(NOTE: As evidenced by my no-longer-correctly-formatted banner up there, I've been WAY out of the loop as far as the Community Blogs go for quite a while now, so I apologize if something like this has already been written. I'm not trying to plagiarize, I promise!)
Virtual reality might not be a brand-new concept for gaming anymore, but it is becoming more and more popular as the months pass and it becomes more widely available. I don't think any game could have pushed the idea of VR into so many otherwise-naysayers' heads better than Half-Life: Alyx, which set the internet ablaze after it was announced and its incredible trailer dropped. The first game to use the Source 2 engine after all this (Valve) time, the long-awaited return to the world of Half-Life has made VR a household term for gamers, whether you're a fan of the series or not.
I wasn't originally big on the idea of VR, but after trying a few games, I was instantly hooked, and I find it hard to play the non-VR versions of those games now. But how do you even start with virtual reality? Isn't it still too expensive? Don't you have to buy the best hardware to get an enjoyable experience? Are there even enough games to make the investment worthwhile? I'm here to hopefully answer those questions for you, and to make the journey into VR pleasant and exciting. I want everyone to have the fantastic time with it that I've had, and hopefully, it won't be as intimidating after you read this.
Which headset is right for you?
While the Oculus Rift made waves when it was announced, it was really the first consumer-grade tech of its kind. Since then, companies have been jumping onto the VR hype train like nobody's business, and there are a ton of options out there now. The two companies that have the most popular headsets are Oculus and HTC, with Valve making a recent splash. You also have a bunch of Windows Mixed Reality headsets, though, and a lot of people forget about them. For getting into VR for the first time, they might actually be your best bet.
First, I just want to remind everyone to NOT BE AFRAID TO BUY USED! It's fantastic that we don't yet live in a world with hardware-locking DRM; take advantage of that! Used units are usually significantly cheaper than buying new, and as long as you buy from trustworthy places (local Facebook groups, eBay sellers with 100% positive feedback, etc.), you'll be fine. Don't be afraid to ask questions, either; you're dropping a lot of money on this stuff, so you should get what you're going to pay for.
Okay, let's start with Oculus. The original model, the Rift, is still good to this day, albeit with lower-resolution screens in front of your eyes. That being said, since it's older, it's also going to be cheaper than the more recent models from any given company. The Rift S came out more recently, bringing along with it a MUCH higher resolution for your eyes. In all honesty, though, if you're going to go with an Oculus headset, I'd seriously consider the Quest at this point: It was released as a standalone, Android-based headset, but you can now connect it directly to your PC to use it as a Rift, so you have the best of both worlds (with a slightly higher price tag, mind you). The Oculus-brand controllers are also the most comfortable that I've used so far, but I unfortunately haven't gotten my hands on the Valve Index controllers to have that comparison. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that the Quest, being a standalone unit, doesn't use external sensors to figure out where the controllers are. That makes setting everything up a lot easier, but it also means that the headset can only see your controllers when it's pointing at them, so you can lose some of the fidelity of being able to do something like unsheathe a sword that's on your back, since the headset won't be able to see where your hand is reaching. It's not completely broken by any means, and it still works well, but you'll notice a slight dip in accuracy until your hands are in front of you again. That being said, there are third-party programs that also let you connect your Quest to your PC wirelessly (your mileage here may vary), so the tradeoff may be worth it if you can get a decent setup going that's completely wireless.
HTC hit the scene with their Vive line of headsets to compete with Oculus, and Valve partnered with them for the first model. From what I've personally experienced, the visual quality isn't quite up to par with the Rift (at least as far as the non-Pro model goes), but the Vive brand does support easy-to-set-up room-scale VR, so your entire body can move a lot more easily than it can with the Rift. You can also use them in operating systems other than Windows, since Valve has always supported everything (especially Linux more recently, which makes me ecstatic). The main problem with the Vive and the Vive Pro is the way the controllers were designed, completely lacking any joysticks. That's fine for games where you just stand still, or if you use that horrible warp-to-move functionality, but for actual movement and locomotion, joysticks are a must. Thankfully, people have created really weird-looking 3D-printed joysticks that you can just slap onto your Vive controllers, and from what I've read, it works well enough. The Valve Index controllers are also backwards-compatible with the Vive headsets, if you're willing to spend the money on them.
Speaking of which, the brand-new Valve Index is the latest and greatest in VR tech, with the best controllers, the most impressive specs, and the highest price tag. Its controllers actually strap to your hands, so you can "let go" of them while you're playing to simulate grabbing or releasing something in the game. Each one of your fingers also registers individually in any game that supports it (think of the possibilities!) (you perverts), so it really does feel more realistic than anything else. But that tech comes with a price, and the kit to get everything up and running from nothing is a cool $999.00. Not only that, but if you want more base stations, which can increase the range of your VR play area, they're $149.00 each, making this the most expensive VR option currently available. Despite this, when Half-Life: Alyx was announced, the Index was sold out all around the world, a testament to the power that the series still holds over so many of us; it's also nice that Valve seems to have taken their own high price point into consideration, and Half-Life: Alyx will be playable with virtually (heh) every VR headset available. Like the Vive line, the Index is usable in Windows, Mac, and Linux.
But why limit yourself to just the big names? Windows Mixed Reality is a system that's built into every Windows 10 PC, and it was Microsoft's supposed answer to everyone else's attempts (and it was also supposed to have an augmented reality function, but it hasn't gotten that far yet, to my knowledge). That being said, it didn't really take off, and I'd be willing to bet that a lot of people don't even know that it happened in the first place. The plus side of this is that you can get WMR headsets and controllers astoundingly cheap online now. Researching prices online for this blog in the past few days, I found HP and Lenovo headsets for as low as $150.00 AFTER shipping, with everything original included. Compare that to a $250.00-300.00 Rift (which doesn't have nearly as good of a resolution as other headsets now) or a $999.00-plus Index and the value starts to become very apparent. Not only that, but like the Oculus Quest, there are no external sensors to set up, so it's just plug-and-play right out of the box, which makes traveling with it really nice. You can even get a Windows Mixed Reality for SteamVR program directly from Steam itself, so games that don't officially support WMR headsets can be made to work with them. My experience with WMR headsets is limited, so I can't speak too much about them from personal time spent, but from what I've read, if you want to get into VR at a very affordable price point, WMR isn't a bad way to do it.
There are other headsets that you can find from lesser-known companies, and even ways to make things like your phone or the PlayStation VR headset and Move controllers work on the PC, but in my experience, it's worth it to pay for an actual PC headset instead of trying to rig up one for yourself. It was fun to make it work with a friend of mine, but wow, did it take a long time, and it was never perfect. Plus, every phone that I've ever tried to use with VR immediately gets hot enough to worry me when it's so close to my face.
Don't knock convenience
Setup is important to think about when choosing a VR headset. Sure, we all know that we need to have enough room to move around and to wildly swing our arms from side to side, but there's a bit more to it that may not initially be considered by a lot of people.
Let's assume that you're going to go with one of the more well-known headsets, the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, or Valve Index. Each if these units requires sensors to be set up around the room, so your PC can tell where you are and what you're doing. The method of setting these sensors up, however, varies: With the Rift, the sensors HAVE TO be plugged into the same PC that's using the headset, since they themselves send data to the headset for processing. That means that you need to have a minimum of three USB 3.0 ports (ideally four, so you can have three sensors) plus an HDMI port available to make the headset work; if you have a smaller tower, like I do, then that might be a problem.
The Vive and the Index, however, have base stations that are essentially just more technologically-advanced Wii sensor bars: No data is sent to or from them, meaning they only get plugged in to provide them with power, and
they can be plugged into any wall outlet. Unless you want to keep your PC in the middle of the room or start running extension cables everywhere, the Vive and Index can be set up MUCH more easily and comfortably than the Oculus headsets, and only a single USB 3.0 port and HDMI port will be taken up on your PC. I know I said that the Vive has slightly not-as-good visuals when compared to the Rift, but I personally think that the ease of setup would far outweigh the still-comparable visual quality. It's going to be different for everyone, so keep your personal setup in mind before you choose a headset.
Of course, if you go with one of the Windows Mixed Reality headsets, the Rift S, or the Quest with a USB cable, then there are no sensors at all, so this entire section is moot for you, because you'll be getting the absolute most convenient VR setup available. Just remember that you may experience some slight jitteriness if the headset can't see your hands for a moment.
We're here for the games
So, you've got your headset. Fantastic! Now what? Games, of course! While the first major batch of VR games weren't much more than tech demos and quickly-thrown-together stuff for a quick buck, the quality of titles has soared in the past year or two, and I've experienced some really amazing efforts. Here are just a few of the games that I have personal experience with that I consider must-play titles when you finally take that leap into VR.
Let's be honest, everyone saw this one coming.
Beat Saber is the poster child for VR gaming right now, and for good reason. If you like rhythm games, then you'll enjoy an experience unlike any other, and even if you don't particularly gravitate toward the genre, it's a guarantee that you'll find a good time here. If you like drumming or Star Wars (you know, two things that always go together), then you'll immediately feel at home. The modding community is absolutely enormous as far as Beat Saber goes, and there are ways to enable the direct downloading of custom songs and stages from directly within the game itself; you can find almost any song that you can think of, and multiple versions of that music, to boot. Keep in mind, though, that with nearly every update, that custom music compatibility gets thrown out the window, so modders are always trying to find ways to get the functionality back into the game, and it doesn't usually take very long at all. You might want to keep a backup of an older version of the game, though, just in case, so you don't have to go with just the stock music that the game offers (even though there's plenty to sift through).
A recent update enabled the option to have the blocks that you're slashing appear all around you, making it a perfect experience for a cordless, 360-degree VR setup. It could work with a cabled setup, too, but you may want to find a way to suspend the cables above you as you play (and to be fair, that sounds like a good idea for any setup, if you have the room to do so).
This is probably going to surprise a lot of people, but when I think of the quintessential VR experience, I think of Payday 2, which didn't even start out as a VR title. Payday 2 has been around for quite a few years now, steadily getting updated with quality-of-life changes and extra content. One of the biggest updates that it's ever gotten is the free VR mode, which turns the entire game into a virtual world. When I say "entire game," mind you, I'm not exaggerating: It's literally the WHOLE thing, every stage, every mission, everything, completely redone for VR, not some watered-down, on-rails experience of any kind. The inventory system is also perfectly implemented, giving you a Batman-esque utility belt that holds all of your weapons, items, and other things. You also get some special VR-only functionality, like the ability to attack while interacting with an object, being able to hold a melee weapon in one hand and a gun in the other, or even meleeing with your gun itself. Looking down the scope of a rifle is also really cool in VR, and the game knows that you're doing it, so it automatically slows you down, the way it would if you went into iron sights with a controller or the mouse. The controls can take a bit of getting used to, but there's a mod that improves them significantly if they're not working for you out of the proverbial box.
I know there are other games that started out as non-VR titles before going to VR, like No Man's Sky, and others that got re-released as entirely separate, full-priced games, like Fallout 4 and Skyrim, but I think Payday 2 is the clear winner in terms of implementation. It was a fun game to begin with, but the VR version is so well made that I genuinely don't feel like I'm able to play very well anymore in non-VR (What are the kids calling that these days? Flat, I guess?). It has a superior, different-yet-familiar feel, and for the price of free, there's absolutely no risk in giving it a shot if you already have the base game.
SUPERHOT was kind of a groundbreaking game when it came out, taking the concept of bullet time from The Matrix to the extreme by completely freezing time if you weren't moving. Every time you so much as twitched, though, everything would move again, meaning that you had to really plan out the entire room before you decided to act. This gameplay fits the idea of VR to a T, and the transition into full-body movement was nearly flawless. You WILL use your full body, too, ducking behind walls, dodging bullets and knives, reaching out to punch your aggressors, picking weapons up from the ground, etc.
It's kind of amazing how stressful and adrenaline-fueled a slow, methodical game can be, and SUPERHOT VR is the perfect example of an experience that actually makes you feel different when you're playing it in VR. The way that you strategize and act is completely new, even if you were an expert player of the original game. You might have everything planned out perfectly, but some nervous movement that you do without even knowing it might make time inch forward just enough to block your progress, forcing you to face not only the enemies in the game, but yourself in the real world, as well. Okay, maybe that's a bit overly dramatic, but it's still a crazy experience that takes everything new that VR brought to the table and implements all of it pretty much perfectly. I think the only thing that I can really knock the game for is its short length, but finishing every level unlocks new modes, so there's at least a bit of replay value.
Moss is a game that I originally thought was wasted on virtual reality, because it's a lot like a top-down Zelda experience, split up by each room through which you traverse. After I played it, though, I was instantly sold on it. The game is about a mouse that you guide through puzzles in each area, and you can manipulate the environment itself by physically reaching into the room to clear pathways, create walkways, etc. as you move your little buddy from point A to point B. It kind of feels like you're playing an interactive diorama, with beautiful graphics and a calm, serene environment. If you'll notice, this is also the only non-first-person VR game I have on this list, because the perspective was done so well that it didn't feel jarring or dizzying in the slightest. The world itself is stationary, and all of the action happens where you can see everything at once, and it works perfectly. If you like adventure games, puzzle games, and even RPGs, to an extent, Moss is something that you're not going to want to miss.
Spider-Man: Far From Home Virtual Reality Experience
Wait, come back!
This is definitely the black sheep of the list, but hear me out. Spider-Man: Far From Home, like it's Homecoming predecessor, got a free VR game, mainly for the purpose of self advertising. While the Homecoming game wasn't all that great -- mostly just a tech demo for what it would be like to do some target practice with Spidey's web shooters -- Far From Home is a semi-open-world affair, allowing you to swing around a graphically-modest New York City. It's extremely short, and you can probably finish the single boss fight that it offers in about 10-15 minutes, but after that, a free-roaming mode is unlocked, and you can swing around to your heart's content. It's surprisingly fun, too: It's not going to win any swinging physics awards, or anything, as you don't really gain speed as you swing -- it's just a methodical, pendulum-like movement -- but you can change directions quickly as you fly, stick to walls and climb buildings, shoot different types of webbing, and play through various types of challenges. It's a decent amount of content for a free movie tie-in game, and it was received very well by the Steam community. It even got post-release updates, which still blows my mind, to be honest. Far From Home is something that every VR headset owner should try at least once, especially if you're a fan of Spider-Man. The first time I tried it, I accidentally webbed the ground in front of me with both of my hands, and I hurled myself off of the starting building's roof at full speed, prompting me to shriek out loud and my wife to run into the room to see what had happened to me. That alone was worth the price of admission!
We're in the middle of transitioning into what I think is going to be the next big thing in the gaming industry. I think it's going to take a bit of time to get there -- probably longer than VR headset manufacturers (and Facebook) believe -- but I definitely feel that we're heading in that direction, and I couldn't be more excited. I went from being indifferent about virtual reality to chomping at the bit for more good content, and it looks like Half-Life: Alyx is going to provide that in spades. No matter which headset you choose, it's hard to go wrong at this point, and I hope I was able to provide some clarity for anyone who's been thinking about diving in. Happy gaming, everyone!