The Best VR Experiences Already Available
From simple but effective low-budget affairs from indie developers, to explosive blockbuster thrill rides, here are our top picks that we feel every enthusiast should take for a spin.
A gaming experience like absolutely nothing that has come before, Alien: Isolation on the Rift is intense beyond words. With VR not “officially” supported, although simple to enable, there are some annoyances (such as some text being hard to read). But none of those annoyances detract from the sheer rush that comes with being chased around by an alien in a retro-futuristic space station.
Besides the stunning visuals, Alien: Isolation is an excellent example of the importance of great sound design in VR experiences. From the cold creaking of the dilapidated space station, or the rumble of movement in a distant vent, to the encroaching terror instilled by the beeps coming from your motion sensor; you are truly engulfed in atmosphere and unable to treat events as anything less than real.
As for the more overt visual experience, this is a game where 3D head tracking truly shines. Physically peeking around corners not only adds yet another layer of presence, but also acts as an intuitive element of practical gameplay. The aforementioned motion sensor – which you’ll be making ample use of through most of the mid-game to evade the alien – can be naturally focused on or left in your peripheral while you frantically scan your immediate surroundings.
Some people report feeling motion sickness due to the movement. We suggest using a gamepad – even if you’re used to using a mouse & keys for FPS games – as the smoother movement allows the head tracking to feel more natural, and thus minimizing any motion sickness you might feel.
A vast, deep waterworld to explore and exploit, this game simulates a powerful sense of wonder as you explore the deep blue sea. In Subnautica you find yourself the sole survivor after your spaceship crashes into an alien world’s ocean. With some of the advanced technology in your escape pod still operational, you’re able to gather various resources in order to fabricate increasingly advanced technology that allows you to explore deeper into the dark unknown.
From humble beginnings doing brief dives in the local coral reef, with nothing but a pair of flippers and simple oxygen tank, you’re able to gather scrap metal and various other materials to eventually start building beautiful – and practical – underwater habitats, submersibles and even – eventually – gargantuan submarines that act as mobile bases.
Every step forward enhances your capacity to explore deeper and darker places, exposing you to moments of absolutely awe. Crawling through a crack in the rocks hundreds of meters down to discover a vast cave filled with brightly luminous sea-mushrooms. Hearing whalesound and turning to see majestic, enormous creatures hanging in the distance across a field of vibrant red flora. It would feel exceptionally cinematic if it wasn’t for the ease of indulging the belief that you were truly there.
And it wouldn’t be an adventure without a feeling of danger. Running out of oxygen after a particularly greedy dive leads to your vision narrowing as you lose consciousness. There’s plenty of hostile fauna and flora to watch out for, with limited tools for dealing with them besides swimming away hastily. And on top of that, you’ll need to find reliable sources of food and water. But the overwhelming desire to explore deeper and further will – even with no explicit direction from the game – push you to take ever-increasing risks.
Pioneering the development of a deep-sea habit, powered by a nearby geothermal vent, becomes a self-assigned mission, the payoff being a base from which you can more easily explore the abyss. And while your headset is on – your mind washed away into this alien ocean – these goals become almost as real as anything.
Space is cold and silent. Sitting in your small one-man vessel, with no sound but the dim hum of your engines and the occasional beep of your on-board systems, you’ll have to remind yourself that you’re still on Earth. Like Alien: Isolation, this game is a fine example of the power of sound design. Turn off your ship’s life support systems for just a moment and hear the cockpit glass start to crack from the cold, your character’s breathing start to pick up – and don’t be surprised if you start experiencing psychosomatic hypoxia. In a good way!
What Elite lacks in traditional gameplay, it more than makes up for in atmosphere. Being that your character is always seated in his cockpit, this game should be of particular interest to those unlucky enough to suffer motion sickness in VR FPS games. Looking down at your virtual body can lead to rather uncanny experiences as you momentarily forget it’s not your real one.
The excellent UI is entirely presented within your virtual cockpit, and the different holographic menus activate when you turn your head to look at them. This gives an incredibly intimate sense of control over your ship, as you turn your head to one side to effectively flick switches for your landing gear, toggling subsystems on or off or interacting with your on-board comms to request docking at a nearby station.
Whether you find a sense of purpose within the vast galaxy – modelled impressively accurately on our own Milky Way – isn’t certain. But there’s no denying the awe-inspiring moments you’ll experience as you roll your ship into one of the larger space stations, or violently exit hyperspace in front of a massive neutron star. Ignoring all the combat, trade and related missions and faction reputation, this is truly an experience for those who love space, and want to be able to explore the galaxy from the comfortable and somewhat safer vantage point of our Earth-homes.
A low budget horror game with little concern for cliches or storytelling, this is an experience that would perhaps be laughable on a 2D screen, yet becomes terrifying to the point of being unplayable when experienced in VR. It has simple gameplay: Escape the labyrinth while evading a rif-raf ensemble of ghoulish monsters and undead children (obviously). When the uninspired concept and dated graphics still manage to utterly horrify you to the point of anguish, you can’t help but wonder – while lying awake at night, still traumatized from Dreadhalls – what horrors are in store for VR in the coming years.
There are a number of racing games already compatible with VR, but for a true sense of speed we recommend Radial-G. Inspired by sci-fi racing games such as WipEout, Radial-G has its racers magnetized to gigantic cylindrical tracks that weave around the environment in three dimensions.
This plays perfectly into the benefits of head-tracking. Rather than simply looking into the distance to see approaching corners, you’ll often need to tilt your head up nearly 90’ and look through the glass ceiling of your cockpit to see where the chaotic pipe you’re speeding along veers next.
There are hazards to avoid and boosters to look for which dictate the optimal path along the track. Racing on the outside of a pipe means – in general – there’s no edges to hit into or corners to bounce along, so you have to throw all your knowledge of traditional racing out of the window. Instead, you’re looking to take the shortest path by veering into the inside curve of the pipe’s bends, while also looking to path through as many boosters as possible, which combo together to leave you hurtling around at insane speed.
Radial-G was designed from the ground up with VR in mind, and it shows.
Euro Truck Simulator 2
The concept of simulating something as mundane as driving trucks around Europe may not jump out at you as being a good use of your time. And yet, many owners of VR headsets swear by this game. But why? There’s something surprisingly zen about cruising down highways or winding through mountain passes in a big 18-wheeler, and as mundane as it might seem it’s something a lot of people don’t have access to. The majority of Europe is mapped out, although distances are somewhat scaled down, letting you cruise off in whatever direction you fancy, or – if, like us, you’re from England – mainly just struggle to stay on the correct side of the road.
Despite being a simulator first and foremost, Euro Truck Simulator is not without its gamey elements. There’s a career mode in which you start of as one man trying to make it as a freelance trucker, eventually leading to vehicle upgrades, starting your own company and hiring a fleet of workers to expand your delivery empire.
Mainly, though, it’s about leaning out the window and almost feeling the virtual wind in your hair as you explore the varied vistas of Europe.
A game that feels like playing Micro Machines but with explosives, this is the perfect party game to play with your friends. Simple controls and simple tracks are made utterly chaotic by the vast range of weaponry at each player’s disposal. Rubber-banding mechanics ensure that nobody takes things too seriously, and when your truck gets blasted off the track into your face – making you flinch as you try to dodge out of its way – you’ll be laughing too much to feel bitter about it.
The isometric perspective really emphasises the 3D, and, indeed, lead to things happening that feel like they’re out of a first-generation 3D film, with tiny cars exploding in mid-air right between your eyes. This is a game that makes you feel like a kid, sitting cross-legged on the floor and watching you and your friends’ remote controlled cars race around a track. And for all its arcade simplicity, it’s easy to marvel at how real the little toy cars look as they roll around before you.