Reviewing a new category of products, or at least what feels like one, is tricky. Reviewing something like VR, which needs to be shown to really make sense, is even harder.
Still, you can't assume that everyone will pluck down the hefty tag of £689 (before shipping) without first getting their hands (and eyes) on it.
The HTC Vive, unlike the Oculus Rift comes with two motion controllers and some base stations called Lighthouse that can detect your movement in a given area.
This means that you'll need to mount them and have some free space to move around. Of course, the HTC Vive also supports stationary experiences as well.
If you can, you should try one at a local games fair or event. If you can't, or if you are still on the fence, read on to learn what it's like from the other side of the lenses.
What's in the box?
Inside the hefty box you'll find all of the equipment you need to get your Vive set-up:
- The headset and three cables
- An HDMI cable
- Five different power cords
- One USB cable
- Two Lighthouses
- Two stands
- Two screws
- A pair of headphones
- A cleaning cloth
- A second type of foam
- Two rechargeable controllers
- A breakout box
- A rectangular pad to secure the breakout box
Don't forget that your Vive also comes with three free experiences - Job Simulator, Fantastic Contraption and Tilt Brush.
It might seem daunting, but it's actually easier than it looks, provided that you've got the space and a good place to mount the lighthouse stations.
The HTC Vive requires a playable space of 5 x 6.5 feet (1.5 x 2 meters) and that's a strict minimum.. The more space the better.
If you can't reach the minimum, I wouldn't recommend the Vive, as seated experiences will only give you a glimpse of what VR has to offer.
On a technical level, the Lighthouses work by spraying lasers invisible to the eyes around the room, mapping the headset and the controllers in a 3D space.
Both station work together to cover every inch of your play space, hence why you need to angle them down and place them on opposite corners of your room.
What's not in the box?
On top of the minimum space mentioned above, you'll also need a beefy PC in the same room to run the Vive.
HTC recommends a PC equipped with an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 970 or AMD Radeon™ R9 290 GPU, an Intel i5-4590 or AMD FX 8350 for the CPU and at least 4 gigabytes of ram.
Keep in mind that the headset needs to run at a constant 90 frames per second to eliminate motion sickness, and that can cause quite a strain on your computer at the headset's resolution, hence why it needs so much oomph.
The first thing you'll notice is the headset looks a bit… weird. Far from the consumer-ready and sleek look of the Oculus Rift, the Vive has kept its unique appearance for better or worse.
It won't matter when you put it on and you'll likely look weird moving around anyway, but I found the design to be refreshing.
The Headset comes with features that you might not see at first glance. There's a hidden system button on the side of the headset that lets you access Steam without reaching for controllers, which is perfect if you're in a standing or seated experience that doesn't require them.
And you'll also find an IPD adjustor on the other side that lets you adjust the distance between lenses.
If you want the nitty-gritty technical details, the HTC Vive has an OLED screen of 110 degrees that runs at a resolution of 2160x1200.
The controllers are perfectly designed. Sporting a trackpad (based on the trackpad that can be found on Steam's controller), two grip buttons on the sides, a menu and system button, and finally, a trigger.
You don't need a lot of inputs since most games use gestures and natural hand movements for navigation.
The controllers also have some haptic feedback which, while it may not be as powerful as some good force feedback, still feels more interactive than your standard controller vibration.
What's even better is that the controller's included batteries last a long time, so you won't have to worry about running out of juice.
Once everything's out of the box, you'll need to install it, and that can take anywhere from twenty minutes to a couple of hours.
The first thing to do is to find the room for the Lighthouses, as their placement is incredibly important. Once you've found the right place, you'll have to drill or mount them there and plug both power cords.
Next up, you'll have to plug the breakout box on your computer's HDMI slot and USB slot. This will also require another power outlet.
Finally, you'll plug the headset directly into the other side of the breakout box - the cables should be running down your back whenever you're playing so they don't annoy you.
If you don't have the space, or if you just want to experience seated/standing experiences, you can set one lighthouse in a special mode and it will let you experience those games just fine.
Once everything's set up, how does the headset feel on your head?
Well, once the three straps have been adjusted, it doesn't feel heavy at all. I've been playing in sessions of up to four hours and the weight of the headset wasn't a problem at all.
But to get the maximum out of your Vive, it is paramount that you know how to properly set it on your face, and that can be tricky since nothing's explained in the box.
Worse, HTC uploaded a video tutorial meant to explain things, but it mostly tells you what NOT to do, not how to properly set it up.
Using the straps on the side, you'll need to let the Vive sit near your face but not close enough that it feels really tight, otherwise you'll leave each session with marks on your face and you'll sweat a lot more. And believe me, you'll already sweat a ton.
The strap on top is even more important as it's the one that defners how the weight is distributed. You'll need to adjust it to the centre of your head so that you have all the weight on the back but most importantly, you'll also be able to hit the Vive's lenses sweet spot.
You see, the lenses of the Vive suffer, like the Oculus Rift, from a certain "halo" effect that can smudge text or colours in a certain area.
To limit that, you have to place the headset on the center of your head. Why such an important aspect of setting your Vive isn't mentioned is baffling.
Once everything's set up though, it feels like you can wear that HMD for a long time without feeling fatigued or having any pain.
The headset's low resolution will still impact how you can read text, especially from afar, but that's a problem that will only be fixed when computers are more powerful than they are today.
The controllers are quite big in hand but they feel right and light. They also feel quite sturdy and react well to the multiple impacts they'll receive when you hit them on the floor, walls, and ceiling - that's something that happens when there's a lot going on, even with Chaperone on.
On the software side, Steam is required to run the HTC Vive. You can use HTC's Vive app if you want but it will run on top of Steam and it's frankly quite useless.
The interface is fast, responsive and lets you quickly exit or run any game that you have in your Steam library.
What's also neat is that you can call up this menu any time you want with the System button, even while loading a game.
On your PC, you'll see a new interface that indicates if everything's working well and that lets you go through multiple settings that are a bit hidden.
You'll also find some hidden options about Bluetooth connectivity that will enable a low power mode on the Lighthouses, essentially turning them off when not in use.
That's actually another minor gripe about the headset and its software, there's a constant back and forth, at least initially, between your computer and the controllers or the headset to get everything set up.
For example, you'll have to do the Room Scale setup every time you are in a new room or if you've changed anything.
This requires you to "draw" a square with the controllers, showing the walls and obstacles that are present. You can't stay mad at Valve too long though as it has built a neat Portal-inspired tutorial that acts as your first steps into VR.
Steam's software also has a tool meant to combat frame drops, much like Oculus' Asynchronous Time Warp, called Interleaved Reprojection that is activated by default.
It's a last resort tool that, if it detects a sudden framedrop, will actually lower the framerate to 45 frames per second and reproject it to 90 frames per second, the minimum number of frames required in VR to avoid motion sickness.
Understandably, there are still a few bugs and kinks to fix. Sometimes your controllers will lose tracking, or the floor calibration will mess up and you'll end below everything in every game.
It's easily fixable, it just requires you to launch Room Scale set up, but it can be annoying after a while. Especially since these kinds of bugs can be quite frequent.
The frequency of updates to Steam VR makes me hopeful that all these will be fixed in no time though.
So, now that we've got the tech stuff out of the way, it's high time to take a look at the games and experiences the Vive offers.
Because, let's be honest, the best hardware in the world wouldn't mean anything if your games and apps aren't fun or compelling.
And the Vive does not disappoint in this regard. There's a surprising amount of experiences available from day one.
Granted, a lot of these are at an early-stage state, be it a demo, an early access title, or the first chapter of what is supposed to be a fragmented story, but the novelty of some of these experiences can be mind-blowing at times.
In all honesty, I haven't tried everything the Steam Store has to offer but the experiences and games that I've described below do offer something for everyone in terms of genres, so that you can have a good feeling of what the HTC Vive is capable of and what it will mean for gaming and beyond.
These aren't full reviews of games but mostly opinions on what they bring to the table and how VR enables them to do something unique and unheard of before.
The one thing bothering me with Audioshield is that I can't pinpoint what makes it so good.
I mean, the principle is pretty basic, your music is converted into orange and blue balls, based on the rhythm of the song, and you have to block those balls with the two shields you have in your hands.
The scoreboard and the online competition it brings with it is just the icing on the cake.
I often find myself punching the air like meat on a hook, and busting moves which surely make me look like a fool outside of the game.
That's also where some of the misconceptions of VR, namely that it isn't a social experience, can be cast away.
You'll absolutely love watching people playing VR - it's both funny and refreshing to see. You'll even be able to track their progress in almost all games by having a mirrored projection on your computer screen.
If the concept or name of Audioshield sound familiar, that's because it's made by Dylan Fitterer, the creator of the equally amazing Audiosurf.
It's not his first attempt at building an engine that transforms your music into games and it shows, as its algorithm is on point most of the time.
Brookhaven has the potential to be a great survival horror game, if the finished product isn't too repetitive.
For now, you have to survive five waves of zombies coming at you in a circle, while managing your flash light batteries and your ammo, which you can sometime upgrades after a wave.
The game isn't particularly pretty, but the atmosphere is there. You'll find yourself scrutinizing the bushes, holding your breath to hear where the next living corpse is going to come from.
This may not be the game that you'll play for hours at a time, but it could be your go-to title when you just want to blow off some steam.
The Vive's cables may have the tendency to coil around your legs, but I can assure you that shooting zombies while on the floor, trying to unwrap yourself just adds to the experience. And avoiding those cables will be second nature in no time.
Budget Cuts (demo)
This game is one of the best room-scale experience I've had, and could be one of the really great experiences the Vive has to offer once finished.
In the demo you have to infiltrate what seems to be empty offices guarded by deadly robots, to find some important documents.
It feels like something Valve could make, with inspiration directly taken from Portal, and that's the highest praise I could give.
Walking, crouching, hiding behind "walls", juggling with mugs, all my actions were so natural, without the need to reach for buttons.
The enemies have a very distinct Portal feeling to them as well, reminiscent of the turrets. They're equally, if not more dangerous, since one shot generally means you're dead.
This is one of the games where you laugh at how seriously you react in real life.
Moving furniture around to make place for the room scale may be a pain in the butt sometimes, but the pay off sure is worth it.
Just make sure to train your knife-throwing skills beforehand as it's way more difficult than it looks.
The Lab is Valve's free gift to HTC Vive owners. It's a collection of experiences meant to showcase different kinds of gameplay that could be, on their own, full products.
The Lab starts off with a photogrammetry demo called Postcards in which you'll be able to survey different locations around the world.
Each of these locations is quite impressive - added 3D objects like birds or your friendly robot dog really make you believe that you're there.
But you'll also find some real games that truly demonstrate how great it is when Valve finally goes back to gaming.
Longbow uses the little cut-out characters from the portal universe as enemies that are trying to bring down your castle's door.
To defend yourself, you've got a bow, and you'll need to carefully aim it while waves of enemies are getting bigger and bigger.
Soon, enemies with shields and helmets will require you to shoot at certain parts of their adorable body. It's all done in a minimalist way and it's actually quite addictive. Even if your arms will be sore after a while. Virtual Reality is a sport.
On top of Longbow, you'll also get to play Xortex, a bullet hell shooter where your hand controls the ship.
This unique perspective on the action sees you moving your craft around like a toy, visualizing every bullet in 3D. And boy, does it get crazy.
Finally, Slingshot is a sort of Boom Blox-like experience where you aim your slingshot towards different buildings made of crates.
The goal being, of course, to bring them down. What's making this one great is the addition of Justin Roiland (Rick & Morty) as the voices for all the little cores that you're twanging out.
You won't want to fire them straight away as they can have minutes of unique dialogue that's genuinely funny.
The two tech demos that weren't so impressive are a skeleton in 3D (Human Medical Scan) and the representation of the solar system. Both are quite simple and don't do anything really original.
All in all, for free, it's an impressive display of Valve's gameplay genius.
Fantastic Contraption, included with the purchase of your Vive headset (for a limited time) is arguably the one that feels most like a proper game.
The goal is simple - take a small ball to a goal. But the trick is, you can't reach that goal by yourself, you need to build small vehicles or contraptions. It's in the vein of a physics builder and it's actually the semi-sequel to the 2D flash game of the same name.
You'll reach down and place spinning tubes that act as wheels, rods that can support the weight of the ball, and more. Everything's done in a really natural way, using mainly body motions and the controllers' triggers.
The game's interface is also a joy to see as you'll have to call Neko the cat to erase your creation, or put on a diving helmet to get back to the menu.
It's beautiful, relaxing, and way more entertaining than it may look at first glance.Job Simulator
Another one of the games currently bundled with the Vive, Job Simulator is a fun take on our current society. It's also a great first demonstration of VR.
Using four different scenarios, Job Simulator builds a small environment around you that you can interact with. You'll make hamburgers, sell overly priced items at a convenience store, or repair a car even if you don't know what you're doing.
It's another a great social experience, as part of the fun is watching others mess up. It may not hold your attention for long but it will make you laugh.
As its retail price of £30 though, it's ultimately tough to recommend if you haven't got it for free with your headset.
Space Pirate Trainer
Using one of the oldest concept in video games, Space Pirate Trainer feels like a game that would have been right at home in the arcades.
It's a wave-based experience that feels light in content when you first look at the features list, but ends up being tons of fun.
Standing on the edge of a platform in a futuristic spaceport, you're equipped with two guns, one in each hand, and you can press on the touchpad to change their function.
You can also grab your trusty shield by reaching for it on your back.
In each wave, little sphere robots come and attack you, and it's up to you to move your body around (or use your shield) to avoid their bullets. Each time you do, a slow motion animation is triggered, letting you see what's going on around you.
In games like this, 3D positional audio is absolutely key - you'll be able to hear the hum of their little engines outside of your peripheral vision.
And since your hands and head aren't locked like they would be in a standard FPS, you can shoot the robots without even seeing them.
Using the shield, firing blind and ducking away from bullets make Space Pirate Trainer a very physical but rewarding experience.
Cloudlands: VR Minigolf
Cloudlands: VR Minigolf sets off to be exactly what the name implies - minigolf in VR. Sadly, both the concept and the translation to the VR world have some issues.
First up, there's no physicality to the ball, meaning that you mostly end up hitting it by accident.
On top of that, all the courses are rather simple, and without online multiplayer (at least right now), it gets pretty boring fast.
I don't know if golf can work in VR but the lack of real force feedback hurts these types of experiences.
The Gallery: Episode 1: Call of the Starseed
While still an episodic release, The Gallery feels like one of the most impressive attempt at building a fully fledged title on the Vive.
It reminds me a lot of older adventure games or even The Room on mobile. It's heavily based on puzzles and features a cryptic storyline that will suck you in right from the opening chapter.
Interaction is paramount in VR and the developers of The Gallery understood that perfectly. You can pick up almost any object. Grab a firecracker and you can light it up or take a piece of wood and you can burn it over a candle.
This really sells the idea of presence, and makes you more immersed in this engrossing world.
Everything feels huge compared to none-VR experiences. And since it's tailored to your height, everything around, like a wrecked boat, feels huge and imposing.
The game uses some neat inventory management tricks - you can reach behind you to dig in your backpack.
The lack of traditional UI in VR is a really interesting evolution, as it forces developers to imagine new ways to do almost anything in game.
Ultimately, The Gallery: Episode 1: Call of the Starseed feels like the first piece in a much bigger world, but one I can't wait to explore.
Light Repair Team #4
I feel like this is one of the underdogs of Steam VR's launch as it went mostly under the radar.
The concep t is simple - use mirrors to orient light sources to the designated spot. It gets way more complicated fast though with prisms and obstacles getting in the way.
You'll have to go to the edge of you room and sometimes literally crawl to get the right placement.
It uses Room Scale in a neat and effective way and at £5 it's also the best bang for your bucks in an otherwise often overpriced VR market.
Modbox is one of these sandbox games that are really popular right now, but built from the ground up for VR.
As it's an early access title, you won't find it fully featured and it lacks multiplayer but it's a good showcase of what's possible.
The game's intuitive controls let you build shooting ranges, topple dominoes, or simply play basketball.
If you don't want to build, or if you're too lazy like me, you can also check out the game's built-in playgrounds. or check some of the creations from the community within Steam's workshop.
This is a game that will live or die by its community support.
Adventure Time: Magic Man's Head Games
Platformers in VR are kind of tricky for me. You see, they make use of your VR headset as a camera, letting you move around or zoom in on the action with movements of your head.
But when it's time to move, the camera will automatically follow your character's movements.
This means that everything's moving around you but you're there, in a chair, not moving at all.
Maybe I'm not made for these kinds of VR experiences but when your seated game doesn't have a cockpit or something that would explain why I'm moving, it just feels odd
And that's a shame since I love the bizarre and otherworldly universe of Adventure Time, and everything feels genuine here.
Another early access title, Hover Junkers comes from the passionate team at Stress Level Zero.
Here, we have a game that's multiplayer only. Players are on futuristic hovercrafts that they can fortify with pieces of junk found in the world.
From there, it's your typical deathmatch as you take cover, peek and shoot your opponents.
Except, everything you do is also done in your physical space. You have to duck, crawl, and avoid bullets with your own body, and use your hands to aim and shoot.
The game also scales in a neat way by letting you choose different sizes of ships, ensuring that you can still play even if you don't have a lot of free space around you.
If you don't want to use the game's VOIP, you can also make gestures, pointing, waving and making, uh, other obscene moves.
Sadly, that's where the microphone from the Vive shows its limits, as the quality is only passable. Something quite disappointing from HTC, a company that builds phones.
It's still in development and it's clearly not a finished product but Hover Junkers is an incredibly unique and fun take on your standard deathmatch experience, albeit tailored for VR.
Apollo 11 VR
Built as a seated experience, Apollo 11 VR sets you on a journey to the moon, recreating the most important steps of this incredible and historic moment.
You can choose to experience the game in interactive mode, taking control of the different ships and modules in critical moments, or in the more relaxing cinematic mode.
Everything's done with great accuracy and uses images and conversations found in archives to add realism to your journey.
You won't be always in the ship as the game also uses some cinematic camera views to create some awe-inspiring moments, not really seen inside the cockpit of the spaceships.
The game's epic nature means that this is a journey that will certainly please space fans. And while it's not as hard as a game like Kerbal Space Program, landing that shuttle is still far from easy.
VR isn't all about gaming. There are a few social apps, and interesting experiences that go beyond the play room that are available on Steam VR.
Google's used to VR as it's selling this generation's most widely used product - Cardboard. Still, they wanted in on Room Scale VR and created something quite magical and unique with Tilt Brush.
The idea is only possible in VR - you draw but in a 3D space. This means that every brushstroke can be done from any angle and will end up in 3D, literally in your face. You can use a variety of tools thanks to Google's neat UI.
The only downside is that it requires some artistic talent. If you're like me and you can only draw smiley faces, you'll just be amazed by other people's creations.
That's good enough though, and it's definitely a great experiences to showcase VR to non-gamers.
Virtual Desktop feels like something that should be bundled in or included in Steam's software.
Instead, Steam only offers a clunky and resource-consuming way of playing your old games in a bland theatre.
Virtual Desktop offers so much more, with beautiful backgrounds placing you in space with a gigantic screen that you can shape and customize any way you want.
You can even play your favourite movies in a 360° curved screen if you want.
The built-in player supports almost any kind of file and even lets you play 360° photos and videos like the ones you can find on YouTube.
Playing games inside Virtual Desktop also feels much smoother than Steam's built in solution.
It's not without bugs but the developer seems determined to add more functionality in upcoming updates. Without a doubt, one of the most useful apps you can buy at launch.
Much like The Lab's postcards, Valve's photogrammetry experience, Realities lets you visit locations all over the world.
You can't help but see the potential for education, where something like this could definitely be a game changer.
Exploring old chapels or destroyed buildings is pretty awe-inspiring. Especially when you're free to move around and explore by yourself. You can also teleport to some locations to move faster.
It suffers from some problems though, with textures being a bit muddy up close. Still, it's only day one in the new VR ecosystem and I'm sure that 360° cameras will only get better.
It may feel like Second Life VR (and let's be honest, it sort of is) but there's nothing quite like being able to interact with friends that are miles away in an almost seamless way.
Altspace VR tracks your controllers (or hands if you have a Leap Motion sensor) making it really easy to express yourself. You can talk to people as well, if you'd prefer.
What's really unique about it is the number of events that you can take part of. From Community organised Pictionary, quizzes, developer conferences, roleplay to Twitch spectating and more, there's bound to be something you like.
The community seems very friendly, and as the game's compatible with Gear VR, Oculus, and even accessible outside of VR, there are always people online to play with.
I'm quite curious to see how this strange experiment will evolve.
So, there we are. We've covered the technical aspects of the headset and controllers, and the games and apps that are available at launch.
But is the HTC Vive worth the hefty investment?
Let's get something out of the way first. Is the experience perfect, bug-free and easy to set up? Absolutely not.
Is the headset's resolution still too low? Definitely.
Contrary to what you might have read in some reviews, this is not a perfect experience. But what's being offered here is a first generation product.
And you know what? When it all works, when you're under the sea watching whales, or on a flying barge fighting your friends, ducking around in your room like a lunatic, there's nothing quite like it.
That unique and refreshing approach to gameplay, UI, and social experiences feels like the first step in a future that I want to be a part of.
No, VR won't replace your consoles or PC. It's a complimentary device that offers something for everyone.
In a way, this reminds me a lot of mobile gaming just after the App Store launched.
All you could find was demos and unfinished games, but you could see the potential. The resolutions on the iPod Touch or iPhone weren't great, and games were generally 2D.
But time proved us right, and mobile gaming is here to stay. And no, it didn't replace the traditional ways of gaming, it just added another.
In fact, a lot of the hate that VR is getting is also reminiscent of the App Store's launch.
Let's hope it will follow the same path as, for a first gen product, the HTC Vive offers a tantalizing window into an exciting future.