It's been a great couple of years for PC gaming. Almost every noteworthy game is available on PCs at the same time as on living room consoles, and usually with better graphics options; newGPU and CPU hardware has made gaming desktops and laptops both more powerful and less expensive; and higher-res screens mean you can play at 4K and beyond.
But virtual reality, specifically the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift headsets, was supposed to truly revolutionize PC gaming. Fans spent months on waiting lists for these expensive devices, but since the initial launch hype, it's felt like a bit of a fizzle. There are multiple VR headsets to choose from, but none of them are perfect. There are a lot of VR games available, but they may not be the games you're looking for. At this year's big E3 video game trade show, VR is still there, but it's not as promient as it was last year. Why has VR failed to live up to the massive hype?
Not enough big names and big games
It's been more than one year since the Vive and Oculus Rift went on sale, and you can still count the number of A-list games from A-list game publishers on one hand. Ubisoft has led the way, with the just-released Star Trek: Bridge Crew, WB has a short Batman game called Arkham VR, and there a couple of VR-ready games from the long-running cult-favorite Serious Sam PC game series. Bethesda has VR versions of two existing games, Doom and Fallout 4, coming soon. Other than that, the biggest game publishers and franchises have been largely absent from the party.
Or, if they have turned up, it's for quick one-shot experiences. EA has a single VR level for both Star Wars: Battlefront, and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. Both are free, but they're only available on Sony's PSVR platform.
VR games are shockingly conservative
With the freedom of movement, the tactile hand-like controls and the ability to paint a moving 360-degree image all around you, the gameplay and storytelling possibilities of VR are limitless. But, at the same time, the games being highlighted by Oculus and others as best-of-breed can be shockingly conservative. So much so that in some cases you have to wonder why they're in VR at all.
The stylish, but very limiting, Wilson's Heart.
Robo Recall, a robot-fighting game from Epic (the original creator of Gears of War), insists you look straight ahead at all times and punishes you for turning too much to one side or the other.Wilson's Heart, a highly hyped noir-like mystery, demands you stay rooted to one spot, only allowing you to teleport between a handful of predetermined points. Even taking a single step in any direction is enough to stop the game. Edge of Nowhere, The Assembly, Robinson: The Journey -- all high-production value VR games that each failed in some major ways to actually, you know, take advantage of VR. Even the recent VR game based on the Adult Swim cartoon Rick and Morty keeps you caged in a small garage, only allowing you to teleport between three predetermined points (it's still pretty funny, but the limited interaction is incredibly frustrating).
Hardware confusion reigns
Even though prices have been cut by $100 or so here and there, VR hardware is still too expensive, too bulky and most importantly, still too hard to set up and use. I've been neck-deep in high-end computer gaming hardware for a dozen years, and hooking up the Vive to a new PC and getting Steam VR to work properly on the first try is still a roll of the dice.
Both the Vive and Oculus headsets require high-end PCs to run, adding at least $900 (but more like $1,500-$2,000) to the price, and they're still tethered by big, heavy cables. The headsets themselves are a hassle to put on, especially if you're dealing with handheld controllers at the same time (and neither is friendly to eyeglasses). HTC's new Deluxe Audio Strap -- a replacement headband for the Vive -- helps a bit, but that's still an extra $100 investment. Sony's PSVR for the PS4 gaming console costs less and is much easier to use. Lighter headsets and wireless VR are both coming someday, but they're not here yet.
And you also have competing software platforms -- the Oculus online store only sells Oculus games, while Valve's Steam store sells mostly Vive games, but many of them will work on the Oculus headset as well. Vive-maker HTC also has its own Viveport store. Some updates only come to one storefront, but not the others, so make sure you're buying the right version of the game from the right store and for the right headset. Good luck keeping track of all that. (Props to Ubisoft for getting its Star Trek game to work cross-platform for multiplayer.)
And yet, there's hope
Despite failing in its first year to change the face of PC gaming, I'm still bullish on virtual reality, or its close cousins, augmented reality and mixed reality. Less expensive hardware is coming, in the form of new Microsoft-endorsed headsets from Acer, Lenovo and others. Wireless solutions, some powered by Intel, will finally cut those big, bulky cords (yes, there are already "wearable" VR backpacks, but those aren't ready for prime time).
Away from the world of PC-only VR, Google, Samsung and others are pushing standalone or phone-powered VR systems, and Apple has just highlighted the Mac as a VR development platform for the first time ever, even as it's bringing AR to the iPhone.
The very fun, and totally free, Rec Room.
Plus, there are many great VR games from small indie developers, who have found a particularly friendly home on Valve's Steam platform. They may lack the big budgets, fancy graphics and popular characters of the biggest non-VR games, but if you take the time to seek them out, you won't regret it. If you're looking for a starting point, some of my favorites include Rec Room,Superhot VR and The Gallery.
In other words: Watch this (virtual) space.