Valve's Steam VR will be heading our way this year, care of the HTC Vive and game developers have quite a few games in store. I got the chance to sample a few upcoming games from 12 different developers, and I was not disappointed.
First up is Elite Dangerous. I'm a huge fan of this space exploration and combat simulator, and playing the game is so much more efficient in virtual reality. No more keyboard shortcuts for me: if I want to reach a control panel I'll just look at it -- the game was designed with head-tracking in mind, and space combat really shines once you've donned a VR helmet and taken to the stars.
The premise is brilliant: you're a spy, infiltrating the robot-infested base of your hopeful employer to approve your own job application. Who among us hasn't been in the same situation? Okay, probably most of us. Get around by launching glowing orbs from a portal gun, and teleport to wherever a ball lands. Robots patrol the premises, and if you're not fast enough they'll cut you down faster than you squeeze your way into a ceiling vent or over into that storage closet.
The Gallery: Call of the Starseed
I'm a sucker for a good adventure story, and my time with Call of the Starseed was far too limited. Valve gave us a mere 15 minutes with each developer, and I spent much of that time hovering over a campfire, cooking popcorn. Nevertheless I got a decent taste of the experience: there's a wondrously deep world to interact with, clever puzzles to sift through and an attention to detail that does an amicable job of satisfying purists like me.
I suppose this is a game, in the traditional sense. But Fantastic Contraption is mostly concerned with blowing your mind. You'll need to solve puzzles by building fantastic contraptions, pulling abstract mechanical shapes and colorful bits together to solve puzzles. It's as farcical as it is fantastical, and I'm excited to see what it evolves into when it finally launches later this year.
Cloudlands: VR Minigolf
Virtual reality mini golf is my gateway drug; I know, I'm as shocked as you are. I didn't expect this demo to be quite as engrossing as it was, but it's mini golf, perfected. The physics feel spot on, and the courses are fantastical without being overwhelming. I doubt most folks will get as excited about mini golf as I am (they're wrong, of course), but it is a great indicator of what's to come.
Pro-tip: When a first-person shooter's developer appears to be surrendering, do yourself a favor and shoot them anyway. They've probably got a fellow developer maneuvering up behind you, lining up a shot on Hover Junkers' floating war barges. The game has two challenges you've got to overcome. The first is a very involved reloading system, that'll have you reloading your revolver or triple-barreled shotgun with a very specific set of gestures. This, as expected, is awesome. The second challenge is that the deathmatch mode I played only works when you've got people to play it with. I suspect most of my friends won't be picking a VR headset, which would leave a VR enthusiast beholden to whatever limited selection of folks jumps on the VR bandwagon -- there's a single-player campaign, but when you've had your first taste of combat, racing around wastelands on a rickety hovering barge, it'll be hard to go back to anything else.
Google's Tilt Brush is overwhelming as it is inspiring. I've picked up the faux brushes twice now -- first on the earliest HTC Vive prototype -- and remain transfixed. The decorative options just keep growing, but far more impressive are the Showcases: artists with visions beyond my own limited imagination have already done work in Tilt Brush, and you can watch their three-dimensional creations grow in real-time, walk around and inspect them, and even add your own embellishments.
Job Simulator: the 2050 archives
I love Job Simulator, and have watched its development eagerly since I sampled the earliest versions back on the original HTC Vive prototype. For my latest take, I played a "human" (a bipedal, simian mammal) working in a restaurant, slinging out meals to customers. At least, that was the idea: I spent most of my time chucking produce at passersby, seeing what would burn on the grill and chugging wine. Virtually, of course.
You've probably heard this one before, but zombies are up to no good and it's up to you to shoot them. But Arizona Sunshine adds a new twist into the mix: limited ammunition. Plant an ammo belt somewhere on your body (I recommend your chest), and then take on the undead with a handful of different weapons, each with different firing requirements. The tricky part? You'll need to empty your weapon's magazine and then press it against your ammo belt to reload. Nevermind the zombies, the paucity of ammo and the risk behind every reload is plenty enough horror for me.
Remember Flight Control? You had to guide planes onto a runway , keeping them clear of obstacles (like other planes). Final Approach is like that, and a whole lot more. You'll help helicopters ferry goods to landing sites atop tower skyscrapers, or stand in the middle of a flotilla and guide damaged fighter jets to safety on an aircraft carrier. And it goes beyond landing craft, you can zoom in on turrets to take out misbehaving attack drones, get up close to parked planes to deal with fires, or just watch engineers doing their thing.
I'm a huge fan of Audio surf, and Audioshield brings the same premise to virtual reality. It's a music visualizer that turns the songs in your music library, or on Soundcloud, into the stages. The HTC Vive controllers in each hand serve as red and blue shields, and you'll block the red and blue beats as they fly towards you. Pulling the triggers on each controller, or moving them close together, combines them into a purple shield, to block the rare but tricky purple beats that'll rain down and especially dramatic parts of a track.