I've tried practically every version of the Oculus Rift VR headset, from some of the original duct-taped prototypes through to the latest DK2 developer kit and the Samsung Gear VR. Nothing I've seen prepared me for the new Crescent Bay demo. I just tried one of the best games I've never played. I want more.
(Note: Oculus wouldn't let me take any pictures or video of the unit or the demos, so I'll describe the experience below. Looking for info about the new headset? Find that here.)
You begin in a loading zone that's impressive enough on its own: you stand at the edge of a Tron-like round platform in front of a sheer drop down a tunnel. Walking forward and leaning over the edge, I felt a real sense of vertigo for the first time in VR. It was slight, but convincing. Part of me was there in that world. But we were just getting started.
Next, I was on the command deck of a submarine, with a giant periscope in front of me, valves and gauges wherever I looked. The gleaming, immaculate floor looked like it had been freshly mopped and fantastic lighting effects were all around. I could see pixels if I looked hard, but the experience was quite high-def: Crescent Bay clearly delivered higher resolution, higher fidelity than the previous DK2 and even the Gear VR. It's good enough that I forgot I was looking at a screen for most every subsequent experience.
I wanted to reach out and grab a valve, but the demo ended and I moved on.
A little T-Rex with beady little eyes and giant teeth greeted me in the next room, a black space with nothing to see but the dinosaur itself. Easily two heads taller than me, it looked like it could easily rip one of my arms off if I got too close. That's when I realised that I could: I walked up to it and peeked around its head. It sniffed, searching for me, and for a moment I felt genuinely cautious. Not afraid, but it's a start.
Then it was time for something completely different: a incredibly charming, minimalist, cartoony world where a lovely little fox, a buck, and a rabbit sat around a campfire surrounded by nature made entirely of easily visible polygons. Think Super Mario 64. To my left, a bubbling brook spat out white triangles of foam as the water gently cascaded down a little waterfall. Wanting to see my new animal friends a little better, I knelt down and sat on the grass right in front of them (!). We shared a campfire, the four of us, for a few fleeting moments. It was serene, peaceful, genuinely relaxing after the busy day. I wanted to see more. What I saw next was even more impressive, though.
Suddenly, I was high atop a skyscraper, kneeling over the edge of the world. Below and all around me was a Gotham City worthy of any Batman, dark and gritty and clearly filled with evil waiting to be discovered. In the heat of the moment though, I was far more concerned with how close I was to plummeting to my doom. By sheer instinct, I jerked back from the precipice, carefully turned around and grabbed a nearby metal railing to help me to my feet.
ONLY THERE WAS NO METAL RAILING BECAUSE I WAS IN VIRTUAL REALITY and my hand fell through. Holy crap. Before me, a gleaming Oculus tower seemed to laugh at my mistake and behind me a billboard with Oculus founder Palmer Luckey's visage reminded me who was boss. The owners of this world had fooled me, and as I looked up at a giant blimp blotting out part of the sky, I vowed not to get fooled again.
Just then, a gigantic insect was up in my face, magnified to gargantuan proportions. The giant fly didn't move, so I got an incredible look at its magnificent feelers and the loads of hexagonal lenses in its eyes. Spinning 180, white and red blood cells danced around. Not very interactive, but an example of how incredibly interesting VR could be for studying miniature objects.
And just when the thought of miniaturisation had crossed my mind, I found myself in an Alice in Wonderland-style existence. In a tiny round room set for proper tea service, a gleaming porcelain teapot and cup-and-saucer settings attracting me with their matching gold trim, I stood facing a giant extravagant mirror held up by statues of exquisite golden cherubs set in its massive frame. A lovely marble mantlepiece below the frame held a bowl of fruit. Did I see myself staring back at me in that mirror? No, a porcelain mask, which moved in perfect time with my own movements. I was the Invisible Man. I leaned in close to the mirror, close enough to admire its gold inlay, so close that both I and the mask touched the glass. Sadly, I clipped through, and the illusion ended.
The next demo was just an admittedly impressive 3D topographic map like something you'd see in the Avatar command centre: red, set on a 3D grid, with nodes beaming energy skyward. I like to think they represented power plants that I could send my troops to attack and capture.
On the surface of a white, rocky planet, I stood face to face with a humanoid alien creature about my height. He waved! First contact. He sized me up, as I admired the Destiny-like scene, giant moons eclipsing the planet where I stood. His ship, hovering in the distance, blowing away particles from the ground, seemed peaceful enough. So in wonder, I took a step closer. His head followed me. He jerked back, alarmed! Calming down, he began to speak to me in an alien tongue. I couldn't follow the words.
But I was too busy leaning forward to investigate an entire miniature city that had appeared in front of me. In this new world, I floated up in the sky among the clouds, but so did a tiny little town made entirely of folded paper. Little citizens went about their business, miniature cars drove about, and oh my gosh, the cutest little jet plane you've ever seen zipped right past my ear. I turned to follow it with an imaginary finger. A little flying saucer zapped a building, setting it on fire, and a tiny hook-and-ladder fire truck came to save the day, its diminutive water cannon shooting tiny droplets of water at the flames. SimCity meets LittleBigPlanet. I can't wait to play.
Remember the little T-Rex? It's not so little anymore. In an abandoned museum reeking of Jurassic Park, I stood as still as I could while the humongous dino crashed down the corridor towards me. The earth didn't quake as much as I'd hoped, breaking the illusion as I pondered it, but once its giant jaws got close and it started sniffing for my scent, fantastically animated, part of the feeling of presence came back. Rather than try to swallow me, it roared, ran past and — I couldn't help myself, it was coming right for me — I dodged its mighty right leg to avoid getting trampled.
The next demo took some time to load, but it did so in a VR waiting area that kept me focused: a Tron-like set of concentric circles of light stretching floor to ceiling, forming an infinite tunnel made of portals. Again, I contemplated what might happen if I jumped off the edge.
But I didn't have to: the next demo pushed me head-first through an impressive, monumental cyberspace contraption. I saw a giant blue sphere, the size of a city block, broken into jagged chunks of alien circuitry, each blue chunk pulsing with barely subdued electricity. The demo was pulling me inside. Deeper and deeper I went, through layer upon layer of the alien artifact, passing each gate in stride. Above and below me, I could see an incredible drop, through all the concentric layers of the gigantic construction. Frankly, I got a little bored with the long, non-interactive flight.
But Oculus had saved the best for last. The Unreal Engine 4 logo appeared for a while and gave way to black. Then, in gorgeous slow motion that would make the Wachowski Brothers blush, I literally dodged a bullet. I saw the shockwave in the nick of time and pulled myself out of the way. It sailed past. I was charging down a city street in butter-smooth bullet time, soldiers all around me with Gears of War-style assault rifles shooting at something in the distance: a giant quadruped robot with guided missile launchers for arms and a menacing look on its jawed Destroyer Droid face. One of those missiles soared to the right, and hit a concrete pillar holding up the commuter rail line above the street. Giant chunks of rock flew towards me and my comrades. But armed with my inhuman reaction time, I bounded past my comrades and wove between each of those death-dealing projectiles like a superhero.
When a second missile hit a futuristic police car, sending the car flipping towards me (as well as hundreds of shards of broken glass), I actually physically dropped to the real-life ground and slid under it, looking up at the hapless cops trapped inside its metal frame. One of their coffee cups bounced off the ground, and I reached to grab it, imagining how badass I must look sipping some coffee on my way to the final showdown.
I stood up, pumped, face-to-face with the towering robot. I looked it in the eye. It roared. I prepared to deliver the most incredible Street Fighter SHORYUKEN uppercut in the history of flying dragon uppercuts.
My demo was over.