Flieger, grüß' mir die Sonne, grüß' mir die Sterne und grüß' mir den Mond. Dein Leben, das ist ein Schweben, durch die Ferne, die keiner bewohnt! - Hans Albers, F.P.1 antwortet nicht (Adaptation in the 80s: Extrabreit)

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Some thoughts on VR and RAW DATA

The emerging new genre, no, it is a platform, of virtual reality. You get embedded by sight and sound into whatever environment is simulatable best by those two senses. Despite waiting for two years for those VR goggles to appear on the market, I still hesitated when they where available. Am I investing 2000 Euros just because of one or two games? Sure, Elite: Dangerous is totally worth the VR experience, but is this enough? Then I just jumped the cold waters. Hell, I am an early adopter, I take this risk of shelving expensive equipment if it turns out to be useless. After all, I already have a OCZ NIA on that shelf!

So, when my VR goggles arrived, I was already on full research about possible available games. The first big potential of VR is for me this wonderful combination of gameplay with fitness. Whether it is Longbow, LightsaberVR, or Raw Data, they are all fun and they make me sweat and have sore muscles, and I feel as good as coming home from a fitness center. The second big potential is all about the famed presence, this feeling of being in there, which you can´t describe neither in words nor video.

Raw Data is a very simplistic shooter, but opposed to many VR siblings, its graphics are very good and the control scheme is close to perfect. See, it is VR not only about a new form display. It is also about how to have control this ultimate form of a 3D-environment. Raw Data does not use buttons as buttons, it uses the controlles as a translator of real physical movement behavior. Want to dodge or kneel behind cover? Do exactly this with all your body. Want to activate a lever? Grab it and pull it down; your middlefinger rests on a button and when you tighten your grip on the controller, it gets pressed.  This translates almost flawlessly into an impression of grabbing something in VR. Reload your gun? Grab the magazine, stick it into the gun. Attack with your sword? Swing it! Want to throw your sword? Tighten your grip (hold middlefinger-button), make a throwing movement and loosen your grip (release button) and the sword flys off. That´s where my sore muscles come from. If I had a suggestion, they should also add crawling through ventilator shafts or something, like so famous in the Deus Ex games. Hey, it´s all about fitness training, right!?

After I have spent about a weekend with Raw Data, all in all about fifteen hours of game time, my body screamed „a break, PLEASE“. The exhaustion is comparable to those first days after you started a new kind of sport. Raw Data receives high praise so far, if you deduct those consumers who complain about pricing or bugs. It is early access and currently offers two hero classes and four levels. After about 6 hours of gameplay, you should have experienced all content. But thanks to the "fitness experience", it still is a lot of fun to replay it again and again. I don´t really need to do a review about it, this article already describes all I wanted to say.

But it is not enough that you have this VR environment which feels already very physical. You also have teamplay, as you can play this game cooperatively as a two-person team. It starts when you form up. Suddenly, there is a person next to you, in the game. Ok it still is very much a puppet, but the player´s movements are scetched out well and it takes just a few moments to have a true feeling of presence. You wave to each other, can imitate a handshake, and, yeah, some lonely guys imitate grabbing the female ninja´s boobs (or the male gunner´s balls). I can see why VR porn is going to be a thing. But it is very interesting to note, even though your own body is not displayed, you instantly get an inkling how a victim of real sexual harassment might feel. Of course, at this point it is still all fun and more of a childish experimentation than anything else.

Teamplay in VR is simply awesome. "Behind you", "got you covered", those typical situations have a very real feeling. After some tight matches, especially the fourth and last level, you feel a kind of comradeship. It might be because we are in the birth phase of a new game, but I somehow cannot imagine flames and all this kinds of impolite behaviour happening here. I might be wrong; for example Blizzard´s new team shooter Overwatch, after an initial phase of enthusiasm and joyful mood, quickly had those dung-flies of players who just need to moan an bitch. However, it could also be that the VR-typical feeling of presence seems also to remove this strange protective veil behind which people act without behaviour and restraint, even though the internet-anonymity still does exist. IDK, it could be also just because twoplayer co-op is not the right "sociotope" where asocial behavious can nurture. Anyways, I am very interested how the social aspects of VR games are going to evolve.

I never looked back to soloplay after my first tries of co-op games in Raw Data. And now, after some hours, intimately knowing every level and wave, the most fun still comes from all those co-players who gasp and breathe and scream, and I simply have joy to observe in their suprise and overwhelmed emotions. I had one guy who was joyfully panicking on the second level, aptely named "Dark Source", and helping him scratch of those Crawlers from his back which was the cause for his screams for help was a real fun. I know how it feels, as I had my share of torn out cables, dislodged VR-goggles and crashes into walls when I am flailing to hit and get them off me.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Why the HTC VIVE?

I took me about the last three months to get clear about this question. The Oculus Rift was the forerunner, it has a cooler name, and lots of celebrities in their ranks, and their publicity made the whole VR hype start firsthand. I talked about the Oculus Rift here in my blog for two years, the HTC VIVE seemed like a "cheap" copy which profits from the pioneer work of Oculus. Reading some web articles, one showing off a long row of prototypes from Steam, it could as well have been the other way around.

My final decision was based on two reasons.

First, the goodwill. Oculus Rift, since its sale to facebook has lost heaps of it. Not long after people, including me, started to see that getting financial backup from facebook was probably a good decision after all, they joined a venture with Microsoft, a no less evil empire as Google is nowadays… And it showed. Man do I remember that corporate speech PR event on the Touch controllers. The whole image of Oculus Rift as an independent kickstarter upstart, a “one of us”, had disappeared. So, no. No fandom shopping from me. Add to this all that crap which happened about the pre-orders, the late deliveries and that attempt to make Oculus Home a walled garden. And those very inconvincing explanations from Palmer Luckey on reddit. Yes, he is mostly treated unfair, but that does not make him right, either. I have read both sides to come to my own opinion. And my opinion is: OMFG, it can hardly get worse. Oculus Rift behaves like they want to become something like a PS4 exclusive market. And according to Palmer this was not bad for me a as a consumer!? Like I want to buy two VR-goggles just to be able to play all of the best games, or what?! And a Microsoft gamepad? Come on! At this point I was even ready to not buy Oculus Rift anymore, even if it was the better product.
A little relativizing is on order, through; I don´t think that Steam/VIVE is a white knight, neither. Their public comments seem to be always suited for a little bite versus Oculus, a little bit of subtle negativity versus Oculus, and I never heard any similar downlooking comments from Oculus. And who knows what went on behind the stage between those two companies, who cheated who or something. I only note that both companies don´t have good words for each other any more, as for example Frontier and RSI do have and always did, despite all that fanboy wars between Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen. A shame.

Second, what do you get. I had to choose between a VR-goggle only (with later-on VR-controllers and 180 degree room-scale VR), and a VR-goggle including a built-in camera plus included VR-controllers and full 360 degree room-scale VR. 
The price tag hardly matters for me at this point, as the Oculus Rift is still not available in Germany, except for some ridicously overpriced few, for about 1000 Euros by Amazon, of all! Never mind that the Halfmoon-Controllers are not included in that price, but they will be necessary for some real VR. So, even if you aready got the Rift for the "real" price of about 650 Euros, with estimated 150 Euros for the controllers, the difference to the HTC VIVE would be only about 90 Euros. Instead, Oculus forces me in the meanwhile to buy a gamepad, and, man, do I hate gamepads!
Otoh, the HTC VIVE promised fast delivery and had me pay 889 Euros. Basically, the decision was glass clear to me. The only thing which held me back for a long time was, the problems of the HTC VIVE with my favourite VR game, Elite: Dangerous. Lots of forum posts about a bad graphic quality, up to the point of some claiming it to be unplayable. Thankfully, the latest patches seemed to alleviate the issues for most, and this restored also my confidence that Frontier will tackle and solve the issue in the end. And my first tries with Elite: Dangerous turned out to be ok.

So far, after using the HTC VIVE in some room-scale games, I can just say, correct decision. No wonder that the HTC VIVE sells better these days! Nothing bad about Elite: Dangerous in VR, but the real fun starts with roomscale-VR. Shooting that virtual longbow is insane fun, plus it might even train my RL archery instincts, even if it is by far not an accurate simulation. Walking around in VR, touching things, if I had bought the Oculus Rift, I would have had none of those so fantastic experiences.

However, if Oculus manages to bring out a better product with the Halfmoon touch controllers, they will be mine. Their layout seem to be suited much more ergonomic and smoother in the hands than the VIVE controllers are, and they are supposed to simulate not only hand, but also finger movements.

In the end, all will depend on what software is available. Right now, I am scanning the gamestore and the offers are very rudimentary and expensive. The simplest games like Zenblade dare to ask for 15 Euros? WTF, you can have 5 Euros if your game works nicely! For those who follow the path of rudimentary VRgames, it must feel like for me when I was young and bereft of those clunky Commodore C64 graphics, and had even to content with those ASCII-based Nethack on my dads first PC. Enjoy the voyage, but I will stay to sip some coffee until the higher tiers of gamings are going to be reached. It should not take long, because by principle, we are already there, it is just a matter of entering this new and so exciting market.

So far, here is my choice of really exciting and already available games. All of them early-access, but they work fine and provide for a lot of excitement and fun:
- Elite: Dangerous (of course)
- The Lab/Longbow (Archery, jay!)
- VR-Lightsabers (They feel so real!)
- Raw Data (omfg... omfg... omfg... buy it, already!)

Just play those four games, and I promise, you will be blown away, despite still obvious shortcomings. I am. And this is just the beginning.

I should probably also mention that I have some sore muscles by now. Nothing bad for a notorious mouse pusher, right?

Thursday, 14 July 2016

HTC VIVE has entered the building

Sooo… it is there. <3

The day before yesterday, the new PC arrived and was totally up to expectations. A stupendously fast, quiet machine with top of the notch processing power. I never have owned a similar expensive machine ever before. Luckily, I did check the hardware before switching it on, because one RAM module was lodged off. No problems, though. It took the night to transfer and install everything from my old system.

Yesterday, the HTC VIVE and the Hotas X arrived. It was so tough being at work all day, fully knowing that the VIVE had already arrived and was waiting in my garage (very courageous service of the delivery serves, considering the packages none too small value, but I don’t mind!). Wohooo, what a party! However, patience was still required.

It takes a while to install the VIVE´s hardware, namely the two “lighthouse boxes”. Considering those, it took me most of my time to find proper screws, as I did not want to drill them into a wall, but into the wooden ceiling. It was a bit confusing to see them having a mini USB port which they actually don´t use; I spent quite some time looking for according cables. Also, the big package had a kind of a "secret" box in it, which I only found late and which had the still missing pieces of equipment. I admit, without the online-manual, I would probably have given up, so, fellows, turn on the computer after you installed the lighthouse boxes, grab the online instructions, plug and switch on exactly as that online manual tells you!

After about two hours, the HTC VIVE was ready to go. Firing up the tutorial, all my expectiations were fully met. AWESOME! After some time in the game The Lab/Longbow I was out of breath, sweaty, arms hurting, und just sat down and watched the desktop landscape. 

Watched the landscape. 

This is kind of the hallmark of VR, you feel being somewhere else. After some choosing, I decided for that default background where you float high above and look down on our beautiful blue planet. Heaven, literally.

After I was done with everything the experimental game The Lab had to offer, fantastic experiences, all of it, and the controllers were finally completely sucked out of there feeble initial battery power, I focused on Elite: Dangerous. I haven´t touched this game since before Horizons came out. First, I had to launch it once more normally to enable VR in the options. And then I gave it a spin in the training missions, together with my equally freshly bought Hotas X joystick. Quite a change from my mouse&keyboard gameplay which I had always had done before. But I still do have muscular memory from my old days with the Wing Commander games, and it quickly clicked.

However, shamefully I must admit, Elite: Dangerous made me slightly nauseous. Not sure if it is the reported graphical problems which apparently only the HTC VIVE has, or if it is just the fact that I was doing crazy loops and twists and turns all the time. I would for sure get nauseous if I attempted such maneuvers in real life! However, I also have the slight feeling that the graphic display could be slightly more stable and less flickery/blurry at times, as I noted in comparison with the absolutely perfect experience which I had in The Lab.

Nevertheless, I did persist and only left my pilot seat on already early morning. Yawn. Totally worth it!

Sunday, 10 July 2016

VR is finally coming true for me

Here I am again. An again long hiatus, from the blog, not from games. After Stellaris had hit, Overwatch took over: It was fun to take part in some fast paced teamplay again, it was a long time for me and made me remember my old World of Warcraft "Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer" days (teamspeak like in WoW, fast-paced teamplay like in ME3MP). Meeting and teaming up with people from all over Europe, I ended mostly up with some guys from France. We were none too good, but we had fun... I guess... getting stuck at a competitive game ranking of 43 tends to make you "salty" after some time! Naturally, our comradeship broke up after in the football EM, Germany lost vs. France... Naw. I am a good looser. Wait, that did not come across as intended.
No matter, I am all giddy now, because this blog has got something BIG to celebrate!

It started all on 30 July 2014, here with the earliest blog entry here. For two long years, I have waited so that finally the Oculus Rift might become a consumer product. Many of my blog entries here were about how computer games would be awesome in a true VR environment. And lo and behold, those VR goggles are suddenly a thing and even got competition from the start.


Today, I ordered something which I had been waiting for over two years, tearing an unfortunately very much expected hole into my financials.
Not sure if that will enable me to rekindle this blog. My life has considerable changed during those last two years. There are more games and even less time to play any of them. It is such a shame.

Besides, taking notes in VR might be difficult, or the whole thing might end up on a shelf after some time? We will see!