Like many, I approached the Occulus Rift with a reasonable amount of skepticism. And why wouldn’t I? We’ve seen this before – pieces of hardware that garner critical excitement, right up to the moment we get the devices in our hands. The PlayStation Move felt like a complicated way to play the video games we love, more of something we had to endure than fully enjoy. The phrase “better with the Kinect” is nothing short of laughable. Exceptions withstanding, a lot of the industry’s approaches to immersion leave something to be desired.
The Occulus Rift is a game changer. Here, VR isn’t something that you tolerate, knowing that the gameplay would be better in its absence. No, VR is a genuine enhancement that may even render conventional gaming bland by comparison, if my hands on demo with EVR, a cleverly titled game based in the EVE Online universe, is any indication of what we can expect.
I walked into the demo room, quietly tucked away in the meeting rooms of the LA Convention center, where I was sat in a row of 8 chairs, 4 foes to my right, 3 friends to my left. They outfitted me with an Occulus Rift headset, slipping it on my head themselves. Could a mere mortal be trusted with the handling of such technology? They didn’t seem to think so.
That’s when it happened. That’s when I knew this would be something I would never forget. I found myself gazing out a long tunnel through the window of a cockpit.
“Move your head around, make sure everything is working correctly,” said the attendant. I obeyed. Downing my gaze, I saw the body of the pilot where I expected to see my own. I accidentally identified with it, trying to control it as though it were my own. As I moved my arms from my sides to make sure that they still worked, the pilots arms remained at his.
“Oh yeah,” I thought. “Still real life.”
“There’s a controller in front of you. Reach out and grab it,” the attendant said. I obeyed again and reached forward where a familiar Xbox 360 controller was placed into my hands. Seconds later, my headset rumbled and the ship was launched out of the vessel. Instinctively my head swivelled as I broke clear from the hangar into open space. All around me, in close proximity was my team who then broke off in their own directions, amateur pilots, all of us. Trippy, to say the least.
Across the vast abyss, 4 other targets came into sight, mirroring our confused tactics. I pulled the right trigger to fire a series of futile blaster shots in their direction before banking left and down through some debris. My headset then started beeping frantically as one of my fellow “noobs” figured out how to lock on and deploy missiles. I boosted in response, trying to navigate through a piece of architecture that would have been a wasted effort in any non-Oculus game. Without depth of field or the ability to look around for openings, my craft would’ve surely exploded clumsily against a wall.
My ship came out of the structure unharmed and immediately above my pursuer. I inverted my ship and channelled Tom Cruise from Top Gun, thinking, “If I can’t shoot this son of a bitch, I may as well have a little fun with him.”
It was at this moment that I discovered that the bogey I was pursuing was seated immediately to my right as he screamed and then laughed, both of our ships exploding in glorious pillars of flame, our heads tilted upwards to gaze through our respective cock pits.
In EVR, the left trigger can be pressed to bring up a targeting reticle that follows your gaze, allowing you to manage two enemies at once. When the trigger is released, a series of concussion missiles promises to blow on threat out of the sky. The mechanic is there to encourage people to move their heads around and really take advantage of the hardware. Supposedly, people are inclined to stay forward facing as that is how they’ve learned to interact with video games.
After about 5 to 10 minutes of gameplay a message displayed on my HUD advising me to wait for an attendant to remove my headset. I immediately asked when I could get the game, if it would be tied into the other EVE titles and for what console.
He smiled and said that they really wanted to release the game one day, but for now there were no plans to make it anything more than a tech demo that they worked on in their free time.
Disappointed but impressed, I asked how long they had been working on the software.
“A small crew of us have been at it for about 7 weeks,” he said.
From only 7 weeks of design, through the proper utilization of the hardware, a mostly simple game was able to become one of my most engaging moments in gaming. I can hardly wait to see what awaits us when the Oculus Rift gets into the hands of the public.