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The five most interesting Oculus games at GDC

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Rock Band VR

Facebook-owned VR company Oculus rode a wave of hype to last year’s Game Developers Conference, where it offered reporters a full day of demos for flagship titles on the Rift and Gear VR virtual reality headsets. The Rift was released shortly after GDC 2016, and while virtual reality is still niche a year later, it’s much more of a known quantity in 2017. We’re much more aware of the limitations that headsets and motion controllers impose on a game, the conventions that work best in them, and the benefits they can bring to the table. Oculus also isn’t trying to set up an entire launch catalog, just a steady enough flow of games to satisfy users through the year. So it’s not totally surprising that this year’s lineup is more understated than the last.

Altogether, there were around a dozen Oculus-funded games at the showcase, half of which had been previously shown off at Oculus Connect or other events. Notably, some of the Rift’s most promising upcoming titles weren’t there, including horror adventure game Wilson’s Heart and the space game Lone Echo. But Oculus still let us spend time with several projects that we’re looking forward to seeing more of later this year, from survival shooters to rhythm games.

Augmented Empire

Augmented Empire

The only Gear VR game on this list, Augmented Empire is part of the new slate of titles meant for Samsung’s new handheld controller. That’s good, because I doubt I’d have played something so involved on the existing side-of-the-head trackpad. Augmented Empire is a turn-based tactical role-playing game being developed by Coatsink Software, creators of puzzle game Esper. It’s set in a sort of art deco cyberpunk world that’s reminiscent of Transistor, and while a lot of the combat feels similar to Shadowrun Returns or other turn-based games, it trades a purely statistics-based fighting system for one where players can dodge a hit or make a shot by tapping the controller at the right time.

I’m not sure that Augmented Empire will end up being distinctive enough to avoid feeling like a made-for-VR copy of existing tactical games. But it could offer a balance of solid narrative and compelling gameplay that mobile VR has had in short supply. Sadly, no release date has been announced. - Adi

Rock Band VR

Rock Band VR

Harmonix’s VR reimagining of its popular rhythm series is among one of the most creative ways a traditional video game has been made to work specifically for virtual reality. Instead of forcing you to play a blend of chords and individual notes in a cascading conveyor belt of colored circles, Rock Band VR takes the freestyle mode of Rock Band 4 and turns into an all-around performative exercise, one that’s less about raw skill and more about having fun.

It lets you take the lead of how you’d like your guitar playing to sound, with points being awarded for hitting chord changes that all fit neatly within a song’s verses and choruses, which keeps you sounding like you know what you’re doing. Because the playing is more casual, you can take the time to look around at the crowd and enjoy the full effect of playing onstage.

There’s no chance you’ll fail a song in Rock Band VR — only the possibility that you won’t sound as good as you could. There are a number of other elements that make the experience way more fun and engaging than your standard VR game. For instance, in certain modes and with certain songs, you’ll have the opportunity to launch into a guitar solo, where you can sound pretty much virtuosic even when you’re just mashing buttons — so long as get the rhythm right. So while it’s not necessarily the rhythm game of the past, Rock Ban VR is still a clever departure for the series that nails what it takes to create an immersive, full-body music game that anyone can pick up. - Nick

Mage’s Tale

Mage’s Tale

Where hack-and-slash swordplay is a standard combat style for traditional video games, magic is better for virtual reality motion controls, because it can be done without making players move around too much or dealing with the tricky issue of force feedback. Mage’s Tale is an attempt to create a full-fledged Oculus Rift dungeon-crawler around this kind of spellcasting, from Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera developer InExile Entertainment. (Incidentally, it’s also set in the same world as InExile’s action RPG The Bard’s Tale.)

Mage’s Tale promises a lot of things we didn’t have time to fully try out in a half-hour hands-on, including a complex spell-crafting system and a series of dungeons full of hidden secrets. But we’ve seen enough to at least suggest that it might have those things. The crafting options, for example, combine basic elements like fire and lighting with special attributes like multiple or ricocheting missiles, along with things like custom colors or even confetti tones. We don’t know when it’ll be released, but we’re looking forward to trying more of it later this year. - Adi

Brass Tactics

Brass Tactics

Table-top strategy games are a popular genre for VR game makers, mostly because they remove all the inherent challenges of making first-person games in which you can’t really move your body. In Brass Tactics, a new medieval-themed multiplayer game from developer Hidden Path Entertainment, you have your standard waist-level battlefield and god’s eye view, like in the VR card game Dragon Front and the top-down tactical shooter Landfall. What makes Brass Tactics special, however, is how you can change the game’s sense of scale on a whim.

Using some clever hand motions, you can zoom out to get a full sense of your units on the ground and the bases you’re defending or attacking. You can also use those same motions to get close and personal with clashes on the battlefield. Traversing from one end to the other also works by way of a kind of invisible pulley system, whereby casual flicks of your wrist can send you flying from end of the map to the other. After about 10 minutes into a multiplayer match, you’ll start getting the hang of the game’s somewhat obtuse mechanics. At that point, you can start more aggressively multitasking while the exhilaration of the combat makes you feel seem like a true tactician - Nick

Arktika.1

Arktika.1

I didn’t get to spend as much time with Arktika.1 as I’d have like, but it’s one of the most ambitious Oculus-funded projects: a story-based survival horror shooter from 4A Games, developer of Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light. Like the Metro series, Arktika.1 is set in a post-apocalyptic future Eastern Europe, where your mercenary protagonist is hired to protect a small outpost from both ordinary raiders and cannibalistic “yagas” roaming the frozen rubble.

Instead of ordinary first-person shooter controls and locomotion, players use Oculus Touch controllers and toggle between “cover” locations marked around the map, while shooting at enemies with a vast array of modifiable sci-fi firearms. (When you’re not doing missions or spray-painting your guns, you can use those virtual hands to throw coffee cups at your unsettlingly intense-looking superior officer. It’s fun!)

VR shooters are a difficult genre to get right, especially on the Rift, where (unlike on the HTC Vive) 360-degree motion isn’t always possible. But Arktika.1 is starting in a strong position. The game avoids mass waves of baddies in favor of pitched battles with small groups of tough enemies, and the fixed locations make it easier to stay facing mostly forward, as the Rift’s default two-camera setup requires. We’ll see if these design elements are backed up by a strong enough story and environment when the game comes out in the third quarter of 2017. - Adi