Seven games for Oculus Rift owners to seek out now

03/28/2016 by Kyle Orland | Source: Ars Technica
Our week or so with the Oculus Rift hasn't provided enough time to do full, deep-dive reviews of all 30 games that launched alongside the hardware (though we did find the time for a full VR playthrough of space station float-em-up Adr1ft). For those early adopters getting their shipments now, here are our early impressions of some of the games that have been filling out Rift's eye holes the most over the last few days.

Eve: Valkyrie

Developer: CCP Games
Price: $59.99 (free for pre-orders)

Definitely the most impressive Rift exclusive we've played so far, Eve Valkyrie has the potential to be a long-lasting killer app for the headset. Dogfighting in space planes is far from new in video games, but the same old genre manages to feel entirely new in VR.

That's mainly because it's much easier to track the opposition when your view isn't locked to the small window of the monitor directly in front of you. Playing Valkyrie, you quickly learn to turn your head to follow the enemy as it flies past your main view screen and off to the side and/or behind you. Keeping an enemy in your sights as you slowly re-center it in your forward targeting reticle is an immensely satisfying experience.

The game even uses your gaze directly for gameplay, letting you achieve a missile lock just by keeping a quick-moving ship in the center of your view for a few seconds. The convincing 3D effect on the Rift also makes it much easier to gauge distances and aim precisely in the large, often rubble-strewn space arenas (the translucent 3D radar that hovers above your cockpit is a particularly nice touch).

The team at CCP has thrown in a lot of design touches to make the space-based combat comfortable and easy to follow in VR. That includes a huge, solid cockpit that helps lock your stomach in place during complex flight maneuvers, gentle ion trails that make it easy to track where other ships are coming from (and where they're going), and nice visual and audio cues when your bullets and missiles connect. The focus on online combat, with plenty of different play modes and in-game bonuses to earn over time, gives this game a potential for longevity that's lacking from much of the Rift launch lineup, too. It's a must-buy.
Lucky's Tale

Developer: Playful
Price: Free (bundled)

On the one hand, the virtual reality perspective offers some new ways to play this family-friendly 3D platformer. Now you can lean your head around a plank in the foreground to see some hidden coins, for instance. Being able to see what challenges and hazards are coming with a quick glance, rather than fiddling with analog stick camera controls, feels immediately natural, too.

But on the other hand, while it's easy to pivot the camera viewpoint on your neck like a tripod, Lucky's Tale makes it impossible to pan the camera around the fox-like hero for a different angle on the action. That means if you have to backtrack at all, you're making Lucky run essentially blind toward your face with very little idea of what's coming. So far, at least, that's made the levels a bit more linear and less exploratory than I'd prefer.

The first few levels I've played have also been relatively basic, and they won't provide much of a challenge to anyone with genre experience. While that could change later on, the inherent problems with the camera seem like something designers of third-person VR experiences are going to have to deal with long term.
Defense Grid 2: Enhanced VR Edition

Developer: Hidden Path Entertainment
Price: $29.99

The well-worn tower defense genre seems like an unlikely candidate to be truly improved by the jump to VR, and as far as direct gameplay, Defense Grid 2 doesn't actually gain too much from being on the Rift (unless you count a somewhat pointless hunt-and-find mini-game on each map).

Still, it's hard to overstate the overwhelming impact of having the entire battlefield arrayed below you like a massive table full of miniatures come to life. It's like going from looking at a flat, static wartime map to staring down one of those detailed battlefield planning dioramas you tend to see in old war movies. The ability to dive down to miniature scale and see the field from an individual tower perspective is a nice addition, too.

The Rift itself also serves as an almost perfect interface for the game. Rather than tapping on keys and swiping a mouse around, you make decisions in VR simply by looking at the target location and clicking the Remote (or the A button on the Xbox One controller) to bring up your menu. Another quick glance and a tap on the menu and your will is done. The feeling is somewhat akin to telekinesis.

Pinball FX2 VR

Developer: Zen Studios
Price: $14.99

As someone who has always coveted the real-world pinball table collection possessed by Ars' own Aurich Lawson, this is probably the closest I'll be able to get without shelling out thousands of dollars (no, I don't count the money spent on the gaming PC and Rift itself...). Being able to see a pinball table in full 3D extended below you at full scale makes pretty much every other video game pinball simulation seem compressed, flat, and dull.

Just following the ball as it goes up and down ramps and tunnels is enough to prove the value of virtual reality to anyone familiar with the pinball halls of old. The only problem is that the pinball simulation hits something of an uncanny valley with this level of real-world detail. While everything looks great and real, the underlying physics simulation remains a little too smooth and predictable, with little of the raw physicality and energy of a real pinball table.

The design of the three available tables themselves also leaves a little to be desired. They're not bad, exactly, just a little simple compared to some of the best tables out there in the real world. We can only hope someone like Farsight Studios will be inspired to bring some of the actual table models from The Pinball Arcade into the VR world in the near future.
Windlands

Developer: Psytek Games
Price: $19.99

If you've been praying for the revival of original PlayStation classic Jumping Flash in VR, this is the closest you're going to get for now. Windlands puts you in a first-person perspective on a wooded wonderland, with a massive, floaty jump and two grappling hooks that let you swing from the treetops. Figuring out how to get from point A to point B across massive gaps and elevation changes is half the fun—feeling like a badass superhero leaping and swinging between those points is the other half.

You'd think this fast-paced, high-flying swinging would be absolutely vomit-inducing in virtual reality, but I actually had no trouble thanks to a completely artificial, translucent globe that provides a visual anchor in the VR world. Playing on the Rift also means aiming your grappling hooks is as simple as looking at your target and tapping a shoulder button, a process that's much faster and more natural than trying to aim with a mouse. Plus, it's nice to just be able to look up at a platform before you jump and then look down to try to center your virtual feet before you land.
Darknet

Developer: E Mcneill
Price: $9.99

We've talked up this hacker-themed puzzle game before in our coverage of the Gear VR's launch, and it's just as enjoyable on the PC-based Oculus Rift. If anything, the game is even more enjoyable with the addition of full 3D head-tracking, meaning the entire virtual world doesn't come along for the ride when we lean forward or backward in our seats.

The hex-grid based, time-sensitive puzzles in Darknet would probably exercise your second- and third-order thinking skills just as well on a standard 2D screen. But a standard PC release of Darknet would lack the immensity of being immersed in the ethereal world of cyberspace connections (which is what you get with Rift's VR view). It's like being trapped in a cheesy '80s movie about hacking... in the best way.
Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes

Developer: Steel Crate Games
Price: $14.99

This is another game we already feel in love with on a 2D screen that benefits from the move to the Rift. The improvement here isn't primarily in the gameplay or the direct presentation, though seeing the ticking time bomb in front of you in 3D is impressive.

Instead, the Rift serves as a convenient way to hide your bomb information from the other players, whom you have to help navigate through a complicated defusal manual by describing what you (and you alone) see. In previous versions of the game, this required having other players sit awkwardly nearby and look away from the monitor. With the Rift, though, the defuser can feel really and truly isolated, trapped with a bomb and hanging on to the disembodied voices that are his or her only hope of survival. When you can't actually see the friends that are sitting there in the room with you—friends who are desperate to help but unable to see what you see—the tension level and fun both rise dramatically.