Can RIGS Mechanized Combat League and EVE: Valkyrie help usher in a new frontier for games?
I had my first modern virtual reality experience last year and went from cynically reluctant to get in the booth to a fervent believer who'd queue for hours to have another go. Whether you're worried about motion sickness, thinking back on awful 1990's experiments or just unconvinced about adoption and development support, it only takes one good experience to open your eyes to why companies like Facebook and Sony are pouring millions into this new frontier.
This year, VR was everywhere on the TGS show floor. PlayStation VR had a consumer stand of its own rather than a corner of a press booth, Oculus Rift was on show in a plush construction shared with Samsung and its cheaper Gear VR smartphone mount, and several other booths offered experiences I unfortunately didn't have time to check out.
Your vehicle doesn’t move quickly, but you, physically, are unrestrained and can whip your head back and forth like a spectator at a super saiyan tennis match if you fancy. This is really going to take some getting used to, and may well change shooters forever.
I managed to get into PlayStation VR and Oculus Rift demos, thankfully, and both were pretty good - although Sony carried the day.
My first experience with the Oculus Rift wasn't as good as I'd hoped, but not due to a tech problem. The demo was very short, and the staff were clearly trying to hurry everybody through; they didn't fit the headset very well, and wouldn't let me try to adjust it myself, so it was a little uncomfortable.
I was technically given a choice of experiences but the minder looking after me kept pressing buttons on my control pad in case I didn't understand the instructions she was shouting at me through the headset, so I ended up in the much-played EVE: Valkyrie demo.
I didn't mind, really; I love space. Sitting in the cockpit of my ship (I wish they'd let me see the outside before we kicked off) I was happy to look around the cockpit, peer out my windows at the launching bay, and examine the dashboard and my own space-gloved hands. It is my delight to look down at my hands when playing a game with motion tracking and see them move with me, but that's something we won't see very much with traditional games unless developers make the in-game controls look like a control pad and enable gyroscope support. You can have that idea for free, cats; there's no reason why future tech might not be controlled with a pad, after all.
The little bit of the game itself I experienced was less delightful, but that may be because I was utterly rubbish at it. I couldn't seem to get my target reticule onto the enemy, and my ship spun at a ponderous pace which made me severely doubt its offensive capacities. Is this an attempt to defray motion sickness? Because it made me feel like I was playing a poorly-paced on-rails shooter. Still, I stumbled out of the booth awash with pleasure at having piloted a space ship.
I had wondered how Sony could top that experience, but then I got into a mech. Ever since VR started kicking off seriously I've been wondering why nobody has done the obvious and made a decent mech game, since mechs can wander about the environment while you sit in a chair moving only your hands and your head, and that all seems perfectly natural and doesn't involve any unnecessary exercise.
RIGS Mechanized Combat League, the very bunny I've been after, had sort of gone under my radar despite an E3 announce but having played a match I am suddenly tracking this Guerrilla Cambridge project with keen interest.
Everything about RIGS pleased me. When you start up a game of RIGS and are awaiting matchmaking you are lowered into your mech, and can look around the cockpit and hangar. Techs wander around checking your equipment, and work on other models in the background. When matchmaking completes and play is about to begin, you are transported into the arena and are dropped into a launching bay, where you can look out your windows at your teammates on either side. If you look down at any point, you can see not only your hands but your knees.
These are the kinds of little things I like, but the play is brilliant. You run around a multi-levelled course collecting pickups, and when you have enough you are able to leap through a hoop in the centre of the map to score a goal. Other mechs try to beat you to it, and take you down with their weapons. As well as the general tactics of running and gunning, you have three "modes" to choose from. One makes you fast, one makes you dangerous and one makes your health regen faster.
None of this conveys what it's like to actually play, bouncing about in your mech as it moves from lumbering to sprinting in a smooth but recognisably inorganic fashion. Your seat does not actually bounce, of course, but the on-screen effect makes you feel as if it is - yet did not make me want to deposit my lunch in the lap of my minder, who had worriedly asked me in Japanese and English to let her know if I needed a bucket. I get horribly car sick sometimes, but did not have any problems in this regard despite an inadvisable convention diet of convenience store pork cutlets, questionable yakisoba, far too much highly-caffeinated tea and roast beef-flavoured potato chips.
You can't play RIGS like a first-person shooter, where your targeting reticule and your view are pretty much identical. If you do, you will be blown up over and over again, and you'll never see them coming. No, you've got to get used to steering the mech with one stick and aiming with the other - so far so good, right? - but then turning your head to look to the side to take in the rest of the field. You need to use your peripheral vision; the world is not a flat, 2D screen but a real 3D environment.
As in EVE: Valkyrie, your vehicle doesn't move quickly, but you, physically, are unrestrained and can whip your head back and forth like a spectator at a super saiyan tennis match if you fancy. This is really going to take some getting used to, and may well change shooters forever, if we can ever get low latency, 1:1 motion controls working with it so you can move your "body" and aiming reticule as fast as your vision cone.
Anyway, while I was struggling with this incredible development and trying to unlearn the habits of a gaming lifetime, the opposing team blew me to pieces over and over again. Eventually they grew bored with my incompetence and instead spent their time making spectacular slam dunks while I dashed around in circles saying things like "cor" and "wowsers".
When I had been sufficiently humbled, the attendant took my headset off and asked me what I thought. "I'm very bad at this," I said, and she immediately reached for the bucket, having caught the key word "bad". "No, no, I mean - heta, watashi wa taihen heta desu," I clarified in my broken, badly-accented Japanese. She was greatly relieved. "Nobody has felt bad," she said. Having a sweating and exhausted games journalist throw up in her booth would really ruin her day. I'm glad Sony has pushed so hard to make the experience nausea-free.
Shortly after this someone pulled me aside and interviewed me on camera about my experience, either for PlayStation or for Japanese media - I don't know. I should have said no, but I was delirious with the feeling of piloting a gods damned bipedal mech and would have agreed to almost anything anybody in that booth proposed.
I couldn't think of what to say. "It was wonderful. You have to try it to believe it," I think I stuttered, eventually. Not my most eloquent moment, perhaps, but certainly a good summary of the state of VR today.