SAN FRANCISCO—We’re not sure what exactly is up with Oculus this week, but it’s on a roll. Today sees the VR company not only launch a brand-new PC-only headset, the Oculus Rift S, but also promote another headset launching around the same time: Oculus Quest.
While Rift S streamlines an existing Oculus product line—as in, wired VR that requires a PC—Oculus Quest (which was announced late last year) pushes forward with an entirely new combination of wirelessness and “six degrees of freedom” tracking (6DOF). We were excited about how solid Oculus Quest was after our first hands-on session last year, but we still found ourselves asking if the release product would be good enough to stand on its own.
That might be why Oculus asked us to carve out some Quest demo time during its Rift S event. And we’re glad we did. Because if you want reasons to be excited by Oculus Quest’s possibilities, you should start with the excellent, satisfying game that left us breathless (figuratively and literally) at GDC: Beat Saber.
How does it play?
Beat Saber, for the uninitiated, is a music-motion game (and our #4 pick for 2018’s Games of the Year). I like to describe it as a twist on Dance Dance Revolution, mapped to virtual reality’s strengths and weaknesses. Like in DDR, Beat Saber players must hit directional buttons to the beat of music. Unlike DDR, Beat Saber‘s alternate world shows a grid of upcoming “notes” whooshing in your direction as if they’re real. Also, unlike the foot-centric DDR, you have to strike these notes with your hands—or, technically, with virtual light sabers.
In short: kill the musical notes, Obi-Wan style. It’s awesome to play, and it’s already available on dedicated, home-VR platforms like HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and PlayStation VR.
Those systems all have 6DOF tracking in common. Without some sort of precise VR sensor for your head and controllers, Beat Saber won’t work. On the flip side, the relatively simple-looking game needs hand- and head-tracking more than it needs a beefy processor. Thus, Beat Saber offers an interesting test for the Oculus Quest and its mobile-minded Snapdragon 835 chipset. Can a popular, visually striking, high-speed VR game scale down to that level of hardware and still deliver the same enthralling experience?
Yes. A thousand times, yes.
Caveat time: I only played through three songs during this week’s Oculus event, all at the game’s “hard” difficulty (lower than “expert”), so I’m not necessarily testing this game to the same degree as its most high-level players. Still, I managed to get through every song while swiping madly to the beat without detecting any glitches or frame rate stutters. The “Oculus Insight” array of four built-in cameras is apparently a good match for Beat Saber‘s notes-coming-at-you gameplay, as all of its hand-swiping craziness happens pretty much in that sensing zone.
Meaning: anybody who buys an Oculus Quest at launch will have access to a pretty great proof-of-concept of one of VR’s best games yet, and it’ll be playable pretty much anywhere you carry the system (so long as that place has a few walls, since Oculus Quest doesn’t yet favor outdoor tracking).
The bad news is that Beat Saber exposes a grim reality for Oculus Quest: if you get sweaty while moving around with a VR headset strapped to your face, Quest’s face strap and design won’t magically fix that issue. I was glad to prove out how snug the headset remained after a lengthy, sweaty session, but I had to yank the headset off after only two songs for a full face wipe-down. (This is on par with how sweaty I get playing Beat Saber on the HTC Vive.)
I spoke briefly to the Beat Saber development team after my tests, and they confirmed that development on the game’s Oculus Quest version required more optimization than might be apparent at first glance, mostly in terms of turning down the PC version’s volumetric fog effects. They added that all of the optimization in the Quest version will feed into the PC version, and they believe the result will further reduce the minimum requirements in terms of PC hardware, should you want to play a future build of the game on a low-end laptop. (The developers did not go into further detail about their target PC specs, nor when these optimizations will reach PC players.)
The developers also insisted that the game’s Quest version will have full feature parity with all other platforms, including launches of paid DLC packs. They had no comment on the game’s popular modding scene on PC and whether or how that might translate to Quest, which has a closed store interface. Instead, we can only look to official comments from Oculus executives earlier that day, who confirmed that the Android-based Oculus Quest, like Oculus Go, will not “officially” support sideloading of apps but that Oculus will not block users from doing so. Whether that will result in some sort of sideloading-driven modding scene for custom Beat Saber songs remains to be seen.
I wouldn’t dream of saying that Oculus Quest is worth a $399 purchase solely because it runs Beat Saber like a dream (though I do know people who love Beat Saber enough to open their wallets for a more convenient and portable version of that game alone). Instead, I offer the game’s apparent Oculus Quest success as a very good sign of potential greatness to come for the system.
Gods and… tennis
That being said, none of the other Quest launch titles Oculus had prepared for its GDC 2019 event came as close to blowing my socks off. The most intriguing one was a first-person quest game Journey of the Gods, developed by Turtle Rock Studios (Evolve). Journey of the Gods asks players to run around with a sword, shield, and crossbow to directly fight enemies, then save up enough “feather energy” to temporarily transform into a massive, world-molding god. Doing this allows players to modify the world around them. In one example, we could shrink or grow trees while in god form in order to clear paths or create points of cover while dealing with a massive boss character.
This game seems to have some promise as a fine Zelda-like VR adventure for Quest, but its short demo didn’t inspire confidence that the full game would include enough interesting man-to-god-and-back moments. And the other two games on offer at the event, Dead and Buried II and Sports Scramble, simply repeated demos we saw at last year’s Oculus Connect event. Unfortunately, at least in the case of online multiplayer shooter Dead and Buried II, the latest build we tested was absolutely not able to sustain 72 frames per second. Its developers insist it will get to that point by launch.
We were absolutely stunned by Superhot VR on Oculus Quest last year, but that game was missing from this year’s event with no indication of whether it would arrive on Quest in time for the system’s spring 2019 launch window.
Once again, then, we’re stuck with the strange crossroads of Oculus really nailing the hardware side of the equation, then leaving us wondering what to expect in terms of software and the Oculus Store. Worse, Oculus Quest will have a heavily curated store compared to that of Oculus Rift and Rift S, which means its marketplace will dodge a lot of the crapware that you might find on SteamVR—but it’ll also miss out on the wonky experiments that have exploded as eventual hits (like Orbus, Rec Room, and VRChat, which all began as rough early access games).
We’ll keep a close eye on how Oculus Quest’s hardware and games shape up with an eye to the platform’s “spring 2019” launch.
- Oculus Rift S Revealed And Launches This Spring
- Oculus Rift S pre-orders are live… and already selling out
- Oculus Quest’s secret trick: It can double as a wired PC VR headset
- Beat Saber gets a level editor and leaves Early Access next week
- Valve’s long-rumored VR headset is finally real: the Valve Index, coming in May