Oculus Quest, HTC Vive, Valve Index, PlayStation VR - going virtual isn’t going anywhere. And as part-time Lawnmower Men and VR enthusiasts we take a look at the state of all things Virtual in 2021, and the games that define the medium.
Here's the thing about VR as a platform for games — it's in its infancy. It's new tech, featuring and requiring brand new modes of thinking to get the most out of it. And what that means is that, invariably, games made for VR make compromises. They build out these revolutionary methods of play that feel good and immersive in VR, but result in some gameplay experiences that are… not fantastic. All of the more complex games on this list fall prey to this pitfall of the technology.
The upside is that the experience itself is like no other. And I do mean no other. VR is one of those annoying actions you need to do to understand it… to get it. Like swimming with whale sharks, skydiving, or any other activity Tom Cruise might partake in whilst preparing for the latest Mission: Impossible. Sure, you can picture the concept in your mind's eye, but until you actually live it, it's difficult to understand all the fuss.
And then when you do, you become one of those insufferable people who won't ever shut up about it. “I was flying an X-Wing and looked out the side of my cockpit and saw a Star Destroyer, it was right there!” You might say.
VR is one of those annoying actions you need to do to understand it… to get it. Like swimming with whale sharks, skydiving, or any other activity Tom Cruise might partake in whilst preparing for the latest Mission: Impossible.
VR is exactly that. It's life-changing. And not just because you need to take out a small loan or sacrifice your soul to Facebook to actually have it in your home. Even with the inevitable compromise I mentioned above, any game you play in VR is like nothing you've played before. You're in it. You're there, in that game world. It is the future of games. It’s an action movie poster tagline come to life.
This isn't to say that every game should or could be a VR experience - just that, inevitably, the world of games will trend in this direction. Singularity and all that. That's not to say that now is the time to jump in, but hey, there’s no time like the present. VR isn't where it one day will be, it's not quite the technology it is destined to be. There are still wires and bulky headsets and dedicated room scale setups to manage, but there are also automated tracking systems, intuitive touch controllers, and beefier GPUs capable of rendering multiple images at a really high refresh-rate. VR in 2021 offers up incredible experiences.
As this list demonstrates, jumping in now wouldn't be the mistake it was, even a few years ago. In fact, these VR games and experiences will no doubt make you a believer.
Star Wars: Squadrons
SteamVR, Oculus, PSVR
Star Wars: Squadrons is a Star Wars flight sim with a VR mode available to it, so it’s not governed by the rules of other VR games — it is a complete game that happens to allow you to play it using a VR headset.
And it is one of the most phenomenal experiences I have ever had in my life. There is a moment in the game's storyline where, after some brief story setup and a mandatory attempt to position an Imperial pilot as a possible 'good guy', where you fade into the cockpit of a Rebellion X-Wing. And in VR, with the banged up, barely running aesthetic of a T-65B X-Wing Starfighter separating you from the vacuum of infinite space, you get to live out childhood dreams.
I mean, you do if your childhood dreams were at all like mine. Both me and Kosta have sung its praises before, which you can have a look at if you're after more detail — and if you're keen on doing it yourself, you should know that it is now available on Xbox Game Pass for PC and Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, and while there's some messing about to be done, that version of the game is completely playable in VR.
Also Check Out: Elite: Dangerous, and coming November 2014, Star Citizen!
Half-Life: Alyx is the tech demo that made a lot of people actually believe in VR games, it made a whole swathe of gamers convert to the cause I so dearly champion. It's the game that proved to so many that VR had arrived.
Here's the thing, though — I was right about Half-Life: Alyx when I said it was an above average (but just barely above average) VR game. It's a technological marvel, an expertly polished experience that expands a beloved video game universe in spectacular and meaningful ways. It gives everyone hope that we might see another Half-Life game.
It just wasn't all that great as a game. It's a fantastic example of the compromise I spoke of, where in order for Alyx to be experienced in VR, the gameplay itself suffered. Enemies take too many shots to die, ammunition management is tedious, the puzzle-solving one-note. Teleport movement works but it impacts exploration.
But you will struggle to find a better example of the technology, and if you are interested in the story of the Half-Life universe, it expands it wonderfully. The Jeff level is a masterpiece.
More importantly, Valve has opened it up to the world of modding, allowing anyone to modify it how they like. And now that I have a beast PC — my machine was aging when I reviewed it — I've been able to appreciate it on a technical level even more thanks to the MSI GeForce RTX 3080 Suprim X I have under the hood.
Also Check Out: The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners, Boneworks
Vader Immortal: Episode I-III
Where Half-Life: Alyx might have positioned itself as the VR killer app -- not to mention the many Half-Life fans out there that did the same -- Vader Immortal takes a different approach. Sure, it’s “Star Wars in VR!” but short episodic interactive movies developed by ILM. Experiences that have the sheen and feel of an elaborate theme park-ride as opposed to a AAA-style videogame with a rich world to get lost in.
The fact that it nails that ‘theme-park’ tone is what makes it great, because you quickly realise elaborate Disney-style rides take a lot of investment both creatively and technically to come together -- and if they do, the end result can offer up thrills and momentary bursts of spectacular immersion. Which, in a way, highlights an aspect of VR that often gets dismissed. The truth is theme park rides are cool, fleeting, but awesome nonetheless. The immersion you get from simply donning some VR goggles lends itself perfectly to spectacle.
The three Episodes that make up Vader Immortal feature a friendly TV-show runtime, and the story is all about an ancient order, smuggling, the Force, and ol’ Darth trying his best to learn a Padme resurrection spell. VR-wise room-scale movement and object interaction leads to moving through the story first-hand, action set-pieces involve firing blasters at troopers, and wielding a lightsaber with 1-1 motion controls is the icing on the cake. Fleeting, but very cool.
Also Check Out: Lost Echo
A Fisherman's Tale
SteamVR, Oculus, PSVR
A Fisherman's Tale is a puzzle game from Innerspace VR that transforms you into a puppet and tasks you with escaping a model lighthouse. The twist? The lighthouse is trapped in some sort of recursive dimension — it contains a model lighthouse with a puppet in it that is also trying to escape, and it is contained within a model lighthouse inhabited by a puppet that is trying to escape. Chris Nolan would be proud.
Existential crises about whether you're the man in the box aside, it's a wonderfully charming puzzle game that wrinkles your brain via recursive geometry. Taking a tiny object from the large lighthouse and placing it in the model contained within your world sees the same thing happen above you, leading to puzzles where you are interacting with a giant or minute version of yourself as you make your way through.
It's a fantastic game, well worth playing — although it did make me quite motion sick during my time with it.
Also Check Out: The Room VR, I Expect You to Die
SteamVR, Oculus, PSVR
Beat Saber is a phenom in the world of VR, a rhythm game like no other that will have you bobbing, weaving and flailing your arms about in no time. It's a simple concept — you have two sabers, bright blue and red laser sword type things that are similar but legally distinct to lightsabers, and you hit orbs that fly at you in time with music.
The official music is “pretty good”, that is if you like your EDM or Emo Rock, but where Beat Saber really shines is in its modding community. Instead of being restricted to the 'official' songs, you have access to literally hundreds of custom tracks. There are different backgrounds and platforms, easy to use menu change-ups and custom lightsabers. And, yeah, you can mod it to have Darth Maul style dual-blade lightsabers while you swing away at a dance remix of Duel of the Fates.
It's also an incredible workout, as many rhythm games are, and a very immersive experience. It's probably my most played VR game, and that's even accounting for the fact that my wife boots me off my PC constantly so that she can play it.
Also Check Out: Audica, Pistol Whip
SteamVR, Oculus, PSVR
Where Beat Saber blends music and movement into one of the most engaging workouts ever made, Rez: Infinite brings a classic back from the Dreamcast-era and simply uses the immersion factor of VR to amplify what made it such a cult classic in the first place. Of course this is in reference to the techno masterpiece from Jun Kobayashi and Tetsuya Mizuguchi. Part on-rails shooter, part rhythm action, all late night grooves to wash over your senses.
And yeah, in VR Rez takes on a whole new level of awesome - amplified by a soundtrack that sounds as good today as it did back in 2001. With sit-down controller-in-hand support it might lack the heart thumping physical movement of most music-oriented VR games, Rez: Infinite simply takes an already established classic and adds an additional layer of immersion on top.
Infinite also adds a new and more open and elaborate level in the form of ‘Area X’ where the latest in Unreal Engine tech gives you a glimpse of what a modern-day sequel might look like. And it is... amazing.
Also Check Out: Tetris Effect, Thumper
EMUVR isn't so much a game as it is a wrapper for a RetroArch, itself an open-source front-end for a wide array of emulators — that is, platforms for playing old school game roms of games that you absolutely definitely legally own.
What it does is quite simple, on the face of things. It places you in a room, in front of a TV, and it allows you to play your old school games in VR. You can customise everything about the room — you can add posters, change the size of the TV, alter the layout, whatever — but basically speaking EMUVR is designed to take you back to the old days of sitting on the floor of your bedroom and playing games.
Does using Virtual Reality tech to teleport myself into a golden age of playing Andre Agassi Tennis on the Sega Master System make me a sad person? No, it doesn't. I was already a sad person, I had an existential crisis in the fisherman puppet game. Is it the easiest way to play the light gun games of yesteryear without needing to somehow still own a CRT TV? Yes it is.
There aren't really any other games like it, but Duck Season is another game where you sit on the carpet and play a light gun game — I didn't include it in this list because the less you know about Duck Season going in, the better.
Forgive the formatting on this one, but it's important. If you go looking for a fishing game that you can play in VR, you'll be presented with two choices. Ultimate Fishing Simulator, and Ultimate Fishing Simulator VR. Ultimate Fishing Simulator — with the accompanying VR DLC — winds up being about $1 dearer than Ultimate Fishing Simulator VR, but it is a far more complete experience, based as it is on the broader Ultimate Fishing Simulator game.
There's not all that much to this one that isn't in the title. You go fishing in VR. The only thing more zen would be actually heading out into the wild with the rod and reel, but the problem with real world fishing is that you have to sober up before you drive home. That's not a problem in Ultimate Fishing Simulator, which you can do from the comfort of your own home. The game easily allows you to pick your location, your bait, your tackle and to tune into literally hundreds of real world internet radio stations for an authentic experience like nothing else. Just… if you're going to take a piss, make sure you remove your headset and go to your actual toilet.
When designing experiences and games for VR developers naturally take into account the presentation, controls, and how you might move about once transported to a new digital reality. As such experiences built-from-the-ground-up for VR couldn’t really exist outside of that reality in much the same way converting a traditional non-VR game to VR either works or falls flat.
Describing Phantom Covert Ops is akin to describing a parody of a cheesy action movie that you might overhear during an episode of The Simpsons. You play an elite covert agent, dropped into Russia, to put a stop to a mad-man getting their hands on a devastating weapon via infiltrating an industrial facility… on a kayak. A kayak you remain within throughout each stealth and spectacle-driven mission.
In VR it makes perfect sense. Sitting down in a kayak using touch controllers to paddle, use a pistol, take out your rifle, hide in the many reeds, and sneak through the various tunnels and waterways -- is often incredible because it amplifies just how important tactile controls can be for a true VR experience. And how your real-world body is basically jsut sitting there too. Throw in classic Metal Gear Solid and Goldeneye 007 era stealth action and Phantom Covert Ops has the air of a classic videogame too.