My first feeling, upon arriving at Oculus’ all-day virtual reality showcase in San Francisco, was apprehension. Two full floors of a downtown event space were lined with cubicles, each holding an Oculus Rift headset, a selection of vintage virtual reality hardcover books, and a houseplant. Their placards bore the names of some of this year’s most hotly anticipated VR experiences — Eagle Flight, The Climb, Rock Band VR, and more. A sheet of paper listed 41 separate titles, with only eight hours to try an arbitrarily selected subset of them. There were just, in short, way too many games.
This year’s Game Developers Conference is dominated by virtual reality. Dozens of VR games are being shown off by Oculus, Valve, and Sony, all of which have a major presence at the conference. And with only two weeks left until release, Oculus is revealing its entire Rift launch catalog, a set of 30 games all set to arrive on March 28th. The games span genres, aesthetics, price ranges, and even physical comfort levels. But together, they give us a clear look at how people will experience the first wave of high-end VR.
Exploration game Adrift, from studio Three One Zero, is one of a handful of Oculus Rift projects that look and play almost exactly like a high-budget PC or console game — which makes sense, since it will also be released as a non-VR title. Its art is strikingly lifelike, beautifully rendering the emptiness of a ruined space station that players must float through as astronauts, propelling themselves between oxygen bottles while staying away from hard walls that could crack a spacesuit.
Adrift creative director Adam Orth sees distinct perks in both the VR and non-VR version of the game. "I think if you want to go the ultra-immersive route, you should go with VR," he says, while the less stressful flatscreen version feels "a little bit more like an entertainment experience." Given how new the VR market is, releasing one game that works in both formats is the best possible outcome for a studio.
Unfortunately, it can be hard to get that balance right. Take The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, which adapts a 2014 first-person exploration game. Where every aspect of Adrift encourages players to glide around slowly and carefully, the Rift version of Ethan Carter drops you into a large world clearly built to be explored at a brisk pace, then requires you to either hesitantly stumble through it or get sick. Although its already impressive landscapes are even more beautiful in virtual reality, it’s a perfect example of how the medium can feel limiting instead of immersive.
Because of problems like this, virtual reality enthusiasts sometimes talk about needing to build VR experiences "from the ground up," instead of trying to port over existing concepts. But Jason Rubin, the head of studios at Oculus, thinks that’s an oversimplification. "This is one of those things that people say that I just don't think are true. What you need to do is make sure your game is great in VR," he says.
By way of example, he points to hyper-detailed racing simulator Project CARS, which was released for PCs and game consoles last year and is now coming to the Rift. A car sim "was from the beginning kind of the perfect thing for VR," he says. "They've been held back by the fact that they haven't had a VR headset to show it on, and they have to kind of simulate that in a 2D screen." To him, this isn’t a traditional "port," it’s the platonic ideal of a game that developers could only create shadows of before VR.
Several of the Rift’s games grew out of existing non-VR projects, and not just simulators. AirMech: Command is based on a free-to-play strategy game, and third-person brawler Smashing the Battle was previously announced for PlayStation 4. While it’s not technically an adaptation, Dragon Front draws heavy inspiration from online collectible card game Hearthstone. On the Rift, these all play with VR’s sense of physical space, making you the omnipotent god of some tiny battlefield. It’s possible this will ultimately feel like a gimmick, but when you first try the games, the experience is both novel and astounding — like playing with a room full of living toys.
About a third of the launch catalog is ported from another virtual reality platform: the smartphone-powered Gear VR headset. Some of the Gear VR’s best titles have made the leap, including hacking puzzler Darknet, point-and-click game Dead Secret, and cooperative bomb defusal game Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. The developers might choose to add higher-resolution textures or tweak the control schemes, or they could simply create a PC copy of their Gear VR app.
In some ways, it’s strange to see things made for the relatively simple Gear VR show up on the Oculus Rift — why pay $599 for a headset if you could get almost the same experiences on a $99 one? But if you’ve already decided to buy a Rift, these games are a nice bonus at the very least, especially since some developers could decide to let players buy them once and play them on multiple platforms. And there are still little benefits, like the Rift’s more ergonomic design and its ability to let you lean and shift your head in virtual reality. "A fun game is a fun game. Tetris is fun on a PC, even though clearly a PC is way overpowered," says Rubin.
It’s much more frustrating that the Rift’s absolute best experiences won’t be coming in March — especially the ones built for Oculus’ Touch motion controllers, which won’t launch until the second half of this year.
Oculus says Touch isn’t central to the Rift experience, and many games were built solely with the Xbox One gamepad or even a tiny remote control in mind. "There is a misconception out there that VR has to be motion control, or it's not real VR unless it is, and I don't believe that's true," says Rubin. "I also don't believe in the long run that controllers are going to be phased out by Touch coming in. There are some games that don't require Touch — that are actually better with [the] gamepad."
But Touch controls make for some of the weirdest, most creative, and most engaging virtual reality games. They’re required for Harmonix’s virtual reality version of rhythm game Rock Band, and for I Expect You To Die, a James Bond-inspired puzzler that makes players disarm deadly traps by cutting wires, rifling through drawers, adjusting dials, and (at one point) throwing explosives at a crossbow-wielding stuffed bear.
Dead and Buried, another Touch game, is the closest thing the Rift has to an adrenalin-pumping first-person shooter. In the demo showcased at GDC, two two-person teams face off on opposite sides of a stereotypical Old West saloon, using Touch controllers to attack each other with revolvers, shotguns, or sticks of dynamite. Within seconds of starting my first match, I found myself physically crouching behind virtual cover, firing wildly at enemies and flicking my wrists to reload every few seconds. Even with its simple graphics and limited options, shooting in Dead and Buried felt real in a way that holding an Xbox controller never will.
We’ll be left waiting on some of the coolest controller-based games, too. The Climb, an intense rock-climbing game from Crytek that we tried last year, will be released at some point in April. Edge of Nowhere, a promising Lovecraftian horror game set in Antarctica, gets the nebulous release date of "spring." In the fall, we'll get Eagle Flight — an odd little game that’s one of the single greatest examples of how virtual reality can stimulate new ideas.
Developed by Ubisoft, Eagle Flight is what might happen if you crossed VR space flight game EVE Valkyrie with post-apocalyptic bird dating simulator Hatoful Boyfriend. In its bright, stylized world, humanity has apparently gone extinct, leaving majestic bald eagles to soar unimpeded through the abandoned streets of Paris. Instead of getting into a space fighter cockpit, you settle into the body of an eagle, directing its movements by tilting your head and dipping your face up or down. A button on your controller fires a deadly screech, which you’ll use to attack other eagles.
In a single-player mode, you can run timed races and hunt down enemy birds, or you can fly aimlessly, learning to make deep dives and speed through narrow tunnels without crashing. With other players, you can compete in contests like a version of "capture the flag" that involves carrying a dead rabbit to your nest. The choice of an eagle instead of an airplane isn’t just a cosmetic one; where buttons and joysticks convey a kind of mechanical mastery, head movements feel loose and organic. At the very best moments, it feels like being something that flies, not just being in something that does. And although it’s intuitive, skill still matters. As I was waiting to start my demo, Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey stopped outside the booth, debating whether to jump in and destroy us all with his superior eagling abilities. (He did.)
There’s no shortage of creative games on other platforms. But in virtual reality, there’s still no status quo — everything is up for grabs, from the genres people will enjoy to the ways we’ll interact. One day wasn’t enough for me to try everything, or even to become totally confident in the Rift’s catalog. After several years of unfinished demos, though, I’m at least convinced that there are real — and really good — games almost ready to be played. It’s just a question of how long we’ll be waiting.
Correction: Due to a press release error, Eagle Flight was originally listed as a spring, not a fall, release title.
Read next: Our Oculus Rift review