In limited forms, Doom and Fallout 4 are playable in virtual reality, and I recently went hands-on with both. With an HTV Vive strapped to my head and two VR controllers in my hands, I entered worlds I’d only seen on TVs and monitors. I saw promise. I saw worlds I’d like to reenter. I did not see actual games.
Doom, id Software's just-released, well-received franchise reboot, wasn't supposed to be the first game in the series to enter virtual reality.
Once upon a time, when John Carmack was still an employee of id parent company ZeniMax Media, Doom 3 BFG was slated for a VR transformation. ZeniMax canceled the port over "equity demands," Carmack left id to join Oculus. For the next couple of years ZeniMax and its subsidiaries were quiet about VR (with the exception of lawsuits), but at Bethesda Softworks' pre-E3 2016 press conference, VR made a resurgence.
More of a montage of things to do than a cohesive experience
Doom in VR felt like a proof of concept. The 10-minute demo was more of a montage of things to do than a cohesive experience.
It began in an antechamber of sorts, a room where I could explore, examine and touch things. It's difficult to image that the room would exist if id were showing off regular, old Doom on a console or PC. Like any other regular, old game, the developer would've just plopped me down in front of a keyboard, mouse and controller and told me to have at it. It's not like they'd need to explain what clicking the analog stick means.
But this is VR, where things are new, and it's fair to assume that everybody needs a minute or two to acclimate. To a close approximation, everyone knows how to use video games' time-tested inputs, but to see your hands floating in front of you, matched one-to-one with two VR controllers, requires a bit of acclimation. So I spent time acclimating.
First up: Movement. Here's how that worked: I held down the trigger on one controller, which created an arc like you sometimes see when aiming a grenade in games. That painted the floor with a target, and when I let go, I teleported to the part of the ground I'd just been painting. This isn't unusual for games at the dawn of VR (I saw it with Batman VR, too), but it is jarring that, as the same time that VR opens up so many possibilities, it's limiting things as basic as the freedom to move about the world as you wish.
Next up, the demo teleported me into a curved hallway, where I held a gun in my hands. I was admiring the plasma rifle, turning it over and peering closer to see the detail when the first demons appeared in the hallway in front of me. I pulled the trigger and they fell, one-by-one. All alone with nowhere to go, I started admiring the sparse, futuristic hallway just by moving my head when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed another demon horde approaching from behind where I was just looking. I took them down, wave after wave, giggling. Then it was time to go to Hell.
I took them down, wave after wave, giggling. Then it was time to go to Hell.
This was id's way of showing that the demo was more than a couple of static environments. I stood on a plateau in the middle of a war zone. Demons ran above and below and all around me. Some of them seemed unaware of my existence, so I picked them off. The more curious of the lot? Well, I picked them off, too, turning around, back and forth, tracking them in the foreground and the distance.
Except for the lack of locomotion, Doom's demo was probably exactly what you'd picture if I asked you to picture playing Doom in VR. Wild beasts from hell, a giant weapon in my hands and nothing to do but shoot to survive. That's Doom, in VR or out of it.
The final part of the demo is where my mind keeps returning in the days since I experienced it — and I use that word with care. It teleported me to a dark landscape surrounded by nothing, equipped with nothing. There was nothing to do but wait.
Then, out of the darkness, the monsters appeared.
I was in no danger, of course, fully aware that I was in VR. Also, I've seen Doom characters in various incarnations and on screens of all sizes for what I'm horrified to realize amounts to decades now. But I'm here to tell you that it's still somewhat unsettling to watch a Mancubus four or five times as wide as you and probably twice as tall waddle its way over and scream in your face.
That's not real. That's not even a game. But it is something novel — and something I'd love to return to, provided of course that I was armed to the teeth and had a good way to run way. Because those things are huge.
Dogmeat never seemed so real until I had to literally turn my head down and look him in his sad puppy dog eyes.
I was standing outside of the Red Rocket truck stop, which as anyone who's played Fallout 4 for an hour or so will know, is a location you can't miss at the beginning of the game. I'd just raised my left arm to look at my Pip-Boy and had just enough time to realize how huge the damn thing was when my canine companion showed up, sat down, looked up at me and cocked his head. Moments of realization like that abound in VR and sell the idea better than any spoken pitch.
Unlike Doom, which isn't officially slated to be released in VR, Fallout 4 is headed to the HTC Vive by June 2017. At this point, it works fundamentally like Doom does, allowing you to toss yourself like a grenade to move. There wasn't a mission available to try, but there was a makeshift shooting gallery, with scarecrow-like targets and bottles lined up begging to be pulverized. Even though I've spent what seems like hours at the Red Rocket in non-VR Fallout 4, aiming and shooting with my arms made the familiar seem new. It made me want to return and fight again from this new perspective.
Of course, shooting like that is pretty standard in VR. What I really wanted to see was the Pip-Boy, mapped to my actual arm. With the caveat that I didn't have a ton of time to try it out, I left with the feeling that it was less exciting than I thought it would be. That's mostly because it was confusing, and the confusion highlights one of VR's biggest challenges.
Almost everything I saw convinced me that I had a real Pip-Boy strapped to my arm, but there were also incongruities that pulled me out of the immersion, too. I could look down an see my Pip-Boy and marvel at the size of the thing. That only occurred to me from this vantage point, and I grinned like a fool when I moved its giant green display closer and closer to my face. But it was also floating in mid-air without a corresponding arm, and looking through my wearable somehow where an arm should have been felt weirder than seeing the gun in my right arm floating in mid air. (Bethesda told me that it Fallout 4 could ship with other control options.) Its lifelike appearance made me want to reach out and touch it with my right arm, but I couldn't. I think it's fair to say that's beyond the capabilities of the controller. It's not like I was wearing a glove that mapped my fingers' movements. It's understandable, but still another example of the incongruities.
As I was examining my Pip-Boy, I heard Dogmeat bark. A band of raiders dressed like they'd just teleported in from a Mad Max movie moved in and started shooting. I jump-warped over by the ancient gas pumps and started shooting. Dogmeat, ever so brave, ran up and started attacking, too. I aimed, careful to miss my little buddy, and took the bad guys down, one by one. My foes defeated, the demo ended.
I'm filled with thoughts that bounce like a Pong ball between excitement and confusion just about every time I play a VR demo.
Doom and Fallout 4 each left me wanting more. Neither felt gimmicky. Instead, they felt like legitimate new takes on existing properties. Like HD remasters on current-generation consoles, they make me want to return to worlds I've left behind. But I also can't deny that, here at the dawn of what could be a virtual reality revolution, I never have to look far to see the chinks in their armor.
I have every reason to believe that I'll be back in the Wasteland, back in Hell, destroying my enemies with virtual appendages.
VR gets a lot of things right, and so do id and Bethesda. Years after I first donned my first headset, I still marvel at the ability for VR goggles to track my head's every movement. That freedom turns the familiar into something new — and it often convinces my brain that I'm really in another world. But floating Pip-Boys and weird movement are also there, reminding me that it's virtual reality, and the prospect of traveling Fallout 4's Wasteland by hurling my body 10 feet a time sounds like more trouble than its worth.
Still, everybody's continuing to figure out VR, and these are just the first steps. The Bethesda representative in the room with me reiterated that they haven't worked it all out yet. Fallout 4 could ship with more than just body throwing movement, for example. If Doom becomes a shipping product, I'd expect the same. I can imagine a scenario that splits the difference, were we'll be able to switch between multiple movement options with the press of a button. I'll bet I could be happy with that.
So, yes: I have every reason to believe that I'll be back in the Wasteland, back in Hell, destroying my enemies with virtual appendages — and hopefully, they'll get some upgrades, too.