E3 2017 is a quiet year for virtual reality. With all the major headsets released, and the next generation little more than prototypes, developers seem resigned to the fact that they’re working in a niche market. Microsoft never followed through on its promise that Scorpio (now the Xbox One X) would bring VR to the Xbox, and Oculus sat the show out completely.
But even during VR’s equivalent of a post-console-release slump, people are getting used to treating VR games like games, instead of novelties. Bethesda and Sony both featured multiple high-profile VR announcements, and headsets could be found alongside monitors at the convention’s Indiecade showcase. There were enough experiences that I didn’t get to track down all of them, so these aren’t the definitive best games of E3. But they’re the things I’m most looking forward to seeing as a finished products.
Bethesda Softworks’ biggest upcoming virtual reality titles, Fallout 4 and Skyrim for VR, are just modified versions of existing games. But the most exciting project is something a lot smaller: a Doom expansion where you play the consciousness of a dead scientist, who’s able to possess combat robots and other machinery. The E3 demo was mostly a straightforward shooter, but a satisfying and well-paced one, featuring Doom’s iconic demons and infernal corridors.
Doom VFR uses a similar teleportation system to shooters like Robo Recall, which is quickly becoming virtual reality’s answer to the circle-strafe. Instead of ducking behind cover or using an analog stick to dodge bullets, you pause between shots to warp out of enemy fire, while time momentarily slows to a near-standstill. There’s even an equivalent to Doom’s bloody fatalities: when you stagger an enemy, you can teleport straight into them, reducing them to a pile of gibs.
Stifled, which debuted at PAX last year, is the first effort from studio Gattai Games. It’s a horror game that uses a VR headset microphone to turn your own voice into a vital tool and a dangerous weakness. After escaping a car crash, your protagonist finds himself in a pitch-black world that’s visible only through a kind of echolocation. When you speak or otherwise make noise, the sound waves outline the environment around you in stark white lines, helping you explore — in the demo — a forest and abandoned waterworks. It’s like wandering through a piece of old-school vector art.
The inevitable catch is that any creatures around you can hear you as well, and some of them apparently mean you harm. They couldn’t do more than utter ear-splitting screams in the demo, but in the final game, you’ll have to figure out how to make enough noise to figure out where you’re going, while keeping quiet enough to get there safely.
Polyarc’s Moss is a third-person action-adventure fairy tale that was part of Sony’s E3 PlayStation VR lineup. Its fourth-wall-breaking premise puts players in a dual role: controlling an anthropomorphic mouse named Quill, while also acting as the “reader” of her story — a literal guiding presence who can manipulate parts of the world to help solve puzzles or survive enemy attacks.
The former task uses basic analog stick and button controls, but the latter takes advantage of the DualShock’s motion-tracking capabilities. You can physically reach out to move objects, draw Quill into a glowing ball of light to heal her after fights, and even pet her when you’ve got some downtime.
Arktika.1 feels a bit like a junior varsity version of the Metro series — both are developed by 4A Games, and both are set in a washed-out post-apocalyptic world full of scavengers and mutants. 4A already has another Metro installment on the way, so it seems likely that Arktika.1 won’t feel as substantial as the studio’s non-VR titles. But its E3 demo was strong enough to give me some hope for its future.
Unlike the more survival horror-oriented Metro games, Arktika.1’s demo makes players powerful bounty hunters with an arsenal of non-traditional (and often very fun) guns, like laser revolvers or pistols that appear to shoot glowing green javelins. It’s a very literal cover shooter: you press buttons to move between different barriers that offer varying levels of protection, fighting enemies who are playing the same dodge-and-weave game. In between fights, the demo has enough exploration to keep things interesting, without getting bogged down in item hunts or puzzles.
I was disappointed that Lone Echo, one of our favorite games from last year’s Oculus convention, wasn’t at E3 — it’s coming out next month, and studio Ready at Dawn apparently didn’t want to bring it in for a showing so soon before release. But the studio is fine-tuning its loosely related multiplayer experience, which plays like a cross between Ender’s Game’s Battle School and ultimate frisbee.
In Echo Arena, two teams of five players compete to score points with a glowing disc in zero gravity, navigating with a combination of thruster jets and basic momentum. Even when you don’t play well, you feel incredibly graceful pushing off walls and gliding through thin air.
Correction: Echo Arena developer Ready at Dawn was originally identified as Polyarc.