2016 was the year that consumer-grade VR went from something most of us just read about to something that started appearing in stores and homes. In the past, articles about VR proclaimed, "You can't convey the effect on a flat screen, you'll have to trust us!" and "It's magical, we promise!" But the praise was impossible to verify since you probably couldn't stick your own eyes into a pair of pricey goggles. Even as one of VR's biggest early fans, I empathize with that caged-hype feeling. Enough! Let's see how this stuff actually plays out.
Quality consumer-grade VR systems are finally landing in significant numbers, right next to amusement-park rigs, free store demos, and even half-decent smartphone rigs (from Google Daydream to a newer, slightly sharper Samsung GearVR). Enough VR content came out this year to merit a full-blown best-of report for 2016. Because the industry is still nascent, I'm skipping the list format and opting to break this up into a few sections—including projections about what to expect from VR in 2017.
Best current system?
Ars compares the major VR systems.
We've already written a few guides comparing the "big three" VR systems—as in, the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR. (That designation comes from how all three are powerful enough to render "real" VR content, complete with comfortable head tracking, and all three ship with solid controllers.) Ars has yet to declare a winner in the VR race, and I'm not going to alter that call.
Each system has its advantages. PlayStation VR may offer the best bang for the buck, especially if you already own a standard PlayStation 4 console. (In a pinch, you can forgo the PlayStation Move motion wands, as many of its best games don't require the wands.) PSVR's tracking can be very wonky, whether because of lighting or because of a random, full-system desync. But its headset is possibly the most comfortable of the three, and it's the friendliest to anybody who wears glasses, no question.
The biggest issue: PSVR's tracking stability degrades significantly when you stand up, which is where the other two expensive options take a lead.
First-gen Oculus Rifts and HTC Vives have their own issues, and in our dream world, we'd get a set that combines the best of both. The Rift has a comfier headset; its integrated headphones are dynamite; and its (optional) motion-tracked Touch controllers feel better than the Vive's wands. However, the Vive's tracking boxes are superior both for how well they track a user in real-life space and for not requiring a direct USB connection to your computer. Also, Vive's games are all built with a motion tracking expectation, and its screen is a teensy bit clearer.
Gunplay dominated VR's first official year, mostly for practical reasons. Primarily, developers for Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR made games with an expectation of seated players and gamepads, which meant cockpits, cockpits, cockpits. On the Vive side, the system's default wands are meant to replicate hands. But with a headset on, Vive's handle-and-trigger setup pretty much feels like guns.
Of the notable games in the Rift's 30-strong launch library, the high-octane online space shooter Eve Valkyrie comes closest to a killer app. Tracking the enemy with your head at 360 degrees is a game-changer in the truest sense of the word.
Eve Valkyrie wins out as the year's best sit-down cockpit shooter in VR, both because it's damned good and because you can buy it for all three systems. This space-deathmatch shooter doesn't offer much depth, but its mix of slick interface, comfortable play, and bombastic combat make it an obvious leader in the "I want VR to feel awesome and simple immediately" department. Honorable mention goes to a special X-Wing mission on PSVR, free to owners of Star Wars: Battlefield on PS4. It's short but oh-so-sweet, and it makes us hopeful that EA will squeeze out a fully fledged VR game while it still has Star Wars' gaming rights.
Space Pirate Trainer official trailer.
The stand-and-shoot VR genre, meanwhile, has a whopping four top contenders. (Seriously. So many guns this year.) The first, Space Pirate Trainer (Vive, Oculus Touch), is the best among a huge field of similar arcadey games in which players obliterate waves of computer-controlled enemies with a variety of guns. SPT launched as a sublimely tuned rush of high-speed action, particularly with its bullet-time "you're about to die" moments. The game has only gotten better after a series of patches and the addition of weapons like a grenade launcher, an electric whip, and a scatter-happy shotgun. The sound design, the enemy patterns, the responsiveness of each weapon—no other VR arcade-shooter comes close.
Superhot VR launch trailer.
Next is Superhot VR, which is currently an Oculus Touch exclusive. What was already a thrill as a standard keyboard-and-mouse affair becomes a sense-overloading masterwork in VR and one of the best honest-to-goodness "full VR games" this year (as opposed to so many quick-burst arcade experiments). Kyle Orland's year-end blurb about Superhot VR has more info about the game's "time moves only when you move" gimmick.
How to play Hover Junkers.
My other two stand-and-shooter picks are online multiplayer games. Hover Junkers (Vive) wins out in spite of user-unfriendliness. New players don't get coaxed with a tutorial or a mission that naturally introduces HJ's disparate systems—shooting guns, picking loadouts, driving a floating tank platform, and using scrap to build defensive cover. Its sheer physicality is also daunting; no VR game on any platform requires this much real-life movement. But ye holy gods, man. Once you know Hover Junkers' ins and outs, you're in for one of the most thrilling deathmatch experiences ever made (which has only gotten better thanks to an ever-increasing selection of guns over the past few months). Building, driving, and duck-and-covering around your own ramshackle hovertank truly works, thanks to surprisingly reliable netcode performance.
Rec Room beta trailer.
The only multiplayer shooter to compare this year is Rec Room (Vive, Oculus Touch), which is still, for some insane reason, completely and totally free. After landing in a neighborhood recreation center with an automatically generated instance of other online players, you can either pick from a few hardcoded multiplayer games (paintball deathmatch, racquetball, "3D charades") or just goof off with games like basketball and table tennis. (This is similar to the game Destiny's lobbies, but Rec Room's lobbies actually have fun things to do.) Rec Room's paintball mode is fun because it allows teams of players to VR-teleport around giant deathmatch arenas and blast each other while picking up new weapons on the ground.
New genres in VR
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: hand-tracking is probably the most interesting thing about VR, compared to the "wow!" factor of feeling like you're somewhere else. Standing super-close to a giant whale is cool for a second. But using your hands, as opposed to a joystick or mouse, to wave at that whale? That's the shizz, dogg.
Fantastic Contraption launch trailer.
That's probably why Fantastic Contraption (Vive, Oculus Touch, coming to PSVR) remains in my personal year-end list, even though the game is admittedly limited. Contraption, like its Flash predecessor, asks players to guide a little pink blob to a specific point in VR space by making wheel-driven machines. The solutions to these VR puzzles rarely feel perfectly crafted; instead, there's a trial-and-error wonkiness that leads either to too-simple or too-complicated solutions.
But no savvy computer user—specifically those interested in interface design—should leave 2016 without experiencing what it's like to generate, grab, manipulate, and combine objects inside of Fantastic Contraption. Its handheld controls reduce the complications and shortcut keys of mouse-and-keyboard rigs in amazingly elegant fashion, particularly in terms of letting users comfortably play within the Z axis. After a single session of Fantastic Contraption, you may find yourself imagining an operating system that works this way—and you will enjoy some truly unique puzzle moments, to boot.
I Expect You To Die launch trailer.
The puzzle game I Expect You To Die (Oculus Touch, PSVR) is similarly clever because it asks users to manipulate objects in a seated vicinity quickly and in rapid succession. Some of its puzzles could be done with a mouse, but many of them require three-axis manipulation, so it's nice to see the smoothness of hand controls so cleverly executed here. I Expect You to Die is a short-and-sweet puzzle affair with a healthy dollop of dark, James Bond-themed humor.
Accounting launch trailer
Barely sneaking into my personal VR top ten list: Accounting (Vive), the bizarre VR debut from Justin Roiland (Rick and Morty) and William Pugh (The Stanley Parable). Anyone familiar with those guys' creative output will be delighted by the weirdness they cooked up together, and its low price of $0 helps the brief, hilarious game go down a little smoother. VR is awash in humorous experiences, and I think that's because using your hands changes the reason things are funny. Job Simulator (Vive, Oculus Touch, PSVR) kicked this trend off, and it's quite clever, but I think Accounting is a more successful (and adventurous) take on the same idea.
SuperHyperCube launch trailer.
As much as I love tracked hand controllers, I was delighted by two trippy gamepad VR games that are currently PlayStation VR exclusives: Rez Infinite and SuperHyperCube. I've written at length about the former (TL;DR: I cried, and while my tears have since dried up, my enthusiasm hasn't). Meanwhile, I've taken to playing SuperHyperCube pretty much every night since it came out. It's not quite as breezy as grabbing a Game Boy and playing Tetris before bed, but slipping the PSVR headset on is easy, which helps me quickly get into and out of this gorgeously designed, deceptively simple spatial-awareness puzzle game.
Reducing SuperHyperCube to "the Hole In The Wall game show in VR" misses the whole point. Great design and aesthetics lift this game's simple premise to celestial heights—and will absolutely tick your "just one more try" box.
The winner is... Google?
Pre-release preview events and "wow it's finally here" bluster have faded into memory, and for some VR games and apps, that period of time hasn't been kind. Google's Tilt Brush, on the other hand, has held up in the months since the hype faded. It is, without a doubt, my VR release of the year. One thing that has helped: Tilt Brush has received the most post-launch updates of any game or app on any VR platform.
Thanks to the updates, my launch-week impressions now sound dated. For starters, VR painters can now teleport around their 3D canvases. This means anybody can paint-sculpt decent, basic creations in small rooms, but things get crazier when you teleport long distances to create sweeping worlds; a pre-installed, dimensionally tricky Doctor Strange diorama uses this to great effect.
There have also been new brushes (and the ability to sync your strokes to music), but this month's new perk is possibly the best yet: cube and sphere templates. Now you can generate invisible shapes, then place your paintbrush on their edges or their insides and fill them in with whatever strokes, colors, and effects you want. The app's lack of default geometrical shapes or clay/putty substances forces some creative solutions to making 3D forms, but being able to generate circular and spherical forms on the fly fills the app's only remaining content gap.
I can go on and on about why I love Tilt Brush. (I already did that in April, and I encourage you to read that article again if you still need convincing.) I have similar praise to offer for Google Earth VR, which I still contend is a must-try for anybody's first time using the HTC Vive. The funny thing is, Google developed both of these experiences—and neither works in Google's proprietary Daydream VR rig. They're still both Vive exclusives. Could that change in 2017?
(Virtually) see you next year
VR's first major commercial year turned out well, all things considered. Even PlayStation VR's relatively lower cost is still pretty high, let alone the $1,000-plus required to dive into Oculus or Vive gaming. Yet public enthusiasm (and money) did prop the small industry up to some extent, with HTC in particular doing so well with its Vive system that it spun off the Vive division into its own company (so as not to saddle Vive's success with HTC's other failures).
But what should we expect next year from these three systems? In PlayStation VR's case, more games are already announced and in the pipeline. StarBlood Arena and Dino Frontier impressed me at December's PlayStation Experience, while we're hoping that a Psychonauts VR spinoff and the all-new puzzle game Statik Institute of Retention prove as compelling as their teaser demos felt earlier this year.
PSVR will also get an exclusive 2017 shooter called Farpoint, but that requires another proprietary purchase in the form of a giant plastic gun. The gun is fun but, geez, Sony. More troubling is the lack of triple-A Sony franchises attached to PSVR at this point. Even PlayStation Vita announced LittleBigPlanet and WipEout at an equivalent point in its history, and we know how unceremoniously that console got dropped. Sony needs to assure VR buyers that they won't get dropped like a sack of hot Vita-tatoes. So far, they're not doing a great job of that.
HTC clearly isn't backing down from the VR world, and a late-2016 Steam developer conference included a sneak peek at an updated SteamVR controller, complete with an Oculus Touch-like clasp over the hands. Smart money is on a refreshed HTC Vive model coming at some point in the year. We're thinking more evolution than revolution. New controllers and a more comfortable headset will certainly debut in a Vive 2.0, while fancier upgrades such as screen resolution and wireless protocols might be another year out in order to keep the 2017 kit at a low price. Ultimately, any Vive changes this year probably won't break compatibility with the original system.
The Vive will continue relying on small indie teams to generate VR content—unless Valve finally gets around to announcing a new VR-compatible game. If a giant price cut or rush of public interest doesn't hit the platform soon, however, that could be very bad news for VR gamers. Dean Hall, the DayZ creator who went on to form a VR studio, has made recent statements suggesting that VR game and app development is currently an easy way to lose money. All eyes will track the best-looking HTC Vive game in the works right now, Budget Cuts, when it (hopefully) launches in 2017; if that incredible "Metal Gear Solid in VR" adventure can't sell units, then I'm not sure what else could.
Oculus already has a comfy headset and pair of controllers in place, so I see the company pushing a serious price cut by the middle of 2017 for a complete Oculus hardware bundle. After that, we might see real traction on the company's announced plans for a wireless, all-in-one headset that has functional "inside-out tracking." The tech wasn't quite ready for prime time late this year, but who knows what difference a year will make? Oculus blew an opportunity to announce a bunch of 2017 games at its recent Oculus Connect conference, however, so I hope they make a splash at March's Game Developers Conference with a few bonafide "big" games. Additionally, I believe the Facebook VR demo from Oculus Connect will make its public debut by 2017's end. Even if Facebook VR turns out to be dorky or limited, the product will get the mainstream world hyped about VR all over again.
Both PC VR companies will continue pushing for efficient 3D rendering techniques, which will effectively lower the required computer power needed to join in the VR fun. In the short term, that'll make it easier for people to buy cheaper VR-ready PCs (or get their current PCs plugged into systems).
One more hulking beast still lurks on the horizon: Microsoft. The company will be pushing its Windows Holographic standard throughout 2017, which is designed to play nice with both virtual reality and "augmented" or "mixed" reality headsets (like its super-pricey Hololens). Additionally, Microsoft has announced a wave of Windows 10-compatible headsets set to launch this year, made by OEMs such as Dell and HP with prices as low as $299. These headsets appear to have incredibly low system spec requirements.
Ultimately, the future for consumer-grade VR will be busy, if not necessarily rosy. Price cuts need to land across the board, and "full games" need to start landing on the systems' marketplaces, or else the year that VR exploded will quite possibly be followed by the year that VR died.