We take virtual trips to Hell and apocalyptic wastelands.
Here at QuakeCon, Bethesda's annual fan convention, the publisher of Doom and Elder Scrolls is showcasing some of its latest games and projects. These include Virtual Reality demos of Doom and Fallout 4, some of the hottest games of this generation.
Both VR demos take place using the HTC Vive Headset. Players stand up and use the Vive's twin controllers to interact with the games. A stereo headset pumps the game audio into your ears and further blocks off the outside world. Thus, the immersion begins.
Preparing for Doom
At the beginning of the Doom demo, players select a character from an assortment of characters, mostly monsters from the campaign. I went with the Revenant, a skull-headed zombie who wears twin shoulder-mounted rocket launchers. We then have a chance to look around the room of the doomed Mars-based research facility and become acclimated with the demo's motion controls.
The left controller handles movement. Point it at a spot on the floor and your character will appear there. This takes some getting used to, but it's probably the best solution that doesn't require a treadmill or something. You look around with your head, of course – that's the whole appeal of VR. After a few minutes with Doom, I was hopping around to move and turning my head and body to rotate, just like a pro.
The right controller aims your gun. The demo provides access to several Doom weapons, including the Pistol, Heavy Assault Rifle, Pulse Rifle, and Rocket Launcher. To switch weapons, you just tap left or right on the controller's trackpad. All of the guns are a blast to fire in VR, but it's a shame Bethesda didn't include the Chainsaw in the demo. Virtual Reality and chainsaws were made for each other.
Your VR avatar also carries a grenade in his off-hand. Grenades replenish automatically, just like gun ammo – the demo doesn't mess around with item pick-ups or anything. To throw the grenade, you make an overhead tossing motion with your off-hand while pressing the trigger button. This didn't work too well for me. I kept tossing grenades directly in front of my feet, where they exploded harmlessly.
Demons all around you
After the short preparation phase comes to an end, players begin the first of the Doom VR demo's three phases. This portion takes place in the corridors of the UAC research facility. Things have just gone south for the researchers, and zombies now roam the halls. Your job, of course, is to shoot them into pieces. After a few sweeps of the halls, the next phase begins.
The demo's second portion takes place in Hell itself. The player stands high above a barren, rocky area. No monsters can reach you all the way up there, but you can certainly blast away at them. A variety of demons run around on the ground and cliffs below, firing back as you rain death upon them. Several larger enemies appear in this section, although they don't look so huge from a distance. I quite enjoyed taking down a floating Cacodemon.
The third and final phase begins with the player surrounded by more big uglies, including a Baron of Hell. The best thing about VR is the scale it lends to scenarios like this. The Baron literally looms above you, more massive and frightening than he could ever be when confined to a television screen. But you don't actually fight him in the demo.
The monsters surrounding the player suddenly explode, killed by some outside force. I look up and see a towering Spider Mastermind! This creature is an unholy merging of cybernetic, taloned legs and a fleshy organic portion with an oversized exposed brain. During this battle, it delivers deadly swipes with its legs, fires bolts of energy, and summons pillars out of the ground to obstruct your view.
The Spider Mastermind battle is incredibly frantic (and a bit frightening) when the beast takes up so much of your field of view. Although I kept plugging away and dodging its attacks, I wasn't able to kill the beast before the timed demo came to an end.
Falling Out in VR
The Fallout 4 VR demo begins at a burnt-out Red Rocket gas station set within the desolate post-apocalyptic world. In your right hand, you carry a pistol. Your left hand is invisible, other than the virtual Pip-Boy 3000 Mark IV.
The Pip-Boy is a "Person Information Processor," a wrist-worn device that displays health and status information of the user as well as maps, inventory, and other useful information. Pressing left and right on the Vive controller's trackpad switches between various menus on the virtual Pip-Boy. Although the VR Pip-Boy would be more convincing if we could see the arm it's attached to, being able to realistically move a working Pip-Boy around in a 3D space still impresses.
Pistols aren't as much fun to shoot with as larger, explodier guns, though. Several more weapon sit on a nearby table, including a laser rifle, a double-barreled shotgun, and a Fat Man mini-nuke launcher. To pick up these weapons, you point at them and press the Grip button on the side of the Vive controller. I chose the Fat Man because I came to the post-apocalypse to blow stuff up and chew bubblegum. The Red Rocket was all out of bubblegum.
Players don't have to experience the Fallout 4 VR demo alone. Everyone's favorite canine companion Dogmeat comes along for the ride. Dogmeat behaves much the same as he does in the full game, automatically attacking enemies who threaten his owner. Pointing at him and pushing the Grip button will get the dog's attention, but I couldn't find a way to give him orders.
The Fallout world is a dangerous place, and soon a gang of Raiders launch an attack on the player. Combat works the same as in Doom, with players naturally aiming their main-hand controller and squeezing the trigger to fire. The four directions on the trackpad switch to the weapons you pick up. You move by pointing the off-hand controller, hitting the trigger, and teleporting to your destination. Fallout 4 is the most action-packed game in the series, so these controls fit the VR version like a glove.
After the Raiders to smithereens, a pack of Feral Ghouls emerges from the woodwork. These horribly irradiated former humans have lost all cognitive abilities. They live out their nightmare existences in search of meat, human or otherwise. They blow up easily enough, though.
Finally, we battle a gigantic Deathclaw – a boss monster made of horns, claws, teeth, and meanness. Again, the size of the creature really impresses in a VR environment. At close range, you have to look up to see its fanged maw. And by that time, you're in trouble. Luckily, the player can't be harmed in the demo. Eventually we frag the beast and the demo ends.
A dark and promising future for Virtual Reality
Out of all the Virtual Reality demos I've played at trade shows, Doom is easily the most promising. Fallout 4 is no slouch either, but the demo lacks the role-playing part of Fallout that fans love. Doom is more of a pure shooter, an experience that adapts very well to VR. Teleporting around instead of walking takes some getting used to, but that's a small price to pay for greater immersion.
The Doom and Fallout 4 demos show a lot of promise. Bethesda just needs to make full games out of them, with all the objectives, narrative, and content that gamers expect from AAA games. The adoption rate of the HTC Vive and other headsets probably needs to grow quite a bit before publishers are willing to spend the money on larger VR games. But even now, these demos make a great case for bringing established games to the virtual realm.