After a few years of taking center stage, virtual reality has receded into the background of E3.
Stroll the floor of the year’s biggest video game conference and you’ll be hard pressed to find many VR headsets outside of Sony (SNE) PSVR and Facebook’s (FB) Oculus booths. It’s no surprise, really: VR hasn’t taken off as quickly as fans and pundits had hoped, though those in the know rightfully point out that this kind of technology often takes many years before breaching the mainstream.
Everyone seems to agree on what has to happen — the prices need to drop, the headsets need to slim down and untether themselves from annoying cables and the apps need to get better, smoother and deeper — but getting there is going to take some time.
In the meantime, however, game makers continue to define the cutting edge of VR software development. Undaunted by slow sales and gloom-and-doom articles, developers have been toiling to push the medium forward, breaking old rules and writing new ones as they explore one of the most exciting horizons in consumer technology.
While VR’s presence at E3 2018 was muted, a few games broke through the noise of traditional blockbusters as reminders that VR is not only still here, it’s redefining how we play video games. These are the three VR games we couldn’t stop talking about:
Echo Combat (Oculus Rift)
The minds behind VR sensation “Echo Arena” are at it again, but this time, they’re armed. Whereas “Echo Arena” was about trying to throw a ball into a goal, Developer Ready at Dawn’s newest creation reinvents the team-based, zero-gravity game by giving everyone guns. The result, “Echo Combat,” is an absolute riot.
Using Oculus Touch controllers, players navigate by physically propelling themselves off walls, ledges and anything else they can reach out and grab. One team of three attempts to deliver a payload by riding on a giant vehicle shaped like a swan, while the other team hides behind barriers and attempts to stop the payload.
Mostly, the two teams try to take each other out, aiming down sight with a variety of weapons and triggering complementary abilities like shields, grenades and healing rays. “Echo Combat” really captures a sense of immersion and space, adding brilliant details like being propelled backward when shooting a gun in zero-G. Though the $9.99 Rift game has no formal release date yet, an open beta launches June 21.
“Tetris Effect” (PSVR)
“Tetris” in VR? Why? What? Who would do such a ridiculous thing?
Tetsuya Mizuguchi, that’s who. The experimental creator of all-time rhythm game greats like “Rez” and “Lumines” is putting his unique spin on the puzzle granddaddy by bringing it to virtual reality. Don’t worry — you’re not playing from the tetrominos’ perspective or anything. “Tetris Effect” is classic “Tetris,” but kicked up to 11 with groovy visuals and subtle, rhythmic music. Notes ring each time you move a block, creating a soothing synergy between the puzzle-solving and the trippy atmosphere.
One cool new addition helps establish this friendlier Tetris tone. Clearing lines powers up the new “Zone” ability. Trigger the Zone to stop time, halting the stress-inducing procession to let you gather your wits and clear some space. It works beautifully with the game’s soothing aesthetic. “Tetris Effect” launches this fall for PSVR, though a non-VR version will be available for PS4 as well.
“Firewall: Zero Hour” (PSVR)
Fans of the original “Rainbow Six” games will fall head over virtual heels for this tactical, team-based shooter. Two teams of four face off in small, tactically rich levels, either by attempting to find and hack a laptop or playing defense by setting up traps and chokepoints.
VR really brings the game to life: you lean around corners, duck behind cover and aim down sights as you coordinate classic tactical shooter strategies (breach and clear!) with your teammates. And unlike most VR shooters, “Firewall” stresses long-term depth with a dozen different character types – each with his or her own signature ability – and a wide variety of upgradeable weapons. Still no word on a release date beyond “very soon.” We can live with that.
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