This year's Game Developers Conference was a coming-out party for virtual reality, with a sprawling lounge area filled with fresh experiences and panel after crowded panel covering the topic. For me, it was my first experience inside the HTC Vive, the room-scale system powered by Steam VR. Two games, Survios' Raw Data and Arizona Sunshine by Vertigo Games and Jaywalker Interactive, stood out.
Both games share a similar conceit. While they're room-scale experiences, players are relatively stationary and spin in place to track, and fire guns at, enemies that come from all around them.
Raw Data is a cooperative science fiction game for two players. Projectile weapons include pistols, a shotgun and a compound bow. During my demo I was placed inside the Vive unarmed, and handed two controllers representing my hands. By gripping the controllers I was able to clasp objects in the virtual world. There was a pistol on my right hip, and magazines of ammunition on my left. Reaching down I could unholster my gun and then load it.
Wave after wave of robotic enemies streamed into the room, and by aiming down the sights I was able to perform headshots with ease. Dual-wielding pistols was extremely satisfying, as I could spread my arms out wide, firing in two directions at once like an action hero.
The shotgun was a little more problematic. Hefting it, I immediately tried to bring the weapon to my shoulder and promptly smacked myself in the face with my controller. In trying to get a good cheek weld to see down the sights I confused the Vive, and the gun shifted to my opposite shoulder. In the end, the most effective way for me to use the shotgun was to fire it from the hip.
The weapon I had the most fun with was the bow, which allowed for unlimited ammunition as well as explosive bolts when pulled from an invisible quiver over my right shoulder. Due to the long shaft of the arrow I was easily able to place my shots, reaching across the room to drop robots before they got anywhere close.
There was also a laser katana, which powered up like a lightsaber. It was great for quick slashing attacks, and when used two-handed, allowed me to redirect a large grenade round back at the enemy. While in bullet-time mode, all it took was a simple flick of my wrist to send three robots flying.
The multiplayer mode of Arizona Sunshine was very similar in setup to Raw Data. I started unarmed in a rocky canyon with another player among a series of crates. There was a Beretta 9 mm on a table in front of me, as well as an ammunition belt. By pressing the Vive's triggers, I was able to pick up the belt, strap it to my avatar's chest and arm myself with the pistol.
The first few waves of zombies came slowly at first, and by aiming down the sights of the gun in virtual reality I was again able to plink them right in the head, thereby conserving ammunition. Slowly, more and more zombies, and a second pistol, were introduced, and the gameplay loop became all about keeping my guns loaded and firing at all times.
I extended one arm to fire, emptied the magazine, then returned the weapon to my chest to reload it, cycling back and forth between the 9 mm and .50-caliber Desert Eagle as I spun. Later a sawed-off shotgun entered the game, as well as an Uzi submachine gun — both conspicuously without stocks. Clearly the developers had engineered out the urge for players to shoulder the weapon, given the limitations of the Vive system.
Before long I was tossing magazines back and forth with my partner, sharing ammunition while I picked off enemies that were closing in on him from behind. While I didn't get the chance to use it, there was a huge hypodermic needle in the game that, when slammed into my heart, would have slowed the game down to bullet time.
The developers said that in bullet time it was possible to drop a magazine and catch a fresh one — thrown by another player — inside the weapon, thereby reloading it in the most Hollywood way possible.
Where do you put one of these things?
After playing both demos, two things have become very clear to me.
First, I want a Vive. Both Raw Data and Arizona Sunshine succeeded in convincing me of the promise of virtual reality gunplay. It's intuitive, it's challenging and it's an incredible amount of fun. In Raw Data I even worked up a decent sweat.
Second, I can't own a Vive right now because my house is way, way too small. The amount of space required to flail around with one of these systems is huge, and without emptying a bedroom in my home I'd still be scraping my knuckles along the ceiling. Even with a spotter, I managed to kick out the cables in one system, throw the headphones off my head of another, and later, bounce my fist off a hotel television.
Keeping my feet clear of the Vive's tether created both a gameplay handicap and a physical danger
Yes, I'm 6 and a half feet tall and take up a lot of space, but simply keeping my feet clear of the Vive's tether created both a gameplay handicap and a physical danger. Without that cable recognized as a moving object by the Vive's sensor and rendered in the game world so I can see where it is, there's no way I could safely play either of these games without someone there to serve as a lookout.
However, both teams told me they were interested in bringing their products to arcades. In fact, the Arizona Sunshine developers say they're already in talks with VRcade, a company that manufactures VR installations for places like Dave & Buster's.
With luck, we'll begin to see these types of installations soon. In the meantime, if you're interested in a Vive system, I can't recommend these two titles enough. Just understand that now is the time to start thinking about where in your home you've actually got enough room to safely play them.