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TIMO ZIMMERMANN

balancing software engineering & infosec

Valve Index – so much potential, so little wow

posted on Monday 9th of November 2020 in , ,

A few weeks ago I ordered a Valve Index. One week later I returned it. I have been pretty skeptical of VR ever since the first headset was released. But more people I know are getting into it and Star Wars Squadrons was announced, so I had an incentive to buy one anyway (and more than one game I wanted to play). The order process was a bit strange and the availability information was simply wrong – I assumed the headset will arrive around Christmas, but it only took them a week to get it to me.

The setup with two beacons is easy enough, as they only need a power outlet and even having one positioned around my chest height did not impact tracking in a negative way. Their field of view is pretty good. So if you have enough empty space on the floor to have a nice playing field, chances are you will find a place for the beacons that works, even if it is not optimal. Sadly things took a turn for the worse from here.

The first experience after putting on the headset is a kind lobby you can walk around in, look at things, check your friends list and start games. And it actually is really impressive. But it also uncovered my first problem: Properly adjusting the headset. I wear glasses. I only need them for anything that is further than two to three meters away, so I assumed I will not need them for VR. Boy… was I wrong. I could not adjust the headset on any way to make things even lying right in front of me look sharp.

A friend mentioned that he had to get an aftermarket faceplate to be able to wear his glasses. While it is a bit inconvenient that you spend 1100€ on a headset with nice material and then have to find some silicon faceplates for 11€ on eBay, I do not see an option to build a headset that works for everyone, so I guess that is a necessary inconvenience.

It took me five minutes to get the headset setup in an okay-ish way so I could at least play a game. This was the moment I noticed how much I was sweating where the material touched my face. It was not really a distraction while playing, but I am not sure I would want to wear one at a friends place.

The experience of firing up Star Wars was exactly what I wanted it to be. Looking around a bit, entering my TIE-Fighter and getting ready for some action. (At least I believe it was one. This was a few weeks ago and I was still getting used to the whole VR thing considering I was only ten minutes in.) Sadly the action never happened. The game told me to press „S“ and look straight ahead. I did both. Nothing happened. Repeatedly. I had found a game breaking bug – I could not start the first mission as long as VR was enabled. I tried every trick and nothing worked. According to steam forums SWS is a bit of a mess, full of bugs and crashes. I have to agree.

Next up: Half Life Alyx. It looks so impressive and feels like playing a tech demo on steroids. It got gameplay and it got a story, but a lot feels like it was built to show the capabilities of VR, not necessarily because it makes sense. Remember the first 3D movies? Like that.

Skyrim VR is an insult. I cannot put it any other way. Communities mods have a higher quality and it is more than unjustified charging the full price for it. And this comes from someone who owns three Skyrim editions on two platforms.

Resident Evil 7 never made it to the PC as a VR title and other games have a more indie like graphics, feel like demos or try to be a replacement for proper exercise (looking at you Beat Saber, although I know many enjoy playing it) so the number of games I was excited about was exhausted. I am not that interested in most of the other titles or applications people are hyped about.

My initial plan was to play VR sitting down. I work out enough, when I fire up a game I want to relax. This plan did not last for five minutes. Except some games explicitly designed to be played while being seated, like Star Wars or racing games, major titles like Alyx would likely be unplayable and you would miss out on a lot of the experience.

My wife gave Alyx a shot for, I believe, 20 minutes. She got scared of the atmosphere and stopped playing. She enjoyed the graphics, but could not stomach any of the movement options provided.
(Wife‘s comment: I am a super anxious person and I scare easily! It looked really, really great though. I think I’d love exploration games in VR, probably. Continuous movement felt better thank blinking, but the vertigo was really unpleasant.)

For me personally the game was too slow. I expect Half Life to be a semi fast paced shooter. With VRs limitations around movement, developers obviously had to slow it down. Having to fetch ammo from your backpack and reloading your gun also does not help and slows the game down even further. This is surely something you get used to and I think it is the correct decision, but it just did not meet my expectations of the game.

After all that, I returned my Index because I was honestly underwhelmed by the games. I expected only having two or three titles to play for some time, and I was okay with that. VR is still young – despite this being the second generation I would still consider it early adopter status – and you invest in a new technology with the hopes that it will become amazing. But of the three titles none would have even lasted a week. If Skyrim would have provided a good experience, that would have been enough to wait for the next batch of triple A titles to be released. But in its current state the investment for what I think can be the future of gaming is not worth it. And with my experience so far I only say „can“, I am not convinced it absolutely will be. Not as long as I have to hope someone 3D prints a faceplate and sells it on eBay.

If you are curious about VR, do not mind spending the money and have a different taste in games than me, I would suggest giving the Index a shot. It is surely expensive, but I would expect it to last for a few years and do well over the next few generations of VR games. What I can tell you for sure is that no review will give you an idea what this hype is all about and what the actual experience will be. There are so many things that come down to personal taste, you have to experience it yourself to form an well-rounded opinion.