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Samsung Gear VR (2015) review: The best mobile VR experience so far -- but only for Samsung phones

Playing in virtual worlds

Developers are still experimenting with VR's possibilities, which can lead to a lot of fun little experiences to discover. There are gems like Temple Gates Games' Bazaar, a simple magic carpet ride simulator that sees you coasting along a colorful world, exploring and picking up trinkets. But it quickly devolves into a nerve-wracking, item-juggling fiasco: fill your chest with gold and snacks, and you'll have no room to carry the shield you need to block projectiles, or a crossbow and arrows to fend off snakes. But now that you're armed to the teeth, your belly's rumbling because you're out of food, or you don't have a med kit to patch yourself up after that alligator got the drop on you. And you still need to save a spot for the key you need to unlock the exit.

This is the sort of experience that could've probably been handled by a mouse, but spinning around in a swivel chair, hurriedly tossing out junk to make room for antivenom while shaking monkeys off of my head is decidedly more engaging than just casually clicking stuff.

I'll join the legion of folks gushing over CCP's Gunjack, a first-person arcade shooter set in the universe of the spacefaring online game EVE Online. The visuals on mobile aren't nearly as impressive as the action we've seen in Gunjack's reveal trailer, which isn't too surprising. It's still a blast though. You're a stationary turret shooting at waves of speedy spaceships, juggling targets and timing your weapon reloads to maximize damage, while minimizing the number of targets that escape, free to punch holes in your hull. It can get repetitive after a time, as is the case with many arcade shooting galleries. But tricky new enemies, including foes that'll cloak, drop new distracting targets or simply soak up a lot of damage, keep things interesting. And there's always that drive to try a stage over and over again to nail a higher score.

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More VR games should let you take screenshots.

Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

My favorite VR experience thus far takes on a much slower pace: it's Land's End, an adventure game from the creators of Monument Valley. It's gorgeous; sort of a lo-fi take on Myst, controlled with your head and eyes. There are no traps to avoid or bad guys to shoot. Instead you'll just explore, teasing out puzzles in the world around you. Look at the white circles hovering in the air around you, and you'll walk down new paths. Look at the mysterious mark on a boulder and you'll suddenly be able to pick it up, blocking a waterfall that might be impeding your progress. Look at a circle on a pillar and a beam of light suddenly will follow your gaze, allowing you to form a chain that'll unlock a new passage.

You could arguably get much the same experience with a mouse and keyboard, but getting lost in this little world is so much more enjoyable when it's all around you, birds squawking in the distance, the ground falling away as you're yanked from one island to another. It's a great, meditative experience you'll want to try, and share. And one of my favorite features is something I hope more games will copy: rest a finger on the touchpad, and the game will take a screenshot. You're not getting the surreal, immersive experience of being in the world, but at least I can show people what I'm talking about.

Your own personal theater

Netflix is among the first of the video apps available on the platform, and it's cute: you're plopped into a virtual living room watching a show on a faux big screen TV, and can look around the room. That's it. A novel diversion I suppose, but I'd still rather take the headset off and watch my nature documentaries in the real world, where I'm less liable to trip over invisible furniture.

The wealth of 360-degree video content that's available makes better use of virtual reality, but I remain unconvinced. I mean, I get the allure: suddenly you're swimming with sharks alongside the "Mythbusters" crew, or right in the middle of a Cirque du Soleil performance. It can be the best kind of overwhelming, with the rest of your senses blocked out to fully immerse yourself in whatever you're watching. But it also highlights the weaknesses of the platform.

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Adjust the focus wheel to fine-tune your experience.

Nate Ralph/CNET

I blame the hardware used to record these experiences. The 360-degree effect is neat, but when I'm wearing a headset and everything is so close, I spend more time noticing the imperfections than taking in the experience. Consider Cirque du Soleil's "Kurios." The entire spectacle unfolds around you, but the actions in the corner of every scene isn't as crisp as what's dead center in the frame. And because the creators have to design experiences with that full 360-degree field of view in mind, I'm constantly spinning around in an attempt to take it all in, enjoying nothing because I'm afraid that I'm missing something awesome just over my shoulder. Don't get me wrong: "Kurios" is awesome, a short and sweet experience I'll watch a few more times, if only to spot all the things I've missed. It's a bit of interactivity in and of itself, which is a nice addition to the typically sedentary experience of watching a video. But the art will need to improve before I'm using something like the Gear VR to watch anything substantial. I'm willing to admit I'm in the minority here though, as people have been enjoying 360-degree video for a while now, thanks to existing VR hardware like the Google Cardboard, and apps like im360. Even CNET has gotten in on the act, from the show floor at E3 this year.

Wading through the Oculus Store

You'll have two ways to find apps to consume in virtual reality: fire up the Oculus app on your Samsung phone, or pop the phone into the Gear VR and browse the store with your eyes. It's kind of a mess either way: there are over 100 apps and games on the Oculus store, and things aren't organized all that well. You'll find categories for Top Selling apps, a tiny, curated selection of Must Haves, a list of New Releases, apps promoted by Samsung, and the catch-all Games, Experiences and Apps sections. There's no search functionality yet, and if you're looking for anything specific -- say, an arcade shooter or an adventure game -- then you'd better hope it's a featured app, or you're going to be doing a lot of scrolling.

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Prepare to spend a lot of time scrolling.

Nate Ralph/CNET

Prices range between $1.99 and $9.99 so even the most ardent VR fans will have to spend a small fortune before their own libraries get this cluttered, and I've been assured that changes to the store's interface will eventually make this more bearable. (Note, however, that Oculus was giving early reviewers such as myself free access to everything the store has to offer, so I'm in the enviable position of a fully stocked library that seems never-ending.) For the time being, the stellar standouts will be discovered by word of mouth -- get Gunjack and Land's End, and consider bomb-defusal game Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes if you want a fun time to break out at parties.

Gear VR vs the competition

When I reviewed Google Cardboard, I made the case that Google's little contraption was virtual reality's ultimate Trojan horse. It's dirt cheap and a bit silly, but it democratizes the VR experience in a way that the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive can only dream of. Suddenly anyone with a smartphone and a little cash (or some craft supplies and a pizza box) can sample 360-degree videos and photos, quirky games, and whatever else developers are dreaming up. It's that quintessential gateway drug virtual reality needs to win over cynics like me. More people seeing VR's potential means more people willing to try something a little more compelling.

The Gear VR blows Google's little cardboard toy out of the water -- powerful smartphone hardware coupled with an accessory that's tailor-made for exploiting virtual reality will do that. As onerous as it might be to navigate the Oculus Store right now, it's still a far better place to find cool VR apps to try than Google Play, and it'll only get better as more developers see there's an audience willing to pony up cash for a taste of this potential avenue for the future of gaming.

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Only Samsung's newer smartphones are compatible.

Nate Ralph/CNET

But its best feature is also its greatest weakness: you need a new Samsung phone. Samsung phones are a crucial piece of the puzzle, because it means that folks developing experiences for the Gear VR have a specific set of hardware and a limited range of screen sizes to address. They'll know that people buying the Gear VR are deliberately putting a not-insignificant sum of cash toward trying out this new-fangled virtual reality thing. And they'll know they have a very specific interface they can work with, thanks to the Gear VR's touchpad, back button and the mobile Oculus interface.

The Gear VR's device-neutral tab system is promising. With support for the new Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge, folks who already own a Gear VR and an earlier Samsung phone are going to be stuck with an awkward, expensive phone case if they decide to take the plunge and upgrade.

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Potenital support for more devices? Or wishful thinking?

Nate Ralph/CNET

Virtual reality for the masses

I've spent a full week lost in virtual worlds with the Gear VR, and I love it. But I'm not going to buy it. Let me explain: I'm primarily a PC gamer, and if I'm going to be locked inside a virtual world it'd better be rendered at the highest possible resolution -- I'll get that from the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive in 2016. And I don't want a Samsung phone; I've got nothing against Samsung, but I'm really digging Project Fi and that's limited to Google's Nexus devices. I also imagine that there are countless others who aren't going to spend the money on a new phone (and possibly a new contract) just to give virtual reality a try.

But if you own a compatible Samsung device and want a wild new spin on mobile gaming, take the plunge. At $99, the Gear VR is an affordable taste of the future, and there are already great games and apps to enjoy.

As for the rest of us: virtual reality remains a personal experience, so until a friend hands you a Gear VR to try, or you stumble upon a demo kiosk in a retail store, you'll be left wondering what all the fuss is about. But when it all clicks, there's a ton of fun in store -- and who knows, maybe you'll find room in your budget for a new phone after all.

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