The Verge’s New York offices now have an official virtual reality room. The library for its HTC Vive Pre holds a bunch of experiments and demos for full games we won’t see for weeks or even months. But there’s too much cool stuff to ignore. So for the next few weeks, we’re putting our writers, editors, artists, and videographers through some of the best that VR has to offer. Here’s what we think.
One of the very first games I played in virtual reality was Valve’s clumsy Oculus Rift port of Half-Life 2. The Half-Life series, which helped define a generation of first-person shooters, is a blend of super-fast action and survival horror. They’re not complicated games — you pick up an increasing number of weapons and use them to kill enemies that drop ammunition or health packs, while trying to reach freedom and save the world. But they revel in improbable power. Players start out in a train and end in a high-security alien stronghold or a parallel dimension, having methodically cut through hundreds of hostiles and surmounted seemingly impossible barriers through the clever use of physics.
Half-Life 2 was a wonderful VR experience in some ways: its early rooftop chases felt properly dizzying in a headset, and firefights were intensely intimate. But like many similar games, its twitch-reflex movements and nimble jumps made it disorienting at best and nauseating at worst. Today, the catalogue of first-person shooters built for virtual reality is much larger and more diverse. The HTC Vive’s lineup will include several of the games, a few of which are already available as demos: the bare-bones Space Pirate Trainer, the brightly colored and slightly convoluted Jeeboman, and the survival horror-themed Brookhaven Experiment.
Brookhaven is like Half-Life if Gordon Freeman liked hanging out in vacant lots
The Brookhaven Experiment may be the closest we’ve come to Half-Life on the Vive, but only because they’re both about a scientific experiment that rips a monster-lined hole in reality. In Brookhaven, your anonymous protagonist stands in a makeshift urban campsite strewn with duffel bags, duct tape, and other detritus. In one hand is a flashlight with limited batteries, in the other a pistol with limited ammo. Slowly, sinister shapes approach from all directions: shambling pink humanoids, thick-skinned giants, a building-sized behemoth seen in the distance. Unable to move from your small patch of open grass, all you can do is try to ration ammo and survive the night.
At the end of each Brookhaven wave, your performance determines the success of a "scavenging" reward that improves your health, gives you more bullets, and offers a choice of special options like a laser sight or fresh flashlight batteries. Then the next volley begins. The game is over if something reaches and attacks you, whether because you weren’t watching or because your last bullet was spent. If you make it enough rounds, the demo ends, and your reward is getting the attention of a monster so big you couldn’t possibly kill it with bullets.
Brookhaven’s demo never feels like it’s trying to arbitrarily punish you, the way some survival horror games do. Your gun never degrades or fails, your flashlight batteries are reasonably long-lived, and you’ll see things coming from yards away, even if you can’t hit them at that distance. The only real point of frustration is the sound design: every approaching monster sounds like it’s right on top of you, whether you’re in imminent danger or have ample time to wait.
The game is fair, but the best you can hope for is survival
No matter what you do, though, death will get you. Especially in unfinished proof-of-concept form, the only progress to be made in Vive shooters is facing successively larger and deadlier groups of enemies, sometimes with no end in sight. In some games, you’re at least able to dance around them — robot-fighting sci-fi shooter Jeeboman lets you teleport between platforms, something that’s most useful for temporarily escaping an unmanageable swarm of foes. But usually, you’re purely on the defensive, being gradually surrounded and inexorably overwhelmed.
Standing your ground against a horde isn’t precisely a new idea, but outside VR, it’s more common in basic arcade games than immersive first-person shooters. In Vive demos, it’s done for practical reasons: making people move through maps increases the risk of motion sickness, having linear "levels" reduces replayability, and things like boss encounters or puzzles require more resources than indie teams might be able to put into a demo. But the inadvertent result is a dark, fatalistic spin on a genre traditionally defined by freedom of movement and ultimate triumph, a feeling present even in the lightest of fare. You may be a two-fisted space pirate in Space Pirate Trainer, but you can never forget that in the end, robots will beat you every time. Your trademark move isn’t the first-person shooter’s ground-clearing jump, it’s a defensive crouch against enemy lasers. And with no gap between you and the screen, you feel more vulnerable than ever.
The Brookhaven Experiment’s Steam page suggests an eventual resolution for its series of dark nights — that players can "figure out what caused the beginning of the end of the world, and, if they’re strong enough, stop it from happening." But facing any given wave of monsters in the demo, there’s never a feeling that you’re taking the fight to them, or even managing to escape once they’re dead. You aren’t the protagonist of a survival horror game. You’re one of the creatures they find hiding in the dark, attacking over and over with the knowledge that you were always meant to be destroyed.
This post first appeared on The Verge.