Despite near-constant reports of its imminent demise, VR is not in fact dead. Star Wars: Squadrons is the latest game to give the platform a shot in the arm, and the imminent release of the VR update for Flight Simulator 2020 is going to be another boon for VR and indeed the flightstick industry that can't seem to make enough sticks to keep everyone happy. Facebook has dropped its Oculus Quest 2 on the world, and HP has its Reverb G2 nearing physical release as well.
Despite this, there are still reports that all is not well for what was once seen as the future of gaming. The uplift in hardware sales around the release of Half-Life: Alyx appears to have slowed, at least according to the latest Steam hardware survey, and some of the problems of VR are still very much around: it can be very expensive, a pain to setup and use, and there still aren't enough must-have games for those that do actually invest in it.
Half-Life: Alyx has definitely been the highlight for VR for me so far. I'm genuinely jealous of Jacob, as he's playing it through on the Oculus Quest 2 right now, and there's so many bits that I know he's got coming up that I want to experience for the first time all over again. I probably will play through it from start to finish again soon, although my need to try and 100% the achievements is putting me off a bit, especially as carrying that damn gnome through the whole thing is going to be frustrating.
One problem with Half-Life: Alyx though is that it makes pretty much every other game out there look a bit rubbish. I tried going back to the well-respected Arizona Sunshine, but it just couldn't grab me after making my way through City 17. I'm sure it was a good game when it was first released, but coming to it AHLA (after Half-Life Alyx) is not a great experience. And it's more than just the graphics, it's the movement, the carefully balanced game mechanics, everything really.
I'm sure there are some great ideas out there in the early access landscape that is the VR market, but finding them is the modern day needle in the haystack. And I'm not sure anyone really has enough time to find them. Searching by the most popular, or highest rated titles still has plenty of questionable games on the lists as well, although at least it's somewhere to start.
There is some hope though, and that's thanks to a bit of multiplayer VR gaming I got to experience a few months ago. The game in question was Tower Tag by VR Nerds, which has two teams fighting over territory, capturing towers, and killing each other. Not exactly a new idea, but it is well implemented and manages to put a big tick in the fun box.
Ducking behind destructible cover and popping out just in time to catch your opponents off guard works really well, and landing long shots across the map feels absolutely awesome. The system of moving between towers, by grappling between them and pulling yourself to that tower, is intuitive and means you can instantly go on the defensive or straight out attack the moment you land.
The publisher describes it as a Cyberpunk game, although that's a bit of a stretch. It feels more like something you'd seen in the Tron universe, and we don't mean that in a bad way. The neon graphical style is vibrant, and while it lacks the assets of Half-Life: Alyx, in the context of a multiplayer game it makes a lot of sense and looks pretty good. The character models are basic, but the whole thing runs incredibly smoothly, which is more important than anything else in this kind of tactical gunplay.
It was quite a workout too. By the time the four of us had clocked up an hour of play we all confessed to being a bit sweaty, and the idea of doing any more was just a bit beyond us. I was using the HTC Vive Cosmos Elite, and that definitely felt heavy by the end of the hour. There was talk of lampshades being taken out, furniture bashed, and a few bruises as well. Thus are the dangers of flailing around your home.
A great experience overall then, and one that did a phenomenal job of dispelling my fears that network lag would make for a vomit inducing nightmare. Honestly, if you've got a VR headset and haven't tried multiplayer yet, do yourself a favour and get in on the action. Multiplayer VR is surprisingly good fun.
It didn't stop me packing the headset back into the box shortly afterwards though. Partly because my home has become my office, and there just isn't room to leave a big expensive headset laying around. Another reason I haven't dived back in is because friends that I know that have VR headsets are either on different systems (Playstation), or they haven't touched the headsets for months.
When you throw in needing to buy a game, which may not be on all platforms, along with the low install base of VR, it's clear that there are still some serious mountains to climb. Having competing platforms doesn't help, and the high costs are still a high barrier of entry for many. The scene is potentially getting better with each headset sold, although without the games, it feels like VR is still a novelty more than the future of gaming.
The Oculus Quest 2 could be exactly what VR needs—an affordable standalone headset that is easy to set up and use. It does feel like a competing platform to PC VR though. And yes, while you can tether it to your PC, can it really offer the accuracy and resolution of a proper tethered setup? There's also the Facebook factor, and plenty of potential users are unhappy giving a social media company access to so much information about themselves.
VR is not dead, not by any means. It's fair to say that it hasn't brought about the revolution many were predicting, but it is starting to produce some impressive experiences. There's still gallons of potential, and that will carry it for a while yet. Maybe until Valve releases its next VR title...