The vision of mainstream virtual reality gaming came one step closer to a reality recently, with the unveiling of Sony’s long-rumoured, Oculus Rift-rivalling headset codenamed Project Morpheus. Meanwhile, its closest competitor, the Oculus Rift, fought back with the announcement of a new Development Kit available to pre-order. And then there was the earth-shattering surprise announcement that a certain social media giant company had acquired Oculus, presumably paving the way for VR Farmville.
Both claim they will change the way we play games as we know it, fully immersing us into our virtual worlds like never before. While the Oculus Rift has already gained a mass following after its successful Kickstarter campaign, Sony has the advantage of the massive install base that is the loyal PlayStation community. Like it or not, then, VR gaming is seemingly about to be reborn for the next generation.
It’s hard not to be slightly skeptical, though – we’ve been here before, afterall. Horrific memories of some of the ill-fated attempts at VR gaming in the past still linger: yes Virtual Boy, we’re looking at you. Hopefully history isn’t about to repeat itself and journalists won’t be writing about Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus in list features about forgotten gaming fads in years to come.
However, significant strides in technology mean that these latest attempts at VR gaming have a far better chance of realising their potential than before, and the implications this has for racing games is potentially massive. Racing games seem like the perfect fit for VR technology. Indeed, even Sony’s President of Computer Entertainment Shuhei Yoshida admitted that driving games are “the best applications” for their VR headset. And it’s not hard to see why.
First, the obvious: the heightened sense of speed and depth of field. Racing games naturally require you to drive at high velocity, but you’ve never been able to truly feel the giddying sensation of speed you would experience in real life. With VR technology, watching the distant scenery rushing at you as you blast down the never-ending straight in Circuit Le Sarthe or hurtle down a highway at non-legal road speeds should be an absolute thrill ride for the senses.
Certainly, VR will encourage people to play racing games the way they were arguably meant to be experienced: i.e. with a cockpit camera. VR will let you experience the race from the driver’s eyes like never before, with fully interactive cockpit cameras allowing you to freely look around the intricate interiors. Just imagine if Forza Motorsport’s Autovista embraced VR – it wouldn’t surprise me if other developers adopt their own Autovista-like modes in future VR-enabled racing games.
There are numerous gameplay-enhancing advantages on the track too, thanks to the better perception of distance and position that VR will afford. Keeping tabs on opponents will be intuitive when you can physically glance at the side windows and rear view mirror to monitor their position in relation to yours, as will looking behind you when reversing to see where you’re going.
Some racing games such as Need for Speed: Shift 2 have utilised ‘helmet cameras’ to simulate the driver’s head movement when using the interior view, helpfully looking at the apex whenever you approached a corner. Again, while many complained that this feature was jarring and distracting, using VR to physically turn your head through a corner as you kiss the apex, just as a real racing driver does in order to look ahead of the corner exit for a better overview of the track, should finally feel natural, helping you achieve better racing lines and improve lap times.
The improved sense of speed, depth and distance will also help judging cornering angles. Granted, Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport already support limited head-tracking via console cameras, but implementing VR could potentially transform the experience with its superior field of view and 360 head tracking. Unsurprisingly, former Need for Speed Shift Slightly Mad Studios are one of the most vocal supporters of VR headsets in racing games as it’s a logical extension from their helmet cameras.
Unfortunately however, these dreams of VR racing were dashed somewhat by a bombshell for PS4 players. Sadly, the PS4’s premiere racing game DriveClub won’t be supporting Project Morpheus, despite the fact it seemed like the perfect game to promote Project Morpheus. Its lavishly detailed cockpits have been a key selling point, too: DriveClub was clearly intended to be played with the cockpit camera, which you would think would translate well with VR. It’s especially bewildering when Evolution were said to be actively involved with the development of Sony’s VR headset.
During a play session with DriveClub and Project Morpheus, Sony’s President of Computer Entertainment complained that driving at high speed made him feel sick – a common concern for VR technology that makes you question if it can be used for prolonged periods of time. Maybe he gets travel sickness. Or alternatively, perhaps the software could be at fault here.
It’s no secret that DriveClub struggles to achieve 30 fps, and any lag between the headset would naturally cause motion sickness. After all, if DriveClub still isn’t in a satisfactory state to be sold, it’s probably not going to play nice when faced with completely new technology. Good thing Slightly Mad Studios stepped in confirming that Project CARS will support Project Morpheus, otherwise PS4 players might have been waiting until Gran Turismo 7 rolls out at some point this millennium for a taste of VR racing. Still, like any new technology in its infancy, it’s a steep learning curve for developers and will ultimately take time to perfect.
On a powerful PC, this is less of an issue. Most racing games can easily run at a buttery smooth 60 fps without breaking a sweat, making for a more seamless VR experience. Indeed, VR is already a reality for some PC sim racers: iRacing, Project CARS, rFactor and Live for Speed are among the high profile sim racers that are already Oculus Rift-enabled.
With this in mind, Oculus Rift appears to be the more future-proof device, and that’s without factoring in FaceBook’s backing. Sony are adamant their headset will be affordable for the mass market, but the cutbacks made to achieve this could be detrimental to the experience. For example, Sony’s VR headset sports a cheaper LCD screen compared to the Oculus Rift’s OLED.
It also has the disadvantage of being confined to the PS4, which will eventually be incapable of meeting the growing demands of VR when its specifications become outdated over time. PCs, on the other hand, will continue to evolve with VR technology – which is exactly what the developers of Oculus Rift have planned. Consoles, on the other hand, are “too limited” for Oculus Rift according to the developers, as the hardware specifications will remain the same for eight years, typically.
Whatever the outcome, VR certainly has the potential to revolutionise our favourite genre and put us in the driver’s seat like never before, making racing games more realistic, visceral and immersive. Nevermind the headaches, eye strain and motion sickness that goes with it.
But while we wait for the VR revolution, there’s always the trusty triple screen setup to help you achieve similar levels of immersion. Just ask Alan: he now forever resides in the TeamVVV Test Rig.