HTC Vive Initial Impressions

Thanks to the generosity of all the people who donated on the stream, we managed to pick up a HTC Vive last weekend and we’ve put some serious time into trying out everything we’ve been able to get our hands on.

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Setup

Much has been made of the Vive setup being difficult or a hassle but we found it much better than we expected. As long as you take your time to find a good place in your house everything will run smoothly. If you haven’t done your research though you might be in for a surprise as the Vive requires a pretty specific space.

First of all you need physical space. You can get by with 1.5mx2m for room space but we’d recommend more than that. Our space is around 2mx2m but was really pushing up against the boundaries of how small it could be and at first it didn’t believe us that we could do what the VR setup calls ‘room space’. If you don’t have the space you can still play most games by selecting ‘standing space’ in the setup, but you’ll be missing out on some of the most exciting features in games. Don’t forget you need overhead room too. Try to make sure you’re not easily going to hit anything if you try to throw overarm, it’s unbelievably easy to get absorbed into a game and completely forget where you are. We’ve taken out the lightbulb from the overhead light fitting for just this reason. I would recommend that you find a space that you can leave set up like this for as long as you want. If you have to move furniture every time you want to play I doubt you’ll be playing very much and that’d be a shame for something so expensive!

The next thing you need to look for are plug sockets. In the area you want to play you’ll need two sockets, one for each lighthouse. Of course you can use extension cords etc but you want a minimum of clutter that you could potentially trip over in the space you’re using. You also need to make sure your PC is close enough. The cable from the breakout box is about 5m long and the USB cable and HDMI cables that you need to plug into the PC are about 1m long (remember you’ll need ports for these too or a powered USB extender if you want to use your own longer HDMI cable). While all of these restrictions might sound imposing, in practice it all seems pretty reasonable. Basically the more space you have, the better, but it’s quite accommodating if you’re in small accommodation.

Setup is quite simple really once you’ve got everything. You simply plug the base stations into the power and make sure they sync up (they just sync with each other and not with the PC, all they do is bathe your room in infrared dots that your headset can pick up, much like the Wii U sensor bar). Then you switch the wireless controllers on and make sure the headset and breakaway box are plugged in then you go through some room setup including calibrating the controllers with the space and tracing the boundary (this later becomes the wall you see if you get close to it in games) then you have an in-VR vaguely portal-themed setup that introduces you to the main controls and is a lot of fun. We’re not big fans of the tiny headphones you get but other than that using it now is easy as anything. We simply turn the controllers on and put the headset on in the tracked area. Even if you’re not in the area as long as one station can see you the VR will work for seated experiences.

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The Hardware

The hardware feels premium as although it’s plastic the matte finish and foam sections all fit beautifully together and are grey and black so it’s easy to ignore when you haven’t got it on. Of course the screens inside and lenses aren’t perfect yet, it can be hard to get them entirely focused and the resolution and light bleed leave a lot to be desired, but they are industry leaders at this point. HTC have got the form factor basically perfect, it’s just a matter of time before the screen technology improves in later generations. The breakaway box is tiny and unobtrusive too, like a little lozenge roughly the size of a Steam Link.

The controllers are worth special mention. Their weird hoop-on-a-stick shape is unusual but it feels great to hold and within VR every button is easy to reach and it feels perfectly natural whether the game has skinned it as a variation of the controller, a gun, a torch, or even a lightsaber. The haptic touch pad on top can take on many functions but works very well as both a button and a joystick and the triggers feel every bit as good as those on the Xbox One pads

The Experience

Right now, nothing comes close to the Vive. Yes the Rift has a decent screen but the lack of room-scale VR is really harming its position in this competition. The VR might be a tiny bit blurry but it’s incredibly responsive (even just running on a 970) and once you get into a game you forget about the low resolution quite quickly.

Being able to move around in a game like FPS military shooter Onward is revelatory in terms of gaming. If you need to lean around a corner, do it for real. If you need to go prone, go prone. Suddenly kids have an advantage of me on the battlefield not just because of their quicker reflexes, but because they can get up with having to be careful about their clicking knees and aching back, but I love it. Throwing things like discs in Rec Room feels as natural as anything and projectiles coming towards you in game like Audioshield and the Star Wars experience feel incredibly real and elicit a surprisingly genuine response. Even cardboard cutout zombies in Zombie Training Simulator can make you feel genuine fear as you get swarmed by hordes of the paper-maché undead.

Right now there is a much-reported limit on the number of AAA games, but there’s more and more each week and there’s already plenty of adventure games and decent shooters alongside the plethora of tech-demos to keep you busy. We’ve found our gametime is limited more by the hot weather than running out of things to do and with nearly every new experience we can’t wait to show it to someone. In a genius stroke every game produces a 2D image of what you can see on your monitor so other people can still watch what you’re playing. This alleviates some of our worries about how antisocial VR would be, but we’re still hoping for some more asymmetrical multiplayer games to take advantage of this like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes.

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Conclusion

We’re a long way away from making any final decisions on this hardware yet, but we’d say if you have the money this is definitely an incredibly exciting and compelling taste of the future. It’s expensive for what it is, and the technology is very immature, but you can have a lot of fun with VR already and if you’re looking to be blown away by the next big thing, you owe it to yourself to try the Vive.

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