One of E3's best demos this year was shown, not on a glitzy mega-booth, but in a quiet back room, without fuss or fanfare.
"Back to Dinosaur Island 2" is a proof of concept virtual reality demo from Crytek, for its forthcoming game Robinson: The Journey. Shown on an Oculus Rift Crescent Bay prototype, it's the follow-up to a demo shown earlier this year.
Crytek rented a room in a quiet corner of the Los Angeles Convention Center to show a short demo to anyone who happened to pass and fancied spending ten minutes in the early Tithonian period.
That earlier GDC demo featured a terrifying T-Rex, sniffing around a player who had unwisely decided to camp in the vicinity of some giant eggs. While impressive, it was fairly static and kind of monotone blue-ish. By contrast, this new demo is a full bloom of colors that also demands the player to move.
The demo begins with the player clinging to the face of an enormous cliff, surrounded by a beautiful Jurassic landscape of mountains, jungles and waterfalls. To look directly down is to experience the wonder of a lovely view, but also to feel a wave of vertigo.
VR hands float in front of the player, who must maneuver them in order to clasp onto a series of pulleys that pull upwards. Control is handled through direction of gaze and then controller buttons.
During the ascent, pterodactyls emerge from hidey-holes, soaring above, below and behind the player, occasionally allowing themselves to come close enough to show off the creatures' detail. Rocks tumble down from the top of the cliff, as a mother seeks to protect her young. The player dodges those with ease.
There is one moment of nice visual storytelling, when a baby pterodactyl falls out of its nest. It tumbles toward its death, only to be rescued by a parent in mid-air. It is a reminder that this is a game, and not just a demo.
If you let go of the pulleys, you will fall. Daddy Diopecephalus will not save you. When I let go, I was hoping for a VR-extravaganza of violent death on the rocks below. Unfortunately, the screen just goes blank, and resets where you left off.
But that is the only disappointment in an otherwise breathtaking demo. Robinson: The Journey will likely be a walking game with low level interactivity. It is an excuse to explore a world of dinosaurs at a leisurely pace.
At the top of the cliff, the player finds out more information about creatures and locations, by staring at them for a long time and receiving data packets. But this seems almost like a distraction in such a lush and beautiful place. It is enough just to be there.
For Crytek, the demo is an opportunity to show off its CryEngine technology, which the company hopes will be widely used in the development of VR games. This is just a demo of a single section of a game, and is heavily garlanded with detail. But if VR really is going to look and feel this good, it's going to command significant attention from many people, including non-gamers seeking a new escapism.
Also at E3 last week was another VR dinosaur demo. Time Machine VR (above) is from Minority Media, which obviously does not have the same graphical resources as Crytek. It's an underwater exploration of an ancient world, getting up close to sea monsters on a scientific expedition.
There is far less visual detail at play here, though more freedom of movement. The player moves among seabed rocks in an attempt to approach creatures without being seen. Time can then be frozen for a final approach and investigation.
Minority Media makes use of lots of gamey conventions that seem superfluous, like choosing the correct tool (i.e. controller button) to observe animals. But once again, the principal of exploration, of looking and seeing strange things, seems to be VR's strongest pull, rather than its ability to create modes of interactivity or even of play.
This E3 was a good one for virtual reality. Next year we should see more clearly how far VR's video game piggy back ride has run its course.