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Fallout, Doom, and Skyrim don't need VR, but Bethesda has bigger ideas

We're still a ways out from VR becoming Mancubus-mainstream.

I’m not an athletic man, but in Doom VFR, the upcoming VR version of 2016’s hit reincarnation of id’s classic shooter, I am Death Himself. As a possessed soldier tries to shoot me, I point a teleport marker and watch as everything slows down. I duck his bullets, teleport close, and shoot him in the face with a shotgun.

After a few shots, a Mancubus starts to flash, indicating it's ready to be torn asunder. I point my cursor into the center of the Mancubus and release the trigger, teleporting myself into the center of the obese demon. The Mancubus explodes and his immense body sags to the floor, the corpse so large that I have to step out of the empty shell to move on with the fight. Clearly, VR is cool.

But even for a relatively young technology, there have been very few major game releases for virtual reality headsets. It makes Bethesda’s all-in approach a confounding surprise, but by bringing Skyrim, Fallout, and Doom to VR, the company is in a good position to change the pace. In associating some of the biggest names in gaming to VR, Bethesda is trying to set itself up as a leader in VR development, build its own internal expertise, and help jumpstart a technology that has grown in fits and starts.

“If you believe something is going to be big, you can't just say, ‘oh, this will be big in six or eight years, so let's ignore it until it's big, and then we'll jump on the bandwagon,’” Doom VRF executive producer Marty Stratton tells me at Quakecon this year. “There's so much to be learned, and there's so many opportunities to be leaders. We want to be technical innovators, so when we see something we believe in, we want to be at the forefront.”

Of the three VR prototypes heading for release this fall, Doom is by far the best. The closed-in spaces of the UAC’s corridors look sleek and sci-fi inside a VR headset, and teleporting up and down hallways to blast imps and shotgun cacodemons feels spectacular, fast, and smooth. Time slows for teleportation or switching weapons, so I always felt able to react faster and be more badass than my weak, fleshy mortal body could ever allow. No matter which weapons I used, pulling the trigger of the controller felt as natural as aiming down the sights.

Shooting for the Skyrim

Sadly, all of these reasons are exactly why Skyrim VR, which is coming to PSVR first in November and PC sometime in 2018, is the weakest of the bunch. The wide-open vistas of Skyrim look pixelated and low-res running on the Playstation headset, and the 180-degree motion detection of the PSVR meant that I had to constantly use physical buttons on my controller to rotate myself and change direction. 

Descending one of a Skyrim dungeon’s many spiral staircases was dizzying as I used a teleport button to hop down a step or two, then tap-tap-tap-tap-tap to rotate my body, teleport, then rotate again.

Instead of feeling bold as the Dovahkiin, legendary hero of Skyrim, I felt like a child playing Fruit Ninja on a Nintendo Wii.

None of this compares to how disappointed I was when I first heard the call of an enemy bandit. I readied my sword only to find myself waving a wand in space, awkward and unsure if I was even making contact. I wiggled it around a few times and the bad guy fell over. Both of us looked embarrassed about the whole thing. Instead of feeling bold as the Dovahkiin, legendary hero of Skyrim, I felt like a child playing Fruit Ninja on a Nintendo Wii.

“Everybody says that,” says Pete Hines, VP of Marketing for Bethesda, when I complain about how the melee weapons feel. “The problem is that when you do this [he pulls a trigger on a gun], you don't detect the funkiness of the action because it's on a predestined path.” The gun behaves like a gun, in other words, and you’re pulling a trigger just like you’d pull a real-life trigger. “But when the sword swings however you move it, you notice it a lot more, now it does feel more like Fruit Ninja.”

Even though Skyrim will be coming to VR mostly unchanged, with all its quests, dialog, and NPCs in place, Hines expects that players will change how they play the game based on what feels good. In particular, he expects more players to become mages. “Because of the nature of VR and magic, it works exactly like you'd expect it to, because you're not missing the feedback.” Dual-wielding magic, in particular, works better in VR. Being able to move your hands independently gives you the chance to shoot fireballs in two directions at once, or hold a shield against one enemy while you shoot lightning at another.

Waiting for the Fallout

I enjoyed Fallout VR more than Skyrim VR at least, because the world running on a PC looked a lot better and my ability to turn in a full circle was unrestricted. Though I had the option of attacking raiders with a baseball bat, Fruit Ninja Skyrim style, I could easily ignore it since Fallout has a huge array of guns that feel good to use. Launching a mini-nuke at a Deathclaw and watching the blast in VR was every bit as fun as it sounds.

Still, it wasn’t quite right, and I’m not sure if the trade-offs are worth the momentary wow-factor of stepping into VR. Can I explore the Commonwealth Wasteland for hundreds of hours in this gear, or will I always start to feel green like an irradiated ghoul after half an hour?

These are limitations that come with taking an existing game and bringing it into VR. Problems with movement and feedback just aren’t solved yet, and these problems wouldn’t exist if a game was built for VR from the beginning. I can’t help but compare my time with Skyrim VR with Lone Echo, an incredible game that was built to showcase everything VR can do right now, and nothing that it can’t.

But for Bethesda, getting experience is worth it even if the end product isn’t quite perfect. They’ll put out the best version of their games that can exist in VR right now, and they’ll gain valuable internal experience with VR design. I can see how it’s a win-win for Bethesda to take a risk with these experiments, but I’m not as confident that buying these experiments offers much to long-time fans of these games desperate for a familiar experience in their seldom-used VR gear.

Skyrim VR is only scheduled to come to PSVR in November, with a PC release possibly coming in 2018. Fallout VR is coming to PC on December 12, and Doom VFR is coming to both platforms on December 1.