Come one, come all
When it came to the virtual reality wars, I always thought Oculus would win the software side of things. It was their big advantage. They’ve been paying for exclusives, paying for internally-developed games, all sorts of stuff, and the fruits of that labor were clear: Chronos, Lucky’s Tale, Herobound, Adrift, Oculus Video, and et cetera.
So imagine my surprise when my SteamVR library quickly dwarfed my Oculus library. Steam tells me I currently (as of Monday, prior to launch) have 61 Vive-ready titles in my library. Oculus? Around 30.
The difference: Oculus carefully curated its launch lineup while Valve...well, Valve did what Valve does, saying “We’ll take whatever you’ve got.” The result is a collection of software that’s more mixed in terms of quality, but also more experimental and better at showcasing the Vive hardware. And some of the games are really damn good. Inside, we’ve collected the 15 SteamVR titles we think are worth paying attention to at the HTC Vive's launch—provided you’ve got the space for room-scale VR.
Tilt Brush is the program that first made me fall in love with the Vive, and it’s still maybe the best thing on offer—even though it’s little more than MSPaint in 3D.
That “In 3D” bit is important though. VR isn’t just poised to change the way we consume content but also the way we create, and Tilt Brush is the best indicator at launch of what artists can do with the platform—less “painting” as we’re accustomed to it and more like sculpting light into shapes.
It’s hard to explain and much, much easier to just put someone in the Vive, hand them the controllers, and tell them to start drawing. See what happens. See what people create when there are literally zero limits, no physical constraints. The results are incredible, and I’ve found myself returning to Tilt Brush night after night as a creative outlet—and I can’t wait until better artists than me start uploading their sketches to the web.
Of course. Of course the guy who created AudioSurf also created the most addictive Vive game. Like its monitor-bound predecessor, AudioShield uses tracks from your music library to procedurally generate “levels.”
But where AudioSurf had you sliding recklessly down the block-ridden highway of the future, AudioShield lobs incoming projectiles at you. Each Vive controller becomes a shield strapped to your hands, providing you a way to protect yourself from the red and blue spheres raining down on your head.
It’s a simple concept—and the menus could use a lot of work—but when it works and the beats sync perfectly and you feel like some weird blend of Ancient Greek hero crossed with a crazed DJ...well, it’s thrilling. Personally I recommend loading up Led Zeppelin’s Achilles Last Stand for thematic consistency.
Universe Sandbox 2
Universe Sandbox 2 in VR is breathtaking. Jaw-dropping. Goosebump-inducing. A million other adjectives that serve as polite euphemism for “Holy $@%!^%.”
Imagine floating in a vacuum, Earth looming below you, the moon circling in its distant orbit, the sun a bright spot among millions of other bright spots. And then with a single flick of your wrist, imagine shrinking the Earth down to the size of a pale blue marble, floating a few feet from your eyes. Imagine creating a second sun adjacent to our own, watching the two collide in a massive explosion that send particulate millions and billions of miles out into space as a fledgling nebula—and then, in turn, shrinking that nebula down to the size of a soda can.
It is both amazing and terrifying, a fascinating look at the fundamental structure of the universe and a daunting look at our own place in it. A brilliant use of the technology.
The Lab is Valve’s first-party offering for the Vive at launch. No, no Half-Life 3. Sorry. But The Lab is an excellent demo reel, showcasing many of the hardware’s unique capabilities in brief, self-contained experiences.
“Postcards” take you to 3D reproductions of real-world locations. An archery demo has you nock and fire arrows at an invading army. An “arcade game” turns the Vive into a miniature spaceship fending off foes—2016’s answer to Galaga. And then there are some of Valve’s original Vive demos from GDC 2015, including the Dota 2 Secret Shop and the Aperture Robot Repair. And more.
It’s a great collection of minigames to get you used to the hardware. Think Wii Sports for the Vive. I’m curious whether Valve will add to it over time.
The Gallery - Episode 1: Call of the Starseed
The first episode of The Gallery, titled Call of the Starseed, starts out slow. In fact, it really only picks up...right when it ends. Which is a bit of a shame.
But what an ending.
The Gallery is essentially the Vive’s point-and-click adventure demo, or at least the most polished of the point-and-click adventure demos. There are some ingenious ideas here, like an inventory “backpack” accessible by physically reaching over your shoulder and pulling it out, or a cassette player you physically interact with to play audio logs. Puzzles are of the pseudo-Myst variety, generally requiring real-world solutions like “Plugging circuit boards into a device” and “Firing off flares.” Nothing too devious.
The first episode is only a short taste—I finished it in a little over an hour—but I hope Episode 2 isn’t too far off because it’s clear the team has some excellent ideas and an eye for story.
Cloudlands: VR Minigolf
It’s golf. In VR. The idea of meshing room-scale VR and minigolf is actually so obvious that there are at least two games for the Vive launch— Cloudlands: VR Minigolf and Minigolf VR. But that’s testament to the power of the concept. I imagine most people know how to play minigolf, so it’s easy to hand someone the Vive controller and say “Okay, go ahead and play.”
Of the two, Cloudlands (pictured) is more polished and the physics seem more realistic. On the other hand, the difficulty in Cloudlands ramps up considerably in the back nine and I would’ve broken my digital golf club over my knee had it been possible. I suck at golf.
Apollo 11 VR
“We choose to go to the moon.” President John F. Kennedy is shouting these words at me through an old 1960s-era television when suddenly the walls of this tiny apartment disappear and I’m left floating in space, the moon looming in front of me. It’s so perfectly timed, it gives me goosebumps.
Apollo 11 VR is a blend of game and documentary. Over the course of about an hour you accompany Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin on their fateful journey to the moon and back, from launchpad to landing in the ocean. Each scene is layered with real audio chatter from the mission, as well as clips from retrospective interviews of the three astronauts.
There are some janky bits, and a few irresponsible camera moves (keep a lid on your stomach) but overall it’s a stunning example of what VR could do for education.
Fantastic Contraption has had a crazy evolution. It's hard to believe that what started out in 2008 as a Flash game is now one of the first big Vive games, and yet here we are.
The goal remains the same as the original: Get the pink object into the pink goal area. You do so by constructing crazy machines out of wheels, rods, more wheels, more rods, and before you know it you’ve created some horrible Frankenstein’s monster truck to move a ball six feet forward.
It’s a fantastic (no pun intended) use for the Vive though, as—using the made-for-VR motion controllers—you simply place things where you want them, string rods together, and watch your six-foot-tall balloon car rocket off a cliff. And kudos to the team for creating a second, small-scale version of the game for those who lack the space for the full room-scale experience or just want a more tactical view.
The Vive launch is littered with quirky demos and half-finished experiences, but very few that you might call “actual games.”
But there’s Job Simulator, and it’s so damn good it almost makes up for the in-progress state of so many other titles. The story goes that in the future, robots will try to experience menial human jobs “for fun.” Thus in Job Simulator you’ll clock in as an office worker, a mechanic, a retail clerk, and a line chef—but all hilariously misinterpreted a la Motel of the Mysteries.
What do I mean? Well, imagine a place where “Cooking the Books” literally means setting them on fire. Or where soup can be made with anything—even broken glass. You get the idea. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, and probably the strongest all-around Vive game at launch.
Another in the “Translate sports to the Vive” line, #SelfieTennis is a bit different in that it’s a competitive game...that you play with yourself. You hit the ball over the net, the game teleports you across, and then you hit your own ball back again.
Also you are surrounded by nine-foot monsters with heads shaped like tennis balls.
It’s silly, it’s small, and there’s not reaaaally that much to do in #SelfieTennis—basically just beat your own high score until you’re bored. There's not much on offer for the $20 the devs are asking. But like minigolf, it’s an extremely intuitive application of the Vive hardware (“Hit these tennis balls”) and a good use of room-scale VR. Just make sure your area is clear before you start playing, lest you Andre Agassi your Vive controller straight into your wall/desk/friend’s face.
Space Pirate Trainer
“Some people call me the space cowboy, yeah.” Oh wait, it’s space pirate here? Well damn.
Aside from picking the completely wrong title, Space Pirate Trainer is an excellent heir-apparent to old lightgun games. The game puts you on a landing pad in a science fiction city, your spaceship a tantalizing few feet away. But someone has it in for you, sending wave after wave of robots to shoot you in the head. You dodge them and shoot back. That’s it.
The Vive controllers are obviously your guns, and let me tell you: Of all the lightgun-style games I’ve played this week (and there have been a lot), Space Pirate Trainer’s guns are top-notch. They even do this thing when you touch the trackpad where the end of the barrel spins around, all future-like. I don’t even think it does anything. It just looks badass.
This game is badass.
If you’re curious what an RPG looks like in the Vive, there’s Vanishing Realms. The game is in Early Access, and I’d even call it “Very Early Access.” Levels could use a bit more direction, and occasionally I got frustrated with the way the teleport system is implemented, meaning there’s a lot of spinning around and trying to get oriented.
But the combat is the real sell here. Can you totally recreate the physicality of medieval combat with a pair of motion controllers? Of course not. Still, there’s an undeniable thrill to swinging a sword into an enemy, or blocking an incoming strike just in time. This is the promise of the Nintendo Wii’s motion controls coming to fruition about a decade later.
Fair warning: Unseen Diplomacy is the only game on this list (I think) that has an excessively-large space demand—4 meters by 3 meters. Do you have that much empty space in your house? I certainly don’t.
But I wish I did, because Unseen Diplomacy is a great example of what developers can do in an optimal environment. You play the role of a spy infiltrating a compound, Mission Impossible-style—laser beams, vents to crawl through, et cetera. And since people are bad at telling direction with a headset strapped over their eyes (shocking!), the game is able to manipulate you into feeling like your play space is much larger than it actually is, crossing and re-crossing your own tracks without realizing it.
The downside: Very few people will have enough room to experience it. Time to find a friend with a big house, I suppose.
Steam Desktop Theater
This might look like a screenshot of me playing Baldur’s Gate II on a monitor in a dark room, but it’s actually...well, it’s me playing Baldur’s Gate II on a ten-foot screen in a dark room. So basically the same thing, but in virtual reality.
Steam’s new Desktop Theater Mode isn’t a game unto itself, but I’d still put it on the list. Making good use of the fact the Vive ties straight into Steam, Desktop Theater Mode allows you to play any game—any game—in virtual reality. Instead of playing on your normal monitor, the game launches on an oversized theater screen inside the Vive.
Is it practical? Not really. Do I think you’ll play a lot of games this way? Probably not. But it’s a great bit of functionality built right into Steam (as opposed to the Oculus which requires third-party apps to accomplish the same thing) and it’s a great way to sit and watch Netflix if you want an ad-hoc home theater mode.
I’ve been using Whirligig for years now on the Oculus Rift, but it works just as well on the Vive—better, even, since you can use the built-in camera as a passthrough to see your keyboard. Whirligig is nothing fancy, just a side-by-side video player, a.k.a. one where you can watch 3D videos you download from the Internet.
Any type of 3D video. Wink.
The Vive launch is less focused on non-gaming entertainment, so there’s no official Valve Movies app or anything. Whirligig is a fairly cheap point of entry whether you just want a digital cinema screen or are digging into a world of 360-degree content. Plus there’s a gimmicky-but-kind-of-cool Drive-in Movie setting.
Note: Whirligig is absolutely not user-friendly, with some barely-functional menus (F8 for Explorer, Y to enable SBS video variants). Be prepared to put in some sweat and blood to get it configured the way you want. Or just wait. There are probably more video players coming down the pipe for those who are willing to sacrifice some power and flexibility for a friendlier environment.