Bethesda announcing that it would bring Fallout 4 to the Vive VR system raised a lot of very good questions. How would you convert things like the user interface to virtual reality, where it's hard to just overlay text on your field of view? Would the VATS combat system, which drastically slows down the world and zooms in on your target, be disorienting? Would running vast distances in the wasteland make you sick?
The company hasn't answered those questions, but it did provide a short demo on the show floor. It's an interesting taste of what the game could look like in VR, but also hints of what could be difficult to adapt.
Bethesda has outright committed to a VR Fallout, and it's putting players in a real location: the Red Rocket gas station from near the start of the game. But the experience is quite different. Instead of moving with a keyboard or controller stick, you'll either walk around the Vive's limited play space or teleport by pointing a remote. Instead of pulling up the Pip-Boy using a keypress, you'll find it permanently affixed to your invisible wrist. Instead of pointing a stick or mouse to shoot, you'll physically aim a gun and pull the Vive's trigger.
It's a slower, more deliberate Fallout experience
The result is a somewhat more deliberate Fallout experience. Ironically for something that warps you between points, covering large amounts of ground with teleportation is slower than running, and having to choose an exact location means you'll spend more time looking at the environment. There's also just the novelty of being able to feel the world all around you, examining its details by physically leaning, crouching, and walking. Shooting at Nuka-Cola bottles (and the raider that attacked me midway through) is as much fun as handling any weapon in VR.
But many people don't primarily play Fallout 4 as a first-person shooter; they're in it for the conversations, crafting, character-building, and exploration. I didn't get to try any of those things, and some — like the complicated settlement-building options, or the third-person view that lets you check out your cool clothes — feel like they'd require some significant reworking of the interface. It's not hard to imagine solutions, but they're not as simple as just tweaking a PC game for a console or vice versa. Similarly, the current version doesn't take advantage of what's most fun in the Vive: using your hands to interact with the world. If you're going to put me in a VR game with a dog, you have to let me pet the dog. This is non-negotiable.
Let me talk to people. Let me pet the dog
More generally, it's hard to say whether the Vive's style of interaction will lend itself to an open-world game. The Fallout games are defined by their large stretches of devastated wasteland, which players can explore for scavengable goods or hidden locations. The teleportation system might make this a very long process — which could either immerse you in the world better, or get boring quickly. It would also change the way you fight, making you pop around enemies in short bursts instead of strafing or slowly backing out of their range. It's possible this could work fine, but right now, I'd be pretty afraid of taking on a Deathclaw (or even a Super Mutant) in the Vive.
Modders added unofficial Oculus Rift support to Skyrim — another Bethesda open-world game — years ago, so there's certainly a precedent for something like Fallout 4 in VR. But VR Skyrim mostly used the same controls as its flatscreen counterpart, and the overall experience has gotten mixed reviews. Simply put, Bethesda is doing something no major game studio has ever managed, and it's performing one of the biggest possible tests of the medium's possibilities and limitations. Given how half-hearted some big VR adaptations seem so far, we can only hope it gets the attention and ambition it really needs.