Getting past the obvious hype of steampunk strategy, this week’s most intriguing new Oculus releases offer an array of educational experiences, from exploring the ocean to gaining a better understanding of nuclear disasters:
from Hidden Path Entertainment
After last week’s free multi-player preview – Brass Tactics: Arena – the long-awaited full version is out at last, and all reports indicate that it actually lives up to the hype.
With a single-player campaign lasting up to six hours, plus over a dozen maps, multiple units and a variety of single and multi-player game modes and an interface somewhere between a high-end tabletop war game and a retro-futuristic general’s war room, Brass Tactics is the latest and greatest in VR strategy.
The detailed backgrounds and well-executed steampunk unit designs don’t hurt, either.
Games like Subnautica and Ocean Rift have highlighted particular suitability of VR for experiencing underwater environments – no SCUBA certification necessary and no risk of nitrogen narcosis.
Operation Apex is more realistic than the former and more story-driven than the latter, with players taking on the role of oceanographic researchers in search of the legendary great white shark. That appeals to our scientific side, as does the promise of simulated marine life reacting to us as we enter its native ecosystem.
A free interactive experience intended as an educational tool, FukushimaRMI is a fascinating glimpse into the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant in Japan. Players guide a robot gathering radioactive bins, and the presence of wandering animals and birdsong in the otherwise eerie quiet is a juxtaposition that better conveys the dangers of radiation than any Fallout knock-off.
Essentially a virtual pet, the simplicity of the concept belies the innovative nature of Konrad the Kitten. Now out of Early Access, this game offers a “plush toy” mode combining real world tactile feedback with virtual pet antics (just strap your controller to your favorite stuffed animal) – and highlights the potential of VR to create meaningful experiences for audiences well outside the gaming and technological community.
For a free movie promotion, Tomb Raider: Lara’s Escape is a surprisingly solid little experience for mobile VR, offering an amuse bouche of all the signature Lara Croft experiences, from shooting arrows to rappelling down walls to being impaled by spikes.
2017 was far closer to the “Year of VR” that everyone promised a year earlier – new head-mounted displays from Microsoft’s spec (Acer, Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard, Samsung), peripheral updates – HTC Vive Tracker, and major permanent price cuts across all platforms meant higher adoption. Games and apps improved beyond being mere demo-grade downstream shovel-ware as the early developers matured into major players. 2018 will advance all of these elements substantially, and as arcades evolve and Spielberg enters the fray with the spring release of Ready Player One, mainstream awareness will start to trickle in.
Among the offerings that came out in 2017, here are those experiences we found most succinct and worth of your time.
Cat Sorter VR
from Pawmigo Games
Despite the goofy premise, this game about taking apart cats and putting them back together again as a worker on an assembly line in some feline equivalent to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory captured the public imagination – and mainstream media attention – in ways that few other VR releases did this year. Helping elevate Cat Sorter VR from a novelty game are the cats themselves, which feature mutations like extra eyes or scorpion tales, making the whole process all the more addictive. This fusion of cute and creepy were enough to garner the Aesthetic Award at IndieCade 2017.
Though it’s technically still in Early Access, everyone we know has been playing Gorn nonstop this year. Created by the team responsible for indie PC hit BroForce, this gladiatorial combat game provides a sense of gleeful, cartoonish violence that’s so over-the-top it’s somehow almost innocent. Gore plus porn – get it?
Instead of destructible environments and explosions, the theme this time around is spiked clubs and fisticuffs – not to mention ludicrously huge blood droplets spattering everywhere each time a swing connects with a face.
Bigscreen is a recently socialized virtual desktop app for Vive and Oculus Rift that lets you echo your desktop in virtual space. You can play games, scribble, throw a LAN party – we have yet to figure out how to not spill Mountain Dew in our lap while doing so – and most obviously, watch movies with others in a virtual theater. Spatialized voice chat ensures you can echolocate your buddies in the metaverse.
You can also manipulate screens with controllers or even Leap Motion‘s IR-based input method. They recently hosted an online viewing party of Top Gun in 3D. Now VR starts to demonstrate how it is unlike any other medium.
VR’s strength is its use of space to create experience, and what science fiction fan wouldn’t want to visit location as iconic as the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise? Star Trek Bridge Crew gives players the chance to not only explore the bridge but also team up with friends online “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Lone Echo draws on hard science fiction, both classic (Arthur C. Clarke) and modern (The Expanse), setting players to work investigating weird goings-on aboard a space station orbiting Saturn. Apart from its puzzles and evocative renditions of believable technology as well as the awe-inspiring feeling of space, the game excels at locomotion, giving players an experience of zero gravity without the attendant expense of training at NASA or chartering a reduced-gravity aircraft.
If that all sounds too esoteric and thought-provoking, there’s also the included Echo Arena spin-off, a multi-player zero gravity sports game a bit like Ultimate Frisbee.
An interactive fairy tale from Funomena (best known for such acclaimed works as Journey and Flower), our favorite VR game of the year is so perfect because of its use of space to both tell a story and offer up gaming elements in a space-based diorama filled with wonderful nature pastiches. Its puzzles are fairly easy, but are fun and addictive enough to keep us pulling at spiderwebs not to progress in the game, but just because we enjoyed the sensation so much. Delightful art and a score by Austin Wintory made Luna a memorable and joyous experience.
This is no mere update but a sea change, catching up to Steam and Windows MR to allow you to build your own crib the way you like it. The Rift 2.0 Core update adds so many features it becomes an experience all unto itself. Allowing you to bring your own Medium creations into your animated, customized home base adds to the joy. Socialized features and virtual desktops via the new Dash interface make it harder than ever to leave once you’re in. The first steps towards the universe envisioned in Ready Player One.
Oculus Rift | FREE from the Oculus Store (Beta Opt-In Required)
from VRChat Inc.
VRChat is STILL technically in Early Access – and even while AltSpace died and cried and then Palmer Luckey considered buying it with cash and then Microsoft actually did and while High Fidelity looks amazing but no one is there and it takes FOREVER to load and while Project Sansar looks even BETTER than that and has cryptocurrency but no one uses it yet – VRChat crept up and grabbed society by the jugular, and now grandmas and kids and drunk uncles all can’t get enough of it. Amazing to see a sleeper pop like this and restore hope for us all.
Although VR implementation for Google Earth actually arrived in 2016, this year has seen major updates to the project, including faster load times and – more significantly – direct integration with Google Street View. A terrific travelers’ pre-visit tool and surprisingly emotional.
tinyBuild GAMES, the indie publisher behind such games as Boid, SpeedRunners and No Time to Explain, has announced its first virtual reality offering: Stage Presence.
Designed by Manchester, UK studio Sea Green Games, the developers rather cheekily describe Stage Presence as “a microphone-based music festival and angry mob simulator.” Virtual reality explorers take on the role of lead singer for a band…right when the power cuts out. Players are then required to do their best to keep the virtual audience entertained using only the power of their voice.
Twitching with Stage Fright
Sea Green Games’ approach to Stage Presence appears to be inspired as much by horror – albeit a more mundane sort of horror than the usual zombies and giant spiders – as by the fantasies catered to by games like Guitar Hero. Your primary goal is to keep the crowd from booing you off the stage.
Adding insult to injury, Stage Presence features multiple methods of online humiliation. Players can invite their friends to join the virtual crowd, and said friends can then express their distaste with your singing voice by throwing bottles of urine at you (although if they’re throwing bottles of urine at you, maybe they’re not really your friends).
If you’d prefer to be humiliated by strangers, you’ll also have the ability to not only stream your session on Twitch, but you can let the Twitch chat channel control the crowd.
Furthering the Twitch connection, Stage Presence bears the distinction of being the first VR to be shown live on the Twitch stage at PAX East, which took place over the weekend of April 22nd to 24th in Boston, Massachusetts.
Stage Presence is due for release this summer on Steam and for the Oculus Rift.
In the meantime, watch the announcement trailer below: