really, this indescribable technological marvel actually works and totally deserves your time, attention, and money.
And these weren't mere tech demos. My previous VR hands-on opportunities were novel and impressive, but I could never actually envision myself playing any of those experiences for an extended period the way I might sit down with XCOM or The Witness. The majority of these games, on the other hand, hinted at deeper, richer, lengthier experiences to come, whether propelled by narrative arcs or gameplay hooks with genuine replayability. For maybe the first time ever, I came away with a sense of anticipation and a sincere desire to play more.
Of course, VR still faces an uphill PR battle in that it must convince gamers that, no really, this indescribable technological marvel actually works and totally deserves your time, attention, and money...even if you've never experienced it for yourself. VR must also convince bigger development studios to take a chance on this as yet unproven medium. You'll notice every game in our gallery comes from a relatively small independent team, with a couple notable exceptions.
We can expect to hear more in the months ahead, but for now, check out 12 diverse and creative games that eventual Vive owners will be able to play before the year's end.