HTC Vive Review: VR’s Best Still Has A Lot Of Room For Improvement

HTC Vive headset and controllers
HTC Vive headset and controllers Fionna Agomuoh

Having spent a week with the Vive, I am thoroughly intrigued. The recently released headset has been making waves, especially since January. We finally got a chance to see the Vive in action as it began shipping April 5. But I can't get over the feeling of wanting just a little bit more from HTC’s $800 peripheral.

There is no doubt the HTC Vive is a sophisticated piece of hardware. But there is a lot about this VR headset that screams first-generation product. Between the many issues the iDigitalTimes team had setting up the hardware and the numerous software glitches we continue to endure as we test the product, I'd say the number one thing you will need when using the Vive is patience.

HTC Vive Experience: As Immersive As You Imagined

When everything is running smoothly, being inside the Vive is like a dream. I suppose that is the point of virtual reality: to make the user feel as if they have been sucked into a computer instead of watching from the outside. This is something the Vive achieves easily. Playing Space Pirate Traine r, it's pretty easy to think you are actually handling guns and not the two Vive controllers. With your eyes completely enclosed within the headset, you get comfortable experiencing the virtual world; however, depending on the quality of your headphones, hearing outside noises, like people speaking to you, can be disorienting.

htc vive controllers
HTC Vive Controllers Photo: Fionna Agomuoh
The standout feature of the Vive, and the thing that sets it apart from the Oculus, is the digital play space you can set up. Users have the option to map an entire room as a play area or to define parameters in which they can move. We set up custom parameters due to the confines of our game room and discovered the HTC Vive chaperone mode was a love-hate-experience. The safety feature, which maps outlines of every solid object in the room, is beneficial to help users navigate their defined play area. But seeing the outlines of the real world can also be distracting, especially if you're engrossed in a game. It also did not stop me from periodically slamming into shelves and tables when a match in Selfie Tennis got too heated.

HTC Vive Hardware: Heavy And Physically Draining  

Once fully immersed, users should find little issue with handling the Vive VR world. However, one constant reminder of the real world limitations of VR is the heavy headset you’re wearing. While we can understand why the Vive needs to be hefty, this does not negate the fact that it can be a challenge to wear and move around with the headset on.

HTC Vive
Me wearing HTC Vive headset Photo: Fionna Agomuoh

I especially felt the weight on the headset the first time I put it on. This subsided in subsequent fittings. I imagine I’ve developed some serious neck gains in my few days with the Vive. But the back of my neck remains sore and my shoulders in serious need of a deep tissue massage.

The wires that run toward the back of the Vive headset can also bog you down. Being unable to see them in your virtual world, there is no real way to avoid the inevitable. You will step on several cords. You will unplug the headphone jack more than once. Luckily, I haven’t yet face planted, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens at some point.

I consider myself a fairly fit person, but wearing the Vive for more than 10 minutes leaves me feeling very drained and fatigued. I felt the impact  of my exhaustion more once I took off the headset. It is very easy to continue to push yourself while in the middle of a game, even though you feel yourself getting tired. After about 30 minutes of Selfie Tennis, I paused to converse with my colleagues and realized, when I took off the Vive, I had to take a breather before continuing to another game.

HTC Vive and face pads
HTC Vive and face pads Photo: Fionna Agomuoh

You can also expect to build up a fair sweat while playing some of the more active games. Sweat then gets deposited in the material of the face pads, making them less than sanitary.

HTC Vive Software: Frequent Troubleshooting

The biggest challenge of using the Vive is the inconsistency of the software. Navigating menus and programs while wearing the Vive takes a lot of getting used to, and you’ll often find yourself playing a game with features turned on you thought were disabled, or waiting for something to load while a critical message on the PC sits unread. Launching everything through Steam feels familiar, but we often relied on a “spotter” to help do things on the PC while playtesters stood patiently waiting for the Vive to work. This kind of disconnect is best seen in games that require use of a gamepad or a keyboard and mouse, instead of the Vive controllers.

htc vive selfie tennis
HTC Vive Selfie Tennis VR game Photo: Fionna Agomuoh

Gamepad functionality itself is fine, although it suffers equally from VR’s general disease of poor UIs, but using the Vive headset in conjunction with the gamepad almost always led to feelings of motion sickness. It’s worth mentioning that this evidence isn’t medical, it’s anecdotal, but we still felt it worth mentioning.

HTC Vive Game Selection: Simplistic But Fun

Despite these technical hiccups, once you are able to get games running, most other frustrations melt away. Job Simulator, an old demo favorite, is quite interesting to play in its entirety. My time as an office worker was spent mostly binge eating virtual doughnuts rather than being productive. Space Pirate Trainer gets a lot more fun when you discover how to pull up a shield to defend you from the swarms of flying robots while you dodge laser beams Matrix-style.

Fantastic Contraption isn’t quite my cup of tea, but a few members of the staff were quite taken by the game. Much like Job Simulator , it serves its purpose more as a tutorial on how to play with VR than as a standalone gaming experience. Audioshield has promise for fans of games like Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero . Unfortunately, I am not one of them.

htc vive selfie tennis
HTC Vive Selfie Tennis game Photo: Fionna Agomuoh

I would have to say Selfie Tennis does a particularly good job at demonstrating the power of the Vive. In the game you play against yourself in a game of tennis. It is impressive how the point of view immediately changes once you’ve hit the ball. You really get a sense of a 360-degree world around you.

I have discovered that I suck at tennis and have little to no spacial acuity. My score currently stands at seven, and I have killed four of the tennis ball-headed beings that cheer you on from the sidelines. The fact that they groan and fall to the floor once hit with a ball is both amusing and disturbing. The “cute” factor is definitely present in a lot of the most successful Vive launch titles, but anyone looking for some hyper-realistic immersion may be a bit a disappointed. (And, no, we did not test out any porn. Sorry).

HTC Vive Gaming Potential: Expansive 

The HTC Vive’s potential as a gaming platform cannot be understated, despite the clunky limitations it has as a first-generation piece of hardware. The success of the device will depend solely on developers who are able to emphasize what it can do well, instead of what we want it to do. So while you won’t be able to have a Skyrim -style experience in VR right now, a 90s style dungeon crawler needs to happen soon. A recent title like Legend of Grimrock would be excellent in VR, as the grid-based navigation solves the problem of not being able to walk much while still giving you a first-person combat/puzzle experience. It’s easy to feel immersed in the cartoon worlds of Job Simulator , so a title designed to feel like real life could be truly epic.

Legend of Grimrock screenshot Photo: Wikipedia

The same can be said about FPS games. There won’t be any Halo -style acrobatics in VR soon, but complex rail shooters and shooting gallery games could flourish, provided the haptic feedback is on point. In fact, we were often wanting to use certain accessories along with the Vive controllers, like a golf putter for Cloudlands: VR Minigolf , because the weightlessness of digital objects can feel a bit tricky to master. It’s also just nice to move while gaming, and it’ll be interesting to see what sort of fitness programs, if any, spring up in the coming months.

HTC Vive Verdict: Stellar First Try

The HTC Vive is not a device for casuals. The intricate set-up, prohibitive costs and near-constant software troubleshooting make it an appealing purchase for only the most hardcore of hardcore PC gamers. But when it’s working right, it’s incredibly accessible and fun. If the industry can support itself long enough for second- and third-generation developments like a simpler plug-n-play set up or a wireless headset, it won’t be long before it’s a reality, and not a virtual one.

HTC Vive headset
HTC Vive headset Photo: Fionna Agomuoh


Editor's note: This story was updated on 4.12.16 to expand upon our experience playing the Vive with a gamepad, a feature we weren't able to test during our intial review period.

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