Minecraft for Windows Mixed Reality (WMR) has emerged from its beta test as part of the Xbox Insider Program.
We have been eyes- and hands-on with Minecraft's new WMR version on HP's headset, and honestly, it's a total blast. But a fatal flaw could prevent it from becoming WMR's killer app.
What's different in Minecraft VR?
Few games support as many paradigms and inputs as Minecraft. You can play Minecraft with touch controls on Android, iOS, or even Windows 10 Mobile. You can play with an Xbox controller. You can play with mouse and keyboard. And now, you can play using WMR's motion controllers.
If you're unfamiliar with the WMR motion controllers, they have a touch-sensitive circular button, joysticks, a handle button, and a trigger, as well as a Windows key that doubles as an on/off switch. For Minecraft, your right hand becomes the "mouse," while your left hand can be used to view your hotbar inventory. Pressing the circular button will cycle through items on your hotbar, leaving your other hand free for slicing zombies with a sword, punching down trees, or mining. You can use the right motion controller as a cursor, selecting items in your inventory, or aiming your sword or pickaxe.
The joysticks control movement, although the experience is a little odd. There are two modes in Minecraft on WMR: "classic" and VR-enhanced modes. The classic-style controls, as you might expect, work with movement controlled by both joysticks.
The VR-enhanced mode however, feels a little odd. The "look" joystick, which you would normally be used to on a gamepad or while using the mouse, snaps your view left and right a certain amount of degrees. This is how you change your heading for moving forward, and frankly, me and several other staff on Windows Central have found both control modes to be motion sickness inducing.
In Arizona Sunshine, you choose where you want to move to using a positional teleporter, bound to the movement joystick, and it feels a lot more pleasant to use. In Minecraft VR, the physical separation from your legs and movement inside the game could be what is causing the motion sickness some of us have been experiencing to varying degrees. A click of the left stick lets you exit the VR world, giving you a more traditional on-screen experience, albeit on a large virtual screen in a Minecraft-style room. It's a nice addition to take a breather from the disorienting full VR experience, but I'd much prefer background sensation of nausea was just solved somehow instead.
Some will get used to this, some won't experience it at all, but I experienced it enough to make the game difficult to play for long periods of time. Which is a shame, because some things just feel so great in VR for Minecraft.
Virtual mining goodness
While Minecraft for WMR needs refinements to prevent motion sickness, the experience overall is quite incredible. Being able to rapidly aim your pickaxe with the motion controller feels really great, given how much extra screen real estate you have while fully immersed in the blocky game world. It's also a little vivid being able to rotate and examine a porkchop up close, after years of it being resigned to flat-screen displays.
Combat gets a boost, too, now that the look function is released from aiming. Simply point your motion controller, sword in hand, and swing it through zombie skulls for great justice. The accuracy is incredibly precise, and it just feels natural and intuitive to aim and fight this way.
Once you get used to the shifted controls for things like building, fighting, and jumping, this could become the definitive way to experience Minecraft, if the motion issues are resolved.
This could be a killer VR app, but ...
Minecraft VR is already available on other platforms, but experiences like this could really give WMR an advantage once they achieve true refinement. With a WMR headset, the barrier to true VR experiences has never been lower, and Microsoft is no doubt working hard to decrease the threshold even further.
There's a large message that displays when Minecraft on WMR loads, noting that it is indeed a work in progress and that frequent breaks from the game may be needed. It sounds as though Mojang and the Minecraft team at Microsoft is aware of the intensity of the experience and the issues that comes with it. That fact presents a bigger barrier to VR proliferation to me than the costs involved, given that for so many, games like this can be such a physically unpleasant experience.
Luckily, more and more developers building games like Arizona Sunshine, Superhot VR, and Job Simulator understand what needs to be done to solve some of the motion-sickness problems, but for games like Minecraft where full lateral movement is important, it might take a bit of time to catch up.