Dec 29, 2017

Adventures in VR (and AR)

While I can't exactly call it a theme with my Christmas presents this year, I did receive a couple of gifts aimed at either virtual reality or augmented reality. So I figured I'd so what anyone with a self-serving blog would do ... review them in a manner that's aimed at causing maximum ire.

I received a download code for Star Trek Bridge Crew for the Sony Playstation VR, an add-on system that's been somewhat underused since we got it last year. What better way to dust it off than to step into the shoes of a Star Fleet officer while doing my best to bed green alien women and take a big steaming dump all over the Prime Directive?

To boldly go where no dork has gone before
Controls: While it seems Bridge Crew should work with the Playstation move controllers, I didn't test it out. Instead I used the Dualshock 4.  All in all it's a pretty painless, if limited experience. The thumb sticks control your right and left arms, and the trigger buttons do stuff when the game allows you ... although, despite being captain of this crew, it seems to spend an awful lot of time telling you what you can't do.

Gameplay: It's fairly simple. You choose one of four stations and work the somewhat mundane controls. In essence manning a Federation Starship is the 24th century equivalent of writing Excel spreadsheets at the office, if your boss was capable of occasionally firing photon torpedoes at you.

Looking down in virtual reality, I noticed a shapely set of legs beneath me. I was playing a female captain and wearing a miniskirt (because what else are you gonna wear when commanding a quarter mile long starship?). Alas, you only have so much freedom with your virtual hands ... which I guess is a good thing, because otherwise this would be a completely different game.

Ultimately, this is an amusing way to kill a bit of time, but mostly comes across as more of a tech demo than a full game. There's no opportunity to roam the halls of your ship. You can't head down to sick bay and ask Dr. Crusher to examine the phaser in your pocket. And, despite being captain, there aren't any options to order Mr. Worf and Commander Data to fight to the death for your amusement.

As an aside, perhaps it's just me, but I sort of resent the game's enforced morality. You can't just open fire on every civilian ship or starbase you come across. But then, I guess the assumption here is that Starfleet Academy's psych evals would have probably weeded people like me out long ago. Damn it! You win this round, Federation.

Verdict: Geeky fun to kill an hour here or there, but not something I'd want to play for a marathon session. However, I see a lot of potential to expand this into a full-sized game.

Whereas Star Trek Bridge Crew assumes you're happy to sit in your chair, charting stellar anomalies until you can collect your Federation retirement check, Jedi Challenges offers a bit more options including the Holy Grail of gaming: fighting with a fucking lightsaber!

Controls: The game is controlled mainly by your phone, the augmented reality headset it comes with, and a rather cool lightsaber prop. Most of what happens includes looking, clicking, and occasionally slicing the shit out of opponents. Needless to say, one of these control types is slightly more engaging than the others.

Not pictured: dignity
Gameplay: Jed Challenges comes with 3 game modes. The first is a risk-type battle game, which at the time of this blog post I haven't tried yet. I hear it's fun, but can't comment quite yet.

Next up is holographic chess as first seen on the Millennium Falcon in episode 4.  This is cute, but ultimately it's a game of waiting to see who's going to make a stupid move first, you or the AI. Prepare to spend a lot of time moving the same piece and forth, while your AI opponent does the same. Fun to try, but I see this being the least used mode in the game.

Yeah, yeah, I know. The only one people really give a shit about is lightsaber battles. Well, it's a mixed bag from what I can tell. For starters, clicking on your handheld lightsaber and watching the blade ignite in VR (along with sound) is cool as all fuck. There are no two ways about it. However, it quickly becomes obvious this is a game limited by its hardware and the capabilities of your phone.

First off, the blade of the lightsaber has an odd tendency to stick out at an angle from your saber. I mean, I guess you could pretend to be using Count Dooku's weird-ass weapon, but it instantaneously makes things feel a bit off.

The saber itself reacts to your commands and moves as you move your arms, but there's a noticable lag. It's not 1:1, sadly.  It's not bad, don't get me wrong, but it's enough to remind you you're playing a game and not actually getting smacked around by Darth Maul. However, it's close enough to make me think that if they decide to release a Jedi Challenges 2.0, we'll finally be there and thus will have an excuse to forever more ignore this pesky thing called actual reality. 

Other thoughts: the upside of the AR headset is you can see your surroundings, so less chance of falling down a flight of stairs or force-punching your family in the mouth. Downside is that this thing eats up your phone's battery life and can cause it to heat up uncomfortably.  It's also a bit of a pain to set up as installing your phone involves a good chance of hitting your screen or a button and turning off the game ... meaning you have to pull it out and start it again. 

Verdict: Soooo close. A lot of fun and done in a way where you can see your friends pointing and laughing at you. But that lack of 1:1 lightsaber movement is just enough to cause a small tear to roll down one's cheek.

Finally, a full open world game ported to VR (or at least the Playstation VR).  And, best yet, it's a game most of us have already sacrificed a significant chunk of life to. No introduction needed.

Sorry, dude, but I feel entitled to your stuff
Controls: right away, despite the awesomeness that is the land of Skyrim, the seams begin to show. You have a choice between using the traditional dualshock controller or the move controllers. The problem is, each involves a sacrifice of sorts. Using the normal controller is fine and dandy, but you lose a ton of immersion. There you are, smack-dab in the middle of Skyrim, but you can't forget you're using a game controller.

The move controllers make combat itself awesome. There's almost a 1:1 aspect between using them and swinging a sword. Pity they suck for everything else. Using the menus is an exercise in hating life. And walking ... err, teleporting that is, just feels ridiculously unnatural, all because Sony has yet to update their move controllers with thumbsticks. Bottom line here is, either way, you're going to find yourself bitter.

Gameplay: It's freaking Skyrim. If I have to explain to you, chances are you're just a spam bot. Combat is fun with the move controllers (even if the rest isn't), but aside from that the main appeal is you're standing right in the middle of freaking Skyrim. Giant monsters tower over you. Guards get right in your face. The graphics aren't great, limited by the PS VR's capabilities, but really the only thing missing is a friend to punch you in the face whenever your character gets hit.

Verdict: Again so close. And I can't even blame Bethesda Studios, as Sony's the one who has put out an essentially hobbled VR kit by not updating their controllers with freaking joy sticks.

Not Tested: Gran Turismo VR and Accounting VR.  Accounting looks fun, but short. And Gran Turismo is a racing game, which means don't hold your breath for me to test it.

Bottom line: VR and AR are here and they're pretty cool. But, outside of high end PC systems, I think we're perhaps one generation away from it being truly phenomenal. For now, accept it for what it is and that there probably will be some compromises along the way.

Closing thoughts: Why the fuck isn't Jedi Challenges available for PS VR???? The only issue with it is the lack of 1:1 movement, which the PS VR handles just fine. This game would absolutely rock on PS VR. Yes, I understand Sony and Disney probably hate each other, but c'mon. I can't be the only one here who sees this is pretty much a formula to print money.  Get over yourselves and get on that shit, guys!

Oh well. Until then, I hope everyone is having an awesome holiday season, and likewise wishing you all a Happy New Year!

UPDATE: I got a chance to try the tower defense game that comes with Jedi Challenges and it's a lot of fun. The controls are fairly simple, albeit it can be easy to forget to lower your lightsaber and aim with your head at times. That said, there's a lot to like playing a holographic Star Wars tower defense. Definitely a recommended mode to try.