Better Than A Head In A Bucket – Oculus Quest

Surely it is the goal of every friend group to sit around watching one of your number strap a box to their head and then flail around at nothing while the rest video it for light ribbing at a later time? Surely we all dream of being punched in the knees by someone slow motion fighting an invisible enemy? Surely, we all sat too close to the TV as kids, to try and capture the full cinema effect (and were perhaps told by a relative that our eyes would go square if we did so (well the screen’s strapped to my head now granny, what you gonna do, huh))?

Well worry not, your prayers are answered, and just like many other prayers, there’s going to need to be a large cash outlay to some middleperson before they’re willing to let said prayers on through.

Slightly strained metaphor there, but what the heck.

The third-ish generation of virtual reality gaming is here (I say third, we’ve got like the Virtuality headsets of the 90s (I’m not counting the Virtual Boy, no one should), then the more recent Oculus Rift/HTC Vive/PSVR era, and now this. Hurrumble) and it’s definitely moving in the right direction. First off the headset isn’t nearly as heavy as some, and the fact you don’t need any wires really helps lighten that load. It’s a lovely shape and the tiny IR cameras are fitted snugly into the body of the unit. On top of that, the Quest doesn’t require any additional sensors around the room to function, making it super convenient to use.

Inside the headset you’ll find the padding around the eyes is comfortable and the screens fill a good amount of your vision. My only gripe here is that there is a lot of space around the nose that lets in light, but keep your eyes up and you can still stay very immersed. The box it comes in also includes a spacer so you can comfortably wear glasses with it, woo!

There is a headphone jack on the side if you want to go that way, but I found the speakers really good and clear for directional sound. Plus, not having to wear separate headphones means that more of your head is free and therefore cooler (especially important if you’re really leaping around playing the likes of Beat Saber).

The Quest boasts a per eye resolution of 1440 x 1600 (which is better than the monitor on my PC if I’m honest) and looks really crisp in the games I’ve tried.

The unit stays in place thanks to three velcro straps which can be individually lengthened or shortened. I initially found that looking up and down could cause the headset to slip slightly, but I managed to resolve this by lengthening the overhead strap and tightening the sides up. I’ve also seen online that some folx have tried strapping a battery pack to the back to balance the weight (handy if you want to play long sessions without plugging to the mains).

I’ve found the head tracking to be spot on, though you can sometimes find that the controllers aren’t in quite the right place if they’re held down by your side or slightly behind you for an extended period. However, this can be easily fixed by moving them slightly forward, within sight of the cameras for a moment.

The Quest features the ability to use full room-scale VR, without the aid of base stations or additional cameras, which is awesome as heck, if you have that kind of space. Just enter room-scale setup, pop a controller on the floor to set the height, and then draw a line around the useable space in the room (or rooms it turns out. I tried seeing if I could draw the play area into the kitchen and hallway, which it did just fine, but was odd to feel like I was looking through walls in my flat when I saw it).

Once you’ve drawn your space out, it will be remembered between sessions with great accuracy, as long as you haven’t moved large objects around the room. However, if you open a curtain or move something large, or turn on a very bright light, you might find the unit struggling to recognise its surroundings.

If you don’t fancy wandering around in a virtual world, you can just sit down and use the sitting setting. This creates a virtual tube around you and doesn’t get too fussy if you just reach slightly outside this to manipulate virtual worlds. My only minor annoyance with this is that if you switch to sitting mode, you will have to redraw the room again if you switch back to room-scale

The controllers are lightweight, but feel nice, have easy to find buttons, a good analogue stick, and an impressive rumble for something so light. Additionally, the batteries on the controllers last a really long time (I’ve played all through Superhot VR, Virtual Virtual Reality, most of I Expect You To Die, plus days of Beatsaber and Tilt Brush, and so has my fiancée and they’re still on about 50% power). Furthermore, if they do run out and you want to play in a hurry, they will run off of a single AA battery each, which is great.

As for the battery life on the headset, you’ll find this depends on how loud your volume is set and how fancy the graphics on your game are, but on average, I’m getting about 3 hours of intensive use out of it before it needs a charge. Though you can just plug it in and play from the mains if you want (I thought I wanted, but I realised 3 days in I’d already become a cable snob (who even am I anymore?!)).

The system comes with in 64gb and 128gb versions, retailing at £399 & £499 respectively. I’ve got a bunch of games installed on a 64gb system and there’s still around half the space left. It helps that most are only about 3gb so once you get the current 10 best games installed, you’ll still have plenty of room for all your Tilt Brush art. For what the system is, and what it will be mostly used for, I think 64gb would be plenty for most people.

The big question really has to be, is it worth it? Honestly, I’m not 100% sure. I love using it, I love the fact we have one at home, I love that I can take it to a friends house and show them VR without having to lug a PC around as well, I love the immersion, I love that Beatsaber made exercise more fun, I loved watching VR videos from space, I love the big screen cinema experience in my living room.

But… It’s very expensive for what it is. For the same price you could get a PS4 Pro or most of an Xbox One X or the deposit on a gaming laptop, so if it’s this, or something else deal, maybe get something else. However, if you have the money to spare and no other commitments, go for it, it’s brilliant.

Pros:

  • Lightweight
  • Cable free
  • No additional components required

Cons:

  • Expensive for what it is
  • Battery life could be longer
  • Having to redraw the boundaries for room scale if you switch between room-scale and sitting modes.

Final Score: 8/10

Spooky Action At A Distance – Man Of Medan

I used to watch a lot of horror films, not sure what happened, perhaps I just caught a lot of really bad ones in a row. Regardless, I’ve not had time for horror much of late. Gore doesn’t really do it for me. I’m not averse to it, I just don’t think that it makes a movie better. I like a creeping sense of dread. The idea that this horrifying thing is becoming more than 90 minutes in the dark with popcorn. Something that gets into your mind and gives you a moment’s pause in the dark, when you’re alone.

Some time early this year I finally got a chance to play Until Dawn with my fiancée. We shared time on the controller and made any decisions, that didn’t require split second timing, between us. It was a nice couple of evenings sharing moments of panic through quick time events, moments of surprise, and the all important moments of quiet in between, to build the tension. This was good horror.

Around the same time, The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man Of Medan was announced from the same studio as Until Dawn. The plan was to take all the photorealistic character styling, decision making, quick time events, and exploration of the original game and create an anthology series of slightly shorter stories that can be played solo or with others in a number of different ways.

First up, there’s standard solo play. See all the things, from your currently controlled character’s perspective, explore, decide, try to keep everyone alive while you unravel the mystery of the decaying military vessel where most of the game takes place.

Next there’s couch co-op. Choose your number of players, and which characters each person will play as. As you move through the story you’ll get messages between scenes telling you who should be on the controller for the next section. Where as in Until Dawn, we made pretty much all decisions relating to the protagonists together, here we played our own characters, to our own tastes. Something very much encouraged by having the characters divided among us.

Lastly, there’s online co-op, and here’s where things change in a really interesting way.

There are sections of the game which happen simultaneously. As such, one player can be talking to another character in one area, while another person is exploring another section of the ship. Consequently you can have a moment very near the beginning of the game where two groups of characters are having entirely different stories told.

Those below the waves are finding interesting artifacts and trying to understand how a plane came down. Meanwhile above, a group of pirates are harassing those on the boat, eventually leading to an explosion, which the others see from underwater. This, in turn leading to WTF moments from the divers, which the characters can decide to discuss, or not. It’s up to the players to decide if they’ll share that information with each other or keep all explanation within the game itself. There’s a few other moments where this is used really well, but I won’t spoil you on it. Suffice to say that playing solo or in movie night (couch co-op) mode, the game takes around 5 hours to complete. Whereas online co-op is closer to 3 because of the overlapping sections.

The basic plot of the game sees two brothers, Alex (kind of a jock) and Bradley (an adorable, shy, nerdy type) preparing to take Julia (whom Alex is dating and seems like the type to ask to speak to your manager), and her brother Conrad (goofy alcoholic rich boy who seems like a total liability) out for some diving around a crashed plane they have located. This is a previously unexplored wreck and there’s excitement about what they’ll find, and in what condition. The last member of our merry band is Fliss, the boat captain (absolute badass, if a little shady) who’ll be taking them out on the ocean.

Things start off pretty gently through a flashback featuring a couple of naval soldiers on shore leave. The game uses this time to gently introduce the controls and game mechanics in a no-stakes environment. Flash forward then, to the present and we see our main cast loading their boat up for the proposed dive. Before long though, it’s all diving to the crashed plane, hearing rumors of lost gold, the aforementioned pirates showing up and dragging everyone off to and older and decaying, but still familiar ship. All aboard is very quiet and our protagonists are in over their heads. And that… is all I’m saying. You’ll have to play it for yourself if you want plot. Suffice to say, I enjoyed it a lot, on multiple playthroughs.

Just like Until Dawn, characters can die and this will very much change how the remaining characters interact and what options they have going forward. This gives the game a lot of replayability. Do you want a horror film with a lone survivor of the group? Do you want to try and save everyone? Maybe “accidently” fail a few quick time events to off that one character you don’t like? The options are all there.

The sound design and music is spot on. With great effects and cues that are well used, to enrich the experience. Graphically, the game is on par with Until Dawn. Which is to say, beautifully rendered and animated character with really uncanny teeth (why do all of these games do that?). The lighting is great and the locations are wonderfully grimey in just the right way. That said, I did experience some minor slow down in a few areas and a couple of momentary glitches, though this may be patched by the time of release.

One thing I was really happy to see was the number of accessibility options. I have a number of sensory processing issues which can make a game like this frustratingly difficult at best and unplayable at worst. First up, you have the ability to remove time limits from QTE button prompts. As long as you hit the correct button, you won’t fail. Additionally, there’s the option to replace button mashing sections with just holding the button down. Next up, there’s options to change how subtitles appear. Do you want the subtitles on a background rather than just overlayed straight onto the action? Do you want to change the colours for a more manageable contrast? Those options are here for you. Lastly, there’s the sidebar, which will put text from the various documents you find lying around into a more legible format, in a pop-up sidebar. These are all great considerations that I hope to see making their way to other games of this type in future.

The Dark Pictures Anthology has the potential to be to the interactive horror genre, what Telltale Games were to, well, all the many many genres things they worked on (though hopefully, it won’t end up collapsing like an incorrectly assembled deck chair as TTG did).

Pros:

  • Stunning graphics and sound design
  • Lots of replayability
  • Great story to unravel

Cons:

  • Some minor slow down in a couple of places
  • Pirates are mean
  • I’m struggling to come up with my usual 3 of these.

Final Score: 9/10

Premium Fire

This weekend I was at CoxCon in Telford (helping out with selling early copies of Uncomfortable Labels with Laura Kate Dale) and I got a chance to go hands-on playing firefighting “un-simulator” Embr by Muse Games.

If you’re the kind of Silicon Valley tech type who thinks things like “what if there was a private security force that kept just my neighborhood safe?” Or “what if we made an Uber but for transporting you to hospital?” Or “what if there was a premium, for-profit fire and rescue service, which was available 24 hours, and staffed by anyone aged 18-85 who signed up?” Well, do I have news for you?

I do, in fact, have such news.

The gig economy called and there’s a capitalist system that needs oiling with the blood, sweat, and tears of the working class. Woo! (You probably say, because you’re a parasite (unless you’re not actually the hypothetical tech type I proposed earlier (in which case, welcome, help yourself to one of the guillotines, we march at dawn to overthrow capitalism))).

How about, instead of trained, professionals, we have (probably self-employed, so we don’t have to offer any kind of benefits) Respondrs™? A Respondr™ can hire equipment from us, and we connect them with contract holders who are in need of fire fighting services. We’ll have a clause in the contract that says we get to keep any money or valuables (with a cut to the Respondr™) and the Respondr™ will have to rescue a percentage of the contract-holder’s household.

Whoever though of that probably had some equally insidious tech friend who turned to them and called them “a fucking genius”. To which they likely replied, “I know”, because they’re like that.

Anyway, enough of the plot, what about the game itself?

I only played one level of Embr, but it was a lot of fun and had a certain dark humour. There I was, a bespectacled, elderly person known only as Granny, dropped off on the lawn of a burning house. According to my choice of load-out I was a hero (*blush* I’m just doing my job a Respondr™) with the axe being my first port of call.

With a comforting cry of “Here’s Granny”, I turned the door turned to kindling and set about rescuing at least three out of the five people living there. Stopping only briefly to look for any money they might have lying around the place that I could rescue (can’t be leaving cash about, it could get hurt in the fire, and Embr are very against such things).

With flames rising higher, I had to disable electrical supplies to avoid getting shocked, and engage ventilation to avoid poison gas clouds. At one point I found that an upstairs floor had collapsed, so I thought to bridge the gap with my ladder. Happily, this was a viable option (always nice when games let you improvise like that). No way a little thing like there being a lack of flooring was going to stop a cunning octogenarian like myself.

As I pulled out the third person from the blazing remnants of their home and hurled them into the designated safe zone I had to ask myself “do I want to just reel up my hoses and pack away my ladder, or can I earn myself a few more pennies by running back in and looting the joint?”

In this gig economy, the answer had to be “yes”.

Braving a further trip inside I found things were really heating up (yes, yes I am pleased with myself). Beams had started to fall, the floors, wall, and ceiling had been hurriedly redecorated in a charming shade called Raging Inferno (I checked the colour chart). I figured it would be worth hosing some of the hot stuff with wet stuff. Even deploying the odd water grenade (refillable at a sink) to make my way through the most aggressive parts of the blazing domicile.

While doing so, I did encounter another resident so I guessed they had to be rescued too (*sigh* I didn’t have all day. Ethel and I were due at the new action movie at 4 so I’d have to wrap up quickly). As I was upstairs, the quickest option was to deploy a trampoline and yeet my client out the window, as you do.

It was about this time I was starting to find all the fire a bit much. Despite having thrown water grenades into the heart of the hottest part of the flames, it was clearly well out of control at this point, and since I wouldn’t get paid if I died, I decided to head home. I briefly considered calling an Embr to deal with it, but who has that kind of money?

Embr is pencilled for release Autumn 2020 and will feature solo or up to 4 player, cross-platform, online co-op modes. Use cash to lease better equipment and take on the biggest jobs for the biggest payouts.

A Steam Page is already up so adding to your wishlist will keep it in mind come release date.

And remember, whatever you do, rescue Pim!