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Fallout, Doom, and Skyrim show the limits of blockbuster games in VR

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Doom VFR
Image: Doom VFR

Bethesda has really gone all-in with virtual reality. Whereas many developers and publishers have toyed with the medium, releasing smaller experiments to test the waters, over the last few weeks Bethesda has released three of its biggest games in VR. On the surface, it sounds great. With a VR headset, you can become fully immersed in the thrilling horror of Doom, the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Fallout, or Skyrim’s picturesque fantasy realm.

In practice, though, the games don’t work out quite so well. Each has been tweaked in some way to better suit virtual reality — Doom’s action is less intense, while Skyrim now utilizes motion controls — but they’re still clearly games designed for traditional screens. And, in most regards, they end up as a lesser experience in VR. It’s impressive that Bethesda has managed to squeeze these massive games onto a headset at all, but the final products leave much to be desired.

Here’s a rundown of what to expect from Doom, Fallout, and Skyrim in virtual reality.

Doom VFR - Available on HTC Vive, PlayStation VR

Doom VFR

An actual Doom VR game has been a long time coming. The very first thing we saw from the new wave of VR technology was Doom 3 running on John Carmack’s own prototype Oculus Rift back in 2012, after all. And, as last year saw both the release of actual, honest-to-goodness consumer VR headsets and an unexpectedly brilliant Doom reboot, the time is right for the two to come together.

That’s certainly what you get with Doom VFR. (The “F” means the same thing as it does in Doom’s infamous BFG weapon.) It uses last year’s Doom as the technological base for a full-on room scale VR experience primarily designed for the HTC Vive. (It’s also available for PlayStation VR, which I can’t imagine would be much of an improvement, as well as the Oculus Rift if you’re willing to implement some workarounds.) That sounds like a great idea, and id Software has done a lot right here. But ultimately Doom VFR doesn’t quite work.

First comes the realization that Doom 3 makes a lot more sense as a VR game than Doom 2016. The former surprised many upon its release by delivering a tense, intimate horror experience, while the reboot updated the series’ traditional breakneck action in style. Doom sees you take on dozens of enemies at once and requires extremely fast-paced movement, which simply wouldn’t work in VR.

The developer deserves credit for recognizing this and attempting to craft a new Doom experience that feels native to the platform, and it’s more ambitious than shooting gallery-type FPS adaptations like Serious Sam. It uses the same sort of teleportation movement seen in many other VR games, though there’s actually an amusingly daft narrative explanation for this, and you’re also able to make quick dashes and strafes with the trackpad. The level design is all new, enemy count is significantly reduced, and the gory finishing move mechanic has been adapted to make use of the teleportation controls. The visuals are pretty good, and it’s definitely impressive to see the scale of a Cacodemon up close. Doom VFR has clearly been crafted with some thought.

Doom VFR

On the other hand, it has some pretty major flaws. For one thing, the shooting largely feels terrible, which is somewhat of a deal breaker for Doom. Inexplicably, the weapons are orientated as if the barrel, not the gun handle, is aligned with the Vive controller handle, meaning you have to aim your hand about 45 degrees lower than you feel you ought to. It completely breaks immersion. And even when you do manage to sync your movements to the game, the weapons feel inaccurate anyway. You can improve your aim by getting close to the enemies, but you’ll have to make sure not to get too close — clipping errors mean that you’ll often end up shooting straight through them to no avail.

These control issues extend to more basic actions, too. A key example that I never got used to: you pick up items like keycards by pointing at them with your “finger,” rather than directly interacting with them in the more natural ways established by VR titles like Job Simulator. It doesn’t help that I found collision detection to be pretty buggy, nor that the game often caused my headset to black out despite otherwise running smoothly. (Which, if you’re not familiar with VR, is incredibly disorienting during the height of demon-blasting battle.) It’s not like you’re never able to get into the same shooting-chaining-finishing zone as Doom, but it doesn’t ever quite feel right.

Doom VFR is a weird combination of polish and lack thereof. It’s not a slapdash port, and it was evidently designed from the ground up for VR. It’s the kind of thing that VR enthusiasts should, on paper, be excited about. But the final result just doesn’t match up to VR FPS games like Raw Data or Arizona Sunshine, which came from much smaller studios. I think there’s a solid design somewhere in Doom VFR, and I hope id takes the time to tease it out.

Doom is an extremely good game on a large television, a PC monitor, or even a Nintendo Switch. I am sad to report that Doom VFR just doesn’t have much in common with it. — Sam Byford

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim VR - Available on PlayStation VR

Skyrim VR

I’ve experienced the opening sequence of Skyrim multiple times since the game’s debut in 2011 — including very recently, with last month’s launch of the game on the Nintendo Switch. It’s familiar and comforting by this point. There’s the quiet wagon ride alongside a group of criminals, followed by a character creation tool disguised as an interrogation. I’ve seen the same poor sap beheaded multiple times, and looked up in awe as a magnificent dragon soared over head. The sequence makes me feel a lot of things, but it wasn’t until Skyrim’s recent arrival in VR that it actually made me sick.

The vast fantasy realm of Skyrim is, in theory at least, an ideal fit for virtual reality. It’s huge and beautiful, just the kind of place you’d want to be fully immersed in. But in practice, it’s not so much fun to play for a variety of reasons. For me personally, nausea has been a big factor. Unlike many VR games, which often put you on rails or utilize some kind of transportation system, Skyrim gives you direct control over your character. You can move about as you like with your controller’s left stick, and adjust the camera with the right one.

But moving about in this way can be incredibly disorienting, especially when you’re running or jumping. One of the first things you do in Skyrim is run away from a dragon, weaving your way through a burning village while avoiding bursts of flame. It only takes a few minutes to get through, but I had to stop multiple times to take off the PlayStation VR headset and get some air. Of course, Skyrim is an RPG, not a fast-paced action game, so it’s not like you’re running all of the time. But because of this issue, I found myself moving much, much slower than I typically do in the game, which in turn made everything take forever. Instead of bursting through an easy dungeon and quickly dispatching the ghouls and spiders inside, I had to slowly creep through so that I didn’t make myself sick.

Skyrim VR

This makes an already fairly slow game even slower, but it’s also far from the only issue. Developer Bethesda’s games are infamous for their plentiful bugs, and while they can be easy to overlook in a typical video game, I found them significantly more jarring in VR. It’s unsettling seeing a body crumple after you strike it with a deadly blow, only for the corpse to remain floating a few feet above the ground.

It’s also clear playing Skyrim that the game wasn’t originally designed with VR in mind. As a role-playing game, much of your time will be spent in menus. You’ll loot dead monsters and soldiers for goods, and then outfit your explorer with new weapons and gear. There’s a skill system that necessitates fussing over what kind of magic or attack abilities you want to unlock, and I tend to spend a good amount of time shopping for useful items whenever I reach a new town. None of these aspects are enhanced by virtual reality. Instead, they feel much more tedious. It doesn’t really add to my immersion to have a giant menu screen directly in front of my face constantly, it’s just uncomfortable.

That’s not to say that Skyrim has no redeemable qualities in VR. For one thing, it looks incredible. The game may show its age from a technical perspective, with some muddy textures and jagged edges, but its soaring vistas are incredible to take in while you’re completely immersed. Sometimes it’s nice to just walk up a mountain and look at how big this world truly is. And in VR, that sense of scale is significantly amplified. Surprisingly, the combat — not exactly Skyrim’s strongest aspect — feels much more visceral and engaging in VR. There’s still a lot of mashing the attack button and spamming magical spells, but when the enemies feel so close, the intensity ramps up quite a bit. And if you’re using PlayStation Move controllers, you can even cast spells with your hands.

Skyrim is an incredible game — there’s a reason it’s still being ported to new platforms six years after it first came out. But all those previous iterations do is show just how compromised the game is in virtual reality. It makes the game’s worst aspects even worse, while slowing down the experience in a way that can make it feel tedious. Skyrim is a game you want to get lost in, spending hours exploring and finding new things. But for me, it’s impossible to do that when I can only spend 30 minutes playing before needing a break. — Andrew Webster

Fallout 4 VR - Available on HTC Vive

Fallout 4 VR

Nearly 10 years ago, the Fallout series made a surprisingly successful leap from isometric role-playing games to first-person shooters. Fallout 3 translated Fallout’s vast post-apocalyptic world and complex turn-based combat into a format that made players feel like they were personally exploring the wasteland. So if any game is going to succeed in an even more immersive format, the 2015 title Fallout 4 isn’t a bad candidate. Sometimes, Fallout 4 VR lives up to that promise. A lot of the time, it feels like a chore.

Fallout 4 VR revamps Fallout 4 with a teleportation mechanic and a cooler interface. You still have a lot of floating text and menus, but the Pip-Boy wrist computer is no longer just a fancy screen; it’s an actual item that you can look at like a wristwatch. You can move in short bursts with the game’s trigger, or take longer jumps that use up your action points, similar to sprinting in Fallout 4. The game still offers two combat options: standard real-time fighting, which relies on your aiming expertise, and the turn-based VATS feature, which dramatically slows time and calculates your odds of success hitting specific enemy body parts.

Fallout 4 VR really shines during conversations. The original game favors cinematic cuts with a fixed camera, but the VR version just has you walk up to characters and talk to them, with dialog options floating in midair. Characters feel far more physically present, especially in group discussions, where you can read things like body language and personal space (or the lack thereof).

But Fallout 4 VR also amplifies the most annoying things about Fallout 4, particularly in combat. You can’t just spray bullets in real-time fights, and it’s hard to realistically aim with some of the exotic and stylized weapons. Targeting body parts in VATS is even more finicky in VR than it was with a mouse in Fallout 4. The game might calculate an excellent chance of success, but makes it virtually impossible to highlight anything long enough to pull the trigger.

Fallout 4 VR

Back at E3, I predicted that Fallout 4 VR’s huge spaces wouldn’t be much fun to cover in VR. For the first half-hour of the game, I thought maybe I was wrong. You can move quickly with the teleportation system, although the hops are a lot shorter than I’d like, and the distance between settlements isn’t too great. But it turns out that movement is different from exploration.

I spent hours wandering between main missions in Fallout 4, finding new settlements and side quests. In the four hours I’ve put into Fallout 4 VR so far, I’ve made direct beelines between target locations, because walking ranges from mildly unpleasant to nauseating. Walking around a wasteland arguably wouldn’t be much fun, but Fallout 4 isn’t designed around that assumption. You miss lots of interesting stories if you skip out on chance encounters, as well as opportunities to scavenge vital supplies and weapons.

Exploring confined spaces can be even worse. Until this week, I’d never thought about how many twisting flights of stairs you climb in Fallout 4, nor how disorienting that might feel in VR. One of the game’s earliest pitched battles takes place on a giant, multilevel catwalk. I spent a lot of it just untangling myself from the headset cable. I’ve gotten better as I play, but it’s still less pleasant than playing outside VR.

There are so many ways that Fallout 4 VR doesn’t feel adapted to virtual reality — and feels notably weaker than other VR games. There’s almost no manual interaction with the environments, just pointing and clicking. The Pip-Boy requires awkward trackpad swipes for tiny multilevel menus, while games like Star Trek: Bridge Crew prove you can make complicated interfaces fun. I wish Fallout 4 VR’s construction mode offered common VR design program features, like zooming out to see a whole settlement. I wish I could even do something as simple as pet my dog.

I know a fully interactive Fallout 4 remake probably isn’t financially or logistically realistic. I’m impressed at the work that’s gone into Fallout 4 VR, and it’s an excellent test case for open-world virtual reality. There’s just such a high ratio of tedium to fun. I’m itching to get back to the Commonwealth wasteland, but I’m not sure I’ll be doing it in a headset. — Adi Robertson