12 Real Games Coming to Valve's SteamVR Platform
Though Valve's recent invite-only press event provided plenty of time to try out the latest version of HTC's Vive headset and motion controllers, the day mainly focused on 12 wildly diverse titles coming to Vive either at launch or shortly thereafter. Click ahead to check out the very first batch of VR games that early adopters will be playing in just a few short months!
Job Simulator: The 2050 Archives
Premise: By the year 2050, robots will have replaced all human workers. In order to relive the glory days of wage slavery and office drudgery, humans can visit a museum to experience a totally not at all ridiculous simulation of what it was like to job in the early 21st century.
VR Hook: Grab and manipulate objects while moving around a contained game space like an office cubicle or a kitchen work station.
Impressions: When I first saw Job Simulator back in December, I immediately fell in love with its goofy, satirical humor and uncanny ability to react realistically to random experimentation--stick something in a copier, for example, and you'll actually receive a duplicate item.
This time around, I decided to actually follow the game's instructions and quickly discovered that, when you're not wildly throwing objects around for giggles, Job Simulator plays almost like a puzzle game, with increasingly complex tasks that require timing and precision.
I only had a chance to cook up some items in a virtual kitchen dense with interactive objects, but the start screen clearly offered at least six different scenarios. Obviously I'm still curious to see what'll happen if I, say, stick a fire extinguisher in a boiling pot; I'm now also curious how Job Simulator grows and evolves as your work your way through the game.
Premise: What would happen if you gave a spy a Portal gun? Budget Cuts. Budget Cuts would happen. Let the goofy corporate espionage commence!
VR Hook: Duck, dodge, and lean in the real world to avoid being detected by hostile robots in the game. Or just swing your arm to throw knives at them. That works too.
Impressions: Though Valve's Vive showcase featured everything from shooters to sports games, very few titles struck me as genuinely original (even if they were plenty enjoyable in action). The biggest exception was cute, clever puzzler Budget Cuts, which marries "escape the room" puzzles with tense, thrilling stealth mechanics.
You must not only, for example, interpret hints to deduce the location of a hidden key so you can open a safe and deactivate a security grid, you must do so without attracting the attention of the robots patrolling the halls of the corporate compound you've been sent to infiltrate. Fortunately, you have a few different tools at your disposal. Most importantly: a straight up Portal gun. You can use your motion controller to aim and fire a glowing orb, which then opens into, yes, a portal. You can then step through to your next location or simply peer into the portal without moving.
This functions as both a clever way to work around the limited mobility that comes with wired VR headsets and a helpful device for sneaking past traps. I quickly found myself warping through tiny grates and onto high ledges without much prompting from the game. I also discovered I could peek around corners and over railings by actually moving around in real life, which might be one of the best implementations of VR I've encountered in any game to date.
With clear hints of a deeper narrative and inventory system lurking just beneath the surface of my brief hands-on time, I'm eager to see just how deep Budget Cuts' creativity goes when the full version drops later this year.
Premise: Create and save original works of art that you paint in 3D space using a massive palette of options and effects.
VR Hook: Your motion controller becomes, naturally, a brush with which you can paint in not just colors but also textures, patterns, visuals effects, and more.
Impressions: Unlike the rest of this list, Tilt Brush isn't exactly a game, per se. Really it's closer to the world's greatest incarnation of MS Paint, or any other digital drawing program for that matter. The major difference here is the introduction of a Z-axis: rather than painting on a flat surface, you can paint in any direction, instantly introducing depth to your creations.
Hopefully that description makes sense objectively, but I'm not sure I can accurately communicate how breathtaking this can be in practice. That first moment of stepping just slightly to the side of something you've painted and realizing it's hanging there in space and that you can literally walk around it and view from any angle...that's special. It embodies everything that's exciting about VR but also epitomizes why VR is so difficult to talk about.
For now, just try to imagine wandering among human figures that, to your eyes, appear to be lifesized, frozen in place as though time has stopped. It's beautiful, and it's coming to Vive in the very near future.
Premise: Direct air traffic and put out fires (literally) in this management sim that mixes top-level strategy with real-time problem solving.
VR Hook: Get a bird's eye view of a busy world full of tiny objects you can touch, direct, and observe from any angle.
Impressions: I've seen plenty of VR games that sit you in a cockpit or allow you to look directly through your avatar's eyes, but I never encountered a "god game" until I tried Final Approach. And now that I've seen a virtual world from a top-down perspective, I'm surprised more games haven't tried this.
Though it's not as immediately intuitive as a first-person camera, being able to wander through a 3D space like a busy airport or a crowded city center in order to better examine all the tiny units buzzing around proved both useful and surprisingly natural. When I needed to land a series of planes circling a runway, I just took a step back, swiveled my head around to find each flying object, and then used my hand to grab and guide each aircraft to the ground. The process was simple, sure, but VR made it feel totally new and interesting.
Thankfully, Final Approach does grow more complex the longer you play, so it's not too reliant on the novelty of VR. By the end of my hands-on time, I was guiding a helicopter towards a sinking ship in order to save its crew while simultaneously directing fighter jets away from a swarm of aggressive, malfunctioning drones. At one point, I actually had to zoom all the way down to the deck of an aircraft carrier to shoot the drones down myself.
This hectic juggling act demanding serious split-second decision making that will hopefully translate to a truly engrossing experience once Final Approach finally lands later this year.
Premise: What better way to survive the zombie apocalypse than by packing an arsenal and retreating into the Arizona desert?
VR Hook: Your motion controllers become firearms, allowing for natural aiming as well as gesture-based reloading and weapon swapping.
Impressions: VR is perfectly suited for first-person shooters. It completely removes the abstraction of mapping the camera to a joystick, instead allowing you to look around by simply turning your head and aim by raising your arm. The team behind Arizona Sunshine recognized and embraced this, creating a straight-forward shooter that plays like a classic light gun arcade game such as Time Crisis or Virtua Cop.
As with those games, you don't actually move your character; rather, you shoot stationary targets that warp you to the next location when you're ready. You do, however, shoot waves of enemies as they shamble towards you, stopping only to grab ammo clips off of nearby crates.
The setup may not be original, but it is surprisingly satisfying: Pulling off headshots by actually raising a pistol and looking the sight was, of course, intrinsically satisfying, and using my hands independently to simultaneously gun down two zombies approaching from separate angles felt indescribably cool. I mean, I was actually dual-wielding for real thanks to VR. I also enjoyed reloading by basically slamming the controller into my chest, which added natural physicality to a typically mundane action.
I only hope that Arizona Sunshine embraces horror to some extent. The majority of my hands-on time took place in broad daylight. Only at the very end did I enter a creepy, darkened mine. I can't imagine anything more terrifying than physically turning around to discover a vicious zombie standing inches from my face, so with any luck, we'll find that in the final version of the game.
Premise: A magic behind-the-scenes algorithm automatically turns any song's beats into a series of red and blue orbs that rhythmically rain down on you like meteors--which is why you have two color-coded shields to protect yourself.
VR Hook: Objects flying at your head look much cooler in VR.
Impressions: Like its award-winning predecessor Audiosurf, Audioshield is, in the words of its creator, more of an "audio visualizer" than anything else. That said, it still functions much like a traditional rhythm game, presenting you with a series of scrolling notes that you must match in time with a licensed song. The difference here is, you must deflect those notes with a shield as they come screaming towards you.
The fact that each of your two shields is a different color turns every song into a sort of dance as you swing your arms across your body to catch notes that match the color of the shield in your opposite hand. Perhaps most satisfying, though, is the haptic feedback triggered every time a note hits your shields. Having a virtual object cause the controller in my hand to vibrate bridges the sensory gap between virtual reality and our reality in a surprisingly compelling way, and the fact that it was happening to the beat of a Beastie Boys song certainly didn't hurt my overall enjoyment.
According to the developer, Audioshield likely won't ship with any licensed tracks, but if Audiosurf is any indication, any music you add yourself should work just fine.
Premise: Man the cockpit of various space faring and terrestrial vessels in this massively online space combat, exploration, and trading sim that first launched back in 2014.
VR Hook: With a VR headset strapped on, glancing down at your cockpit's control panel becomes second nature, as does tracking your target during a dogfight. Plus, turning your eyes and head into the camera frees up your hands for more immersive throttle and shooting controls.
Impressions: Elite: Dangerous was probably the most sophisticated game I saw during Valve's Vive event, but there's a reason: the game's been growing and evolving ever since its original PC release back in December 2014. Still, its flight-focused gameplay has always been well-suited for VR, so stepping into the cockpit of an interstellar fighter jet felt like I was finally playing the game the way its designers intended.
I only had time to take down one enemy ship, but the process felt just as immersive and intuitive as expected since both my brain and my body were sat in a chair clutching a flightstick and whipping around wildly to locate my opponent. I also had a brief moment to drive a rover around a crater-pocked, low gravity planet, which led to some pretty spectacular barrel rolls and the only moment of motion sickness I experienced all day. Turns out spinning out of control as your field of view careens back and forth between empty space and a barren landscape is slightly disorienting.
My short time with the game wasn't enough for me to grasp its entire scope, but I'm definitely interested to see how it ultimately stacks up against its slightly more combat-oriented competitor Eve: Valkyrie.
The Gallery: Call of the Starseed
Premise: After your estranged sister sends you a cryptic message, you chase her to a mysterious island packed with sights to see and puzzles to solve.
VR Hook: Exploration is way more interesting when you can physically walk around within a space and use real gestures like crouching and clasping to pick up any objects you discover. You can even reach over your shoulder to grab your in-game backpack.
Impressions: Much like The Gallery's island (and title), the game itself remains a bit of a mystery. Though the developers on hand described the game as something like Myst meets The Goonies, my brief hands-on time only introduced the basic movement mechanic. Basically, aiming your motion controller and pulling the trigger allows you to instantly teleport forward, giving you a new square of space to walk around in. I used this to wander through a shipwreck and throw some fireworks into a seemingly abandoned beachside bonfire. (For the record, the fireworks did explode.)
If the developer make good on their current plans, this episodic series should offer a mix of exploration and puzzle solving, in addition to a meaty narrative--something that seems surprisingly rare among this early crop of VR games.
Premise: Send a fragile balloon into a goal by constructing a contraption capable of navigating whatever obstacles stand in its way in this spiritual evolution of a 2008 Flash game of the same name.
VR Hook: Select, reshape, and interlock objects using simple, organic hand gestures.
Impressions: Don't let the aggressively cutesy exterior fool you--Fantastic Contraption is actually an ingenious building game in the vain of titles like SimplePlanes and Poly Bridge. Say you need to get your balloon from one floating platform to another, or maybe into a goal hanging high above your head--what can you build from a relatively simple collection of parts and mechanisms that will carry your balloon safely to its destination?
Because it's entirely physics-based, solutions are open-ended, leaving you to build a device, try it out, fail, adjust your design, and try again. This loop proves plenty rewarding and addicting on its own, but the VR incarnation of Fantastic Contraption shines because it allows you to manipulate objects in ways that feel natural but would otherwise be impossible. Need to make a long connecting piece longer? Place both hands on the middle, stretch outwards, and boom, the connector extends as your hands move apart. If only building was this easy in real life.
And if you ever get stuck, just flip over to the game's social tools, which allow you to share solutions and see how others solved the same problem by loading their contraptions into your game. Or just pet the big green cat that functions as an in-world menu system (no seriously, you can pet the cat).
Cloudlands: VR Minigolf
Premise: It's minigolf!
VR Hook: MINIGOLF!
Impressions: Hey, do you like minigolf? Cool, because Cloudlands: VR Minigolf delivers an impressively realistic, physics-based minigolf sim replete with 18 hyper-elaborate holes that would be all but impossible to recreate in real life. Needless to say, the act of swinging a motion controller as a putter--especially when that putter automatically senses the distance of your hand from the floor and adjusts length accordingly--is utterly intuitive, which makes Cloudlands the game with the lowest barrier to entry of anything I saw at Valve's Vive showcase. I did get slightly tangled up in the headset chords while shuffling around to set up my putts, but because the pace of the game is relatively slow, this never became a serious issue.
Premise: A post-apocalyptic online shooter that sees players piloting junked-out hovercrafts with one hand while firing and reloading with the other.
VR Hook: First-person aiming and shooting translate perfectly to VR, and introducing hovercrafts elegantly resolves VR's tricky traversal problem.
Impressions: Though this early crop of VR games contains more shooters than any other genre, Hover Junkers delivers a few ideas that distinguish it from the rest of the pack. Most importantly, it's one of the only multiplayer-focused games coming to any VR platform, offering online matches for up to eight players in a variety of game modes. That fact alone makes it worth following.
However, Hover Junkers also contains several novel gameplay ideas. For example, situating players on hovercrafts--which essentially amount to mobile platforms--allows for in-game mobility without eliminating movement in the real world. You can maneuver all around the game world using a motion controller for steering and throttle, but at any time, you can step away from you craft's controls and crouch--both in the real world and in the game--behind the destructible barriers around the edges of your craft.
It's a truly novel solution to a problem every VR developer faces, one that rewards your natural instinct to duck and move when fired upon. In some ways, it even encourages cooperative play. Why not have one player drive and shoot while another lays down covering fire and repairs the craft's ramshackle barriers?
While the game's controls and the general punchiness of the shooting need some polish, the game's biggest issue is just how damn eerie it is seeing life-sized human forms in VR. Until I played Hover Junkers, it never occurred to me how rare it is to see actual humans in VR games. Now I think I know why.
Space Pirate Trainer
Premise: Your broken down space ship needs defending, so stand directly in front of it and use your laser pistols and shield to fend off wave after wave of angry flying robots.
VR Hook: First-person shooters continue to work well in VR.
Impressions: Space Pirate Trainer is arguably the most simplistic game I played during Valve's event, but it's simplicity may have been a deliberate design decision rather than a sign of low ambitions. You aim, you shoot, you dodge, and that's really all there is to it, but the ever-escalating difficulty recalls the addicting challenge of classic arcade games, which were frequently just as simple. And the more committed you become to chasing a high score, the more likely you are to jump around to avoid incoming fire and mess with the fire rate of your pistols to achieve the perfect balance of precision aiming and wild, desperate laser spamming. I hope to see more area and enemy variety in the final product, but for now, I'll remember my Matrix-esque bullet dodges fondly.