'The Lab' Hands-On Sets Valve And HTC Vive Apart From Crowded GDC

The Lab
The Lab hands-on at GDC shows true potential of VR Valve

I know you’re probably not sold on VR. The sticker shock was a nasty surprise for most of us, and you start asking yourself how fun is $600 really? That’s ballin’-out-at-Benihana money. You can have an awful lot of fun in actual reality for the VR price tag. As a gamer, you probably wonder if VR can really produce that itch, that thirst that keeps you playing a game until you hear birds chirping outside at 6 a.m. I have been doing VR demos since 2014 and, until now, haven’t played anything that convinced me I’d have ballin’-out-at-Benihana level fun with a VR headset. But Valve’s The Lab is a wonderful showcase for what VR does best, and when it’s strong it’s Hulk strong.

First and foremost, the HTC Vive is my current pick for best VR experience. The last of the big three I’ve tried (Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR are the others) HTC’s Vive succeeds in doing the most difficult task first - eliminating weirdness. Virtual reality feels weird, and it’s a big hurdle for devs to create an experience that feels normal and, in the best examples, immersive.

HTC Vive delivers this kind of comfort. It detects walls, fits well (even over glasses) and gives you the freedom to naturally move in the virtual space. Which is good, because The Lab will keep you active.

The demo begins on a lush mountainside, a “postcard” as Valve’s reps described it, where players are greeted by an enthusiastic robot dog. It’s adorable, it wants to play fetch and, without thinking much, you bend down and pick up a stick and toss it. One press of a button to hold the stick is the only control skill required. It’s passive, pastoral and light.

A slingshot game followed. Think Angry Birds, but instead of birds it's emotionally dysfunctional mechanical orbs voiced by Rick And Morty’ s Justin Roiland and instead of tapping a mobile screen you grab a sling with both hands and take a few steps back to fire at big, blocky towers. The classic video game rule of “red barrels go boom” held true, and after a bout of mayhem the demo rolled on.

Next up, Xortex. Players grab ahold of a Galaga-esque spaceship and zoom it around a virtual space battle destroying intergalactic minions and dodging their fire. Again, the freedom of the Vive shined through. My first turn I stood in one spot and dodged a few shots before my blind spots betrayed me. Encouraged by the Valve rep to move around, I started pacing about the room swooping and diving the ship like a toddler with a toy. I practically made mouth sounds as I zoomed around. Xortex became the best VR game I’d ever played, until I played the next game - Longbow.

Longbow is the best thing I’ve played in VR so far. It’s a basic castle defense setup, with players drawing a virtual bow to skewer invaders. Even in the brief demo a fair bit of depth emerged. I could light arrows by sticking them in a torch, enemies wore reactive armor, i.e., helmets sprung off of guys and shields clanged to the ground. More red barrel boomage and vats of hot oil added great environmental action, and by the end of the demo I was ready to volunteer as tribute for District 12. I could’ve played it for hours.

Valve will be releasing The Lab for free and it's expected to include 12 titles at launch. Expect a lot of content updates as time goes on. No word on whether or not Benihana’s hibachi chefs are coming to VR, but if the full release of The Lab is half as good as the demo you won’t miss them.

So what do you think? You sold on VR yet? Have any brand loyalty? Want to steal my idea to make a VR hibachi chef game because it would be fucking amazing? Let us know in the comments!

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