Virtually a Reality: My thoughts on VR

 VirZoom. An exercise bike game controller. One of the surprisingly awesome VR experiences I had at GDC.
VirZoom. An exercise bike game controller. One of the surprisingly awesome VR experiences I had at GDC.

We’re almost there!

Hello folks! Myself and 27,000 other people are just home from GDC 2016 in San Francisco. For many, myself included, it was our first GDC. This year also marked GDC’s highest attendance to date, and there was no small focus on VR. They even went as far as to have an entire VRDC branch of the conference laid out with many talks and demos available for conference goers.

Personally, I was eager to try as much of the VR tech as I could, but more as a consumer than as a developer. My game is a 2D space sim, so VR is hardly going to have a major impact on it. Even further down the line, I can see myself favouring retro-style games (look at the company name, after all) than cutting edge VR, but I’m certainly interested in the area, as are many.

All the big players were at the conference and while many of the companies’ wares were on display by (very) advanced appointment only (Virtuix Omni, Playstation VR, Raw Data on the Vive) there was still a lot that I got to try out. I was very undecided about the future of VR before GDC. How the game industry evolves still remains to be seen, but I certainly now have an educated two-cents to throw into the conversation (Don’t mix metaphors. Don’t mix metaphors. Okay, sorry).

We’re closer than we’ve ever been, but is VR truly about to arrive for the masses, and if so, is it here to stay?

First Thought – Price

Before and after GDC, my thoughts on the cost of entry to higher-end VR gaming are that it is madly expensive. Even if I have now seen more of what I’d be buying in to, the cost is still a major obstacle.

The Oculus runs at $600 + shipping, and that’s without the Oculus Touch controllers which aren’t even released yet. The HTC Vive is $800, though it includes the VR controllers and the headset does have a camera, allowing AR (Augmented Reality) options that the Oculus can’t provide.

Both of those options require a high-end PC in the first place which will run easily over $1,000. 

The Playstation VR might lead the charge when it comes to user adoption. At $400 for the headset, it’s only about as expensive again as a PS4, and half the price of a Vive. While the quality is a little less impressive than its pricier counterparts, reports are that it’s not that inferior at all (I didn’t get to try it at GDC, unfortunately). Console gamers are already less concerned with having “the best” as compared with PC users and so I think here is where we’ll see the biggest early adoption of VR, at least when it comes to gaming.

There are several cheaper options again, and these lead me to my next point.

Ambiguity & Choice Paralysis

Even for those who are willing to buy one expensive VR headset, they may well wish to wait and see what takes off in a year’s time. The Vive can do things that the Oculus Rift can’t, but some of those things require an 8ft x 8ft room. Many people will need to buy a house before they can make use of that particular VR offering!

The Oculus Touch controllers (which I did try with the game I Expect You To Die) do seem somewhat more natural that Vive’s controllers, though I haven’t spent a large amount of time with either.

 I tried the Oculus Touch controllers. They aren't released yet, but they're looking and feeling pretty darned cool.
I tried the Oculus Touch controllers. They aren’t released yet, but they’re looking and feeling pretty darned cool.

Then you have the cheaper Samsung Gear VR into which you simply insert your phone (certain models of Android only) and you have instant VR. However, it only tracks your head movement and takes a single button input. This is not for advanced gaming. It’s more the evolution of mobile games in that regard, but the lower price makes it very viable for people who just want experiences like 3D movies, guided tours, or VR porn (yes, it’s already a thing. The porn industry has traditionally been on the cutting edge of technology – seriously).

Google Cardboard, the cheapest VR entry, can’t even compare with the Vive or Oculus in terms of what it can do, but anyone can afford it and it works with a far wider selection of phones. 

What is VR?

So, what is VR? Well it isn’t just one thing. That’s a problem and an opportunity. The fact that there’s an affordable VR option for everyone may lead to high adoption, but whether it robs the higher end companies of their desired market share or primes the public for that more exciting stuff remains to be seen.

I would guess that it will create a low-level interest in VR and as prices fall, we’ll see more adoption of the better headsets eventually.

For the rest of the article, I’ll focus more on the higher end products.

The games industry has been making the most noise about VR, so it’s easy to forget its myriad other applications. Hospitals have tried adopting it to reduce depression and anxiety and ease recovery in patients. Architects are using it to show their designs in more detail than ever before. Even Six Flags theme parks have started using VR on actual roller coasters

I wouldn’t be surprised if Google are working it into their Street View technology and all sorts of documentaries, concerts, and sporting events are sure to be recorded and broadcast in 3D in the coming years. Its use for mediation (see Deep – coming to the Tribeca Film Festival this year) or perhaps to treat forms of autism are very exciting also. And there’s the porn..

Thinking of VR as being “the next thing in gaming” is an extremely narrow way of seeing it, and many games developers are bravely leading the charge when time could very well show them to have had been headed the wrong way entirely.

This is my opinion only, but I don’t see VR treadmills designed for first person shooters as being the right way to go. I haven’t tried any, admittedly, but neither have many other potential customers, and that’s what counts. The FPS genre was pretty much fine as it was. It’s run its course, even! VR doesn’t lend itself well to lively first person movement. Older arcade shooters like Time Crisis may see a very positive revival because in those games you were tied to a single point in each section of the game, and then a cutscene moves you to the next. They worked just fine and as I watched demos of Raw Data (video below) and listened to the (very lucky) happy people coming away from their demo sessions, I think this is where VR shooters are heading.

I was very surprised to be asked “do you think VR will change the face of gaming” at GDC. For me there’s no question. It won’t! Look at the resurgence of 2D games, and the popularity of first person shooters. These games aren’t going away and they don’t need VR. Many 2D games exist because they’re cheaper to produce and almost everybody can run them. It makes no sense to develop the next FTL or Spelunky as a VR game. Indies already struggle to make ends meet (okay, maybe not those two) so they won’t limit themselves by developing for a smaller audience.

VR is a new peripheral (when it comes to gaming). It enables new types of games to exist, it will improve certain game genres, and it flat-out won’t work for other genres. The gaming world as we know it won’t change overnight, but it will slowly open up new territories.

Where VR shines for gaming

For me, any game where you are piloting or driving a vehicle will benefit well from VR. Being able to glance over your shoulder in a race car or fighter jet is something we’ve been missing and VR will really add to the experience. However, this is a very niche market. Headsets will sell well to the types of people who buy high-end joysticks or steering wheels, but these sales wouldn’t be enough to buoy up the VR industry.

We need new types of games.

I’ve tried a bunch of VR games that I’d describe as neat but I wouldn’t buy a headset for them and even if I had one I wouldn’t play the game for more than a little while. The first game I saw that I could really see myself playing every day was Ubisoft’s Eagle Flight.

You play as an eagle flying around an abandoned Paris. You hold a controller with buttons for acceleration and an attack, but all steering is done with the headset and it feels incredibly natural, smooth, and fun! There are single player and multiplayer game modes where you hunt down other birds who are attacking your nest (amongst other modes).

I queued for an hour to play this at GDC and I’m glad I did. I came away feeling for the first time like I’d really found a new type of game. The sense of flight, the field of vision, and the agility the player could quickly learn were all very compelling. And say what you like about Ubisoft (I frequently do) they know how to make compelling games that keep you coming back for weeks – at least! I can really see this one being big on Playstation, Oculus and Vive.

The problem of Fragmentation

Eagle Flight is a simple game with simple controls that works very well. I think it’ll be one of the biggest early games of the VR generation. This is because most people, whatever they own, will be able to buy and play it. 

The Vive in particular is guilty of encouraging the development of games that simply won’t be possible to play on the Oculus or PSVR. All the systems can track head movement and accept basic input, but the Vive can make use of a physical boundary scanning technology and front-mounted camera. This enables you to safely (if not yet ‘confidently’) walk around your living room while playing an experience, thus allowing types of games that we haven’t even imagined yet to be created. While that’s very exciting in theory, it’s in no developer’s interest to make games that can only be played on the Vive, when they could make simpler ones that will run on all (or most) devices.

Pushing the limits of the technology will yield great experiences, but someone who’s just dropped a grand into the Oculus isn’t likely to go over and buy a Vive for one new game. Who, then, is going to make the amazing games, and which platforms will they be available for?

I would predict a banality in the types of games that come out in the first couple of years until one platform or another really pulls ahead in terms of market share. That’s when developers will choose their dev platform and really start pushing the technology.


As if the headsets themselves weren’t expensive enough, there’s a whole subset of companies developing movement controllers for VR devices.

I’ve already mentioned Virtuix Omni, and my lack of belief in the product’s viability long-term. There are similar treadmills on offer, too, from other companies. I’ve even heard of virtual hang-gliders that you lie down and strap yourself into. I can only imagine how much floor space is required for that one! Presumably you wouldn’t get much use out of them, either. Games get boring, after all. This has always been true.

I say that without having tried any of those aforementioned. What I did try was VirZoom.

I’d seen GameSpot’s video (above) previously, and I was sceptical. How can you pedal a horse? That’s bound to feel stupid! Same goes for a race car. I tried this at GDC and was pleasantly surprised.

You wear your chosen headset, then sit up on an exercise bike. There’s a left and right trigger, and the pedals. Those are your main inputs. Tilting your head or looking at something directly is also a form of input. VirZomm provided five 1-minute demos back-to-back for attendees. I started off pedalling and the horse started moving. I was to lasso bandits off their nearby horses by catching up to them, looking at them and pressing a trigger. Simultaneously I had to avoid certain obstacles in the street.

After about ten seconds, I didn’t even realise I was pedalling any more. The gameplay just took over. The same went for driving the race car and even flying the helicopter. When you’re in it, it feels totally natural, despite how it looks to an observer and despite how unconvincing it must be to read about.

I finished the demo with a good warm-up done and a new appreciation for the types of games that could be created.

We run into the fragmentation problem again, here. Any games designed to work well for this exercise bike input will likely not be very convincing as a traditional game with an ordinary gamepad. Thus for the developers to make back money, one might expect the games to cost a lot, or at least to have been cheap to produce and probably lacking in variety. On the other hand, we see here that there are legitimately whole new directions to explore with VR. The retail cost of the bike is $400. Another steep investment. However, here you can weigh the investment against the cost of a road bike or gym membership. Maybe in colder climates where you can’t cycle or jog in Winter, the gamification of exercise could really take off. The bike also folds down pretty small so it doesn’t take up much space in your house.

If I already had a VR headset, I could honestly see myself making this the next purchase. I know I need more exercise, and while the best gameplay motivation in the current demos is merely to place on a world high-score chart, savvy developers could make some really compelling narrative games based around stories like Easy Rider, or Mad Max style road warrior games.

Update, 13/01/2018: If you’d like extra reading on the VR cycling space, I’ve recently been contacted by Eric from Bikemunk who read this article and offered a link to his own article on cycling software..

In Conclusion

I personally think VR will be a big part of our futures, but not that it will revolutionise gaming. I doubt it will revolutionise any particular industry. I think it hasn’t quite arrived yet but that when it does it will be here to stay. The internet and the smart phone will likely remain the largest technical and social milestones in our recent history, but VR will certainly shake things up a bit and make the world a more interesting place to live in.

I can’t wait until I can afford it..

Until next time..



Sword Fighting in Games

 Image from Chivalry: Medieval Warfare
Image from Chivalry: Medieval Warfare

Sword fighting is a big part of our popular culture. It’s almost as big as the cult of the Gun. TV shows and movies like Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Vikings,  or The Three Musketeers romanticise the sword-wielding hero or heroine and the art of melee combat.

Games have always been a great way for us to get in touch with our fantasies and role play the hero (or villain), and while they’ve done a great job of satisfying the gun-wielding hero fantasy, they’ve always (in my eyes, let’s say) fallen short in the domain of melee combat. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very fun games centred around melee combat, but I’m talking more about simulating the real life experience, and giving the player a true virtual taste of what the real thing is like!

I’ve both been to the shooting range a couple of times (rare in Ireland) and taken fencing in college (and, of course, played countless games) so I feel a can compare both of the real experiences with the virtual to some worthwhile degree.

With guns, the essential components are that you point and shoot. The physical impact and damage aren’t part of your interaction. Games can simulate this very well. The click of a button or pulling of the Right Trigger on a controller feels analogous to pulling a gun’s trigger. Going further into the realism side, games can also simulate what it’s like to have to move to cover or work with a team in a fire fight. The only parts of gun fighting in games that I think aren’t represented are the kickback (yes I know recoil is often simulated, but it can’t give you the pain and bruising in your shoulder that comes from firing a shotgun) and reloading. Usually we just hit a button and trigger a quick reloading animation. In real life, it’s actually quite difficult to load bullets into a clip  (clip into gun is easier, but I feel Gordon Freeman would have fumbled once or twice in real life), and awkward enough to chamber a round in a bolt-action rifle. The noise of firing a gun can be physically painful too, and forgetting to turn the safety off is a concern, but where’s the fun in simulating that?

Bringing sword fighting into games is an entirely different prospect, though, and it’s miles behind its counterpart. Why is this? There are several reasons.


Well, holding and swinging a sword are easy enough to simulate, but not accurately. Your attack isn’t the twitch of a finger, but a flick of the wrist, or a swing of the arms, or a kick. It doesn’t feel as correct to just click to do this. We tend not to notice this too much however as we’re used to pressing a button in a game and seeing something happen, so this is fine in a way, but it is straight away a large disconnect between what you do in real life and what you can do in a game.

Virtual Reality might have something to contribute here, but it brings its own problems. The Oculus Touch or the HTC Vive’s controllers would allow you to hold and swing somewhat realistically. See the video below for Vive’s controllers being used by a Disney animator to paint in 3D. They can’t simulate the weight of your weapon, though. A claymore (sword, not mine) or broadsword will have a lot more weight and momentum than a katana blade or fencing foil, so the controls will still feel wrong.

The other problem with VR controllers would be the clash. In real life you might swing your arm all the way from upper right to lower left, but in the game your sword hits an opponent’s armour, or blade, or a wall, and it stops! So your real arms are now in a different place to your game arms. You’ve immediately got another big disconnect in the experience. This is why I don’t think VR will improve sword fighting in games at all. With that said, it could offer some neat experiences. A lightsabre or nano-blade can cut through anything supposedly, except for another blade. So if the VR game let you wield a sword like Raiden has in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and never fight somebody with a similar weapon, then the experience would be very fun, but it wouldn’t be a sword fighting experience, just a sword using one.

At 1:43 in the video below these input problems are summed up very well, and humorously. Sadly, even though it passed Kickstarter, Clang was later cancelled. If you watch the video look out for Gabe Newell’s cameo!

So we can’t get around input with currently available technology, but there are several other areas to improve upon to give us better sword fighting in games.


As I mentioned, the clash of blades can’t be simulated in the player’s input device (beyond a little vibration in the controller, maybe) but it’s also quite difficult to truly simulate in the computer. We use physics to bounce objects around the room after an explosion or crash or whatever. Essentially, each frame, the computer checks where an object is and what its velocity is, if it’s in collision this frame it will calculate the new positions and velocities for the colliding objects on the next frame. If not, it will continue on its trajectory (usually adjusted for gravity and air resistance in some form). This happens 50 times per second or so. To be clear, a physics check is checking where something is at a given time. The collision happens if the objects’ “colliders” are touching.

To try to use this system to detect the clash of swords is impractical. To take just one measurement I found online, in an experiment, a sword slash was found to travel 190 cm in 1/4 of a second. So 7.6 metres every second. If the physics check is done sixty times per second that means the sword moved 12.6 cm every frame. That’s a lot! The thickness of a foil is less than 1 cm, so even saying that two foils coming at each other have a combined collision-thickness of 2cm, there’s a high chance that they won’t be in the same place on any frame. One frame they’ll be 6 cm before colliding, and the next frame they’ll be 6 cm after colliding without ever having made the collision. 

So a literal physical simulation is impossible. Can we cheat? Well, yes. We have to. That same physics limitation above is why bullets aren’t physically simulated in games but are instead simulated using “raycasting”. This is shooting a line straight out from somewhere (a gun) at a given time to see what it touches. Most bullets in games work this way but even long range sniper shots have developed to the point where they still use raycasting but can also simulate bullet drop, wind resistance, and travel time. They cheat to deliver a very physically ‘real’ bullet for the player. Computer game design is all about cheating the limitations to fake realistic experiences!

So we have to cheat to make sword virtual sword fighting a “reality”. 

What’s been done before?

Titanic: Adventure Out Of Time (1996)

This was earliest game I ever played that had any degree of simulated sword fighting. I should actually do a retro review of that game but I’d have to get my hands on it again. Go to 7:19 in the video below to see the fencing scene.

There are very few lets plays of the game and the ones that are there just have the player spamming the attack button to win, sadly. Stamina wasn’t represented in this game so this was possible, but if you played it ‘properly’ there was quite a bit in there. You moved your blade around the screen with the mouse and clicked to attack from that direction. If I remember correctly, right clicking would block. The attacker (who didn’t get a chance in this video) would telegraph his moves a little before he made them. This is realistic and seen in games. You can’t just hit somebody. You have to start by swinging your arm, and the position of the arm gives a clue as to whether you’re going to attack overhead, left, right, or forward, for example. Games draw out this telegraphing longer to make it easier for the player. In real life, you try to attack as quickly as you can to not give the opponent time to successfully block. Harder enemies in games often give you less telegraphing time than easy ones.

To be clear, the Titanic game was a point and click adventure/mystery game. Not a combat game, but I saw great promise in its sword combat segment and thought that more realistic sword combat must be on its way soon. How wrong I was. About the “soon” part anyway.

Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces 2 (1997)

Long name for one game. This one let you wield a lightsabre in first or third person. Sadly, it didn’t have a block move. None of the Dark Forces games in the years since did either. I think this is the greatest failing of these games. You finally got to simulate real lightsabre battles for yourself, but none of them had any of the nuances of a sword fight. To not get hit you just ran out of the way, then started a swing and ran back in. Occasionally you would get in a ‘lock’ (a pushing battle against another blade) and have to click frantically. This mainly happened if you and an enemy were attacking at the same time. It added a token dimension to the combat, but they never tackled a real sword fight simulation and I always found the games to be disappointing on that level. Mostly you just spam the attack button and are shown a few different animations. There’s little skill or decision making involved.
This is how the majority of first person games handle sword fighting and it’s quite disappointing, especially considering how ignored some of the better examples have been. Examples such as..

Thief: The Dark Project (1998)

The first Thief game was a first person stealth game set it medieval times. This is the first game where I ever saw a block move as a useful part of the combat. You weren’t supposed to fight in this game, but if discovered by a guard you could at least defend yourself a little. It was a rudimentary sort of block. If the enemy hit you with a sword it would hurt you, unless you were holding the block button. Satisfactorily, pressing the button made you hold your sword out across your body and if you blocked there was a great sword-clash noise. Importantly, this didn’t reduce damage, as the block seems to do in a lot of games (making it pointless), but it blocked all damage. 
I though “great! We’ve arrived! All sword games should have blocking like this from now on”. They didn’t.

As Time Went On..

 God of War. Great game, but in so way a sword combat simulation
God of War. Great game, but in so way a sword combat simulation

The hack n’ slash genre was where sword games went to grow up it seems. You know these. God of War, Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, and the newly released Onikira: Demon Killer. Maybe even the Arkham games and Shadow of Mordor have these elements. These are never first person games, and while they sell melee/sword combat and deliver great sounds and visuals and their own unique gameplay, they are far from sword fighting simulations. It’s a well established genre with its own merits and hit games, but it’s a far cry from simulating what it feels like to fight with a sword. As a sweeping generalisation, these games show you sword combat, but you don’t do it. They get away with having you perform combos like A+A+B to do a certain attack, and often press a single block button (sometimes with a direction) to block an attack, no matter what type of attack it is. The animation systems then take over to show you the pretty results, but there’s no real sword combat happening or being simulated in this genre.

Where are the games that took the ideas of Thief and ran with them? They’re few and far between. What could we have had by now if sword fighting in games had been building from 1998’s Thief all this time? It’s hard to say. We could have an entirely unique genre of game today and it’s a minor tragedy that we don’t, I think. Maybe the market was just never there, but I haven’t seen many attempts along the way either.

In Recent Years

We’ve started to see an effort in the last few years to breathe new life into sword fighting in games and evolve the gameplay that Thief hinted to us well over a decade before, but while they’re improvements, and a lot of fun, they are still quite limited.

Mount & Blade: Warband (2010)

Note that the very similar Mount & Blade came out in 2009. I played Warband, not the original, so I can’t speak to sword combat in the first game.

This game is still my favourite example of sword combat. It’s a fantastic game and what sold me on it first was the combat. Swords are far from the only weapons, and each have their own strengths, speeds and weights, but the  basics are similar across all melee weapons. The developers really went out of their way to show off something unique and not enough people know about this game. I never even heard of it until 2014 and a Free Weekend on Steam.

An attacker will telegraph their hit, say by raising their sword over their head if they’re going to attack overhead, or to the left for a slash from your side. The length of time they telegraph for is only ever a split second, but the enemy’s skill level will make this time shorter or longer. You’re not locked onto your opponent. You’re free to look and move in any direction, so after they telegraph, you could just step back out of the way, or you can block in a meaningful way. You hold the right click to block, but that’s not enough, you need to block up, down, left or right (assuming you don’t have a shield, in which case your block covers most directions at once) by moving the mouse correctly up, down, left or right to block the attack. You basically want to look towards the enemy’s weapon to block it. Then you can riposte (fencing term, meaning counter-attack) with an attack of your own in the same four directions. Move your mouse a little to the right while attacking and you’ll slash from the right, and so on.  And when I say riposte, I don’t mean that the game now allows you to attack. You can choose to attack whenever, but getting hit during your swing will stop your attack so you have to use timing wisely. You can even kick to wind your opponent to get a clear opening for a powerful attack, but the kick is short range so it’s hard to hit with. There’s a lot going on here.
One-on-one fights against the computer in this game are the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like I was fencing in UCD again, without facing a human opponent. In the options menu you can simplify the blocking to just always work, but that destroys this amazing gameplay.

The flaw is that most players, and especially in multiplayer, just spam the attack button and hope to come out on top. Players don’t necessarily engage with the amazing mechanics provided for them. Possibly because they haven’t been trained to in games in general to because this game is so unique.

Chivalry: Medieval Warfare (2012)

This came along a little later. While Mount & Blade is a strategy/RPG game, this is focussed purely on single level skirmishes (90% of them in multiplayer, though you can practice against bots). This game went further and added a feint move. For a small stamina cost, you could try to trick a player into blocking. Blocking with a blade works as a single move when you click. You click to block, and block for about a second, then have a second of recovery before you can block again. This makes the feint pretty useful to force a block then attack during the recovery time, but it’s not very realistic as a real opponent could just hold their block.
With a shield you can hold your block indefinitely unless you are kicked, but without the shield you automatically drop the block. 

Nicely, you can also use mouse wheel down to perform an overhead smash, or mouse wheel forward to stab forward. This feels pretty good to use and also does a little to remove some of the button mashing problems, but again, this game suffers in large multiplayer battles from players just charging and clicking, without using any blocking or feints in most cases. 
Also, because you can’t hold a block, if you’re outnumbered you’ve no way to block two attacks at once and will nearly always lose. This encourages swarm tactics as the main gameplay and a lot of the sword fighting nuances are lost. If players are outnumbered, you’ll usually just see them running backwards away and blocking, hoping to find some friendly players. (Perhaps these types of games should make it so if you’re running backwards and hit a low obstacle you fall over).

The part of this game I find the best for sword fighting are the one on one multiplayer duels against a human opponent. Since you can’t get bum rushed by one guy, you can actually focus on them and use feints, kicks, and parries much more effectively.

So those are two good sword games. They do a lot to “cheat” and deliver a lot of the realities and considerations of sword fighting into a virtual space, but they still don’t come close to simulating real sword fighting. Nothing I’ve seen so far has been able to balance the strategy, the mind games, the body language reading, the stamina factors, the shock to your arm of a blade impact, the stances, speed, and reactions of real sword fighting. 

If I could explain it in just one way, I’d sum the problem up thus: In real sword fighting, you could be thinking of striking, but worried that you’re becoming predictable and that your opponent might be ready to parry and riposte while you’re off balance in a lunge. You sacrifice your block for an attack, and it also costs you stamina. Real sword fighting is as much about dozens of tiny choices every moment as it is about delivering well-practised attacks. In games, while stamina is now often taken into account, most players still just attack madly because left clicking isn’t as hard as as a lunge attack. Some fighters I’ve known in real life do attack just wildly, but in real life you can beat them easily with just a little skill whereas in a game, they’ve often just chosen the winning tactic. 

The Future

There is a greater awareness coming back to the mechanics of sword games, and many different titles in the coming years will try to tackle to problem in their own unique ways. I’m excited to play all of them.

For Honor

This game looks like a lot of fun. I can’t wait to try it. I would say that its focus is on delivering large scale sword battles. This is pretty unique. We tend to see the large battle in a cutscene or the background and then just fight a couple of guys in the game. It has a new(ish?) take on sword combat where you attack or defend from one of three zones on your body: up, lower left and lower right.

You read where the opponent is aiming for by their body language, and you try to defend into your corresponding zone by moving the control stick to that area. I see this as being more of a step towards sword combat from a hack and slash game than I see it as a sword fighting simulation, but it’s still great to see. The emphasis seems to be too much on a broader battle and third person action (I think first person is important to simulate any real life action, personally) to convince me that this is the game I was always pining for, but it looks awesome for what it is and I can’t wait to try! I particularly appreciate that you have to read body language and adjust your block to succeed. This is very important.

Kingdom Come: Deliverance

Now these are the guys I think are going to come closest to delivering a good sword fighting experience any time soon. You can see from the video above that they take it very seriously.

I backed them on Kickstarter because of the promise of delivering unique sword fighting. The currently available build is Alpha 0.4, the first version where you can see their sword fighting in action. I played it today (and many of the other games I mentioned) as prep for this article.

Even at the early stages, I can see a lot of promise in the fighting. I was able to slash with the left mouse, stab with the right, or block with Q. All of this from 6 different zones. You are locked onto your opponent, something that serves to simplify your movement and direct your attention. I’m not sure if I like this, though. You only fight one enemy at a time currently, but I wonder what happens when there are multiple enemies.

You can do the normal things like feint, block, attack, but depending on your timing with your block or movement you can also sidestep or dodge a strike and then counter-attack, all through a smooth procedural animation system. It is the smoothest flowing combat I’ve seen and there’s enough going on that there is really room to improve your skills through practice (and the RPG stats level-up system in the game), but I would have preferred a non-locked camera. You need to be able to check your surroundings in a fight, even just quickly. I presume the game will have a disengage kind of command, because most of the game is free roaming anyway, but it wasn’t in what I played today. There was also no kick, though that may appear. What I didn’t love was that I seemed to sometimes be able to just hold block to defend an attack from any direction, and other times I couldn’t, so I’m not sure which way the game is going with this. See a gameplay video from the alpha below.

To wrap up, where are we lacking?

Knowing where to block is probably the single largest gap between real sword fighting and what most games do. In reality, you could hold a block, but there’s nine directions you could get attacked from (assuming the enemy is only in front of you then it’s left, right, or middle times high, low, or middle; 3×3), and then they could ‘disengage’ the attack and stab around your parry anyway (with certain weapons like a foil or epee, look it up) to nullify even that block. Most games just let you press block and you’re fine.

Games are supposed to be ‘fun’ (many say, anyway). When I shot clay pigeons in real life, the shooting wasn’t great fun. It hurt (the kickback is enormous)! The fun part was seeing a moving target down range explode into clay fragments. Shooting guns in games is fun because we’ve nailed how they sound and the environmental destruction and death animations.
When I did fencing, I found the most fun part was successfully parrying an attack (giving me the satisfaction of knowing that I was smart enough and quick enough to deflect a real physical attack) and for bonus points, landing the riposte. A bit like how in tennis the most fun part is the back and forth, not the actual scoring of a point.

I think that most people who have designed sword fighting in games must not have done fencing, or if they did then they didn’t remember what was most fun about it. Most of the time the systems seem to be designed around causing damage. I think it should be more about the clash of the blades. The back and forth. You really only need to hit a person once with a sword to end the fight. That should be the result of successfully winning the more fun part of the fight, not the whole focus of the fight, if you ask me. Certainly it would make for a more unique angle to your sword fighting game, and we definitely have the technology to fake these results well, as long as they’re well balanced and play-tested.

Food for thought.. For more, read this great (and shorter) PC Gamer article on the subject.

Until next time..

Oculus Rift: The Latest (get it?)

 Click for Oculus website

.. well, if you do get it, then maybe you know already, but Oculus VR have just put out a statement this week saying that the consumer version of their Oculus Rift virtual reality headset (final, ready one) will be available some time in the first three months of 2016, with pre-orders being taken at the end of this year. More info on pricing and features will likely be revealed at E3 in June.

My immediate reaction to this was “what’s taking them so long? They’re losing market share”. Oculus had its successful Kickstarter campaign in late 2012. Okay so inventing a new type of hardware that you blindfold yourself with and move around virtual worlds in without throwing up is something that hasn’t been done before and takes time. Nobody expected it to be fast, but it takes lots of time apparently, and nobody yet knows how much because the headsets aren’t finished yet. From a consumer perspective, I initially expected to have one some time in 2014, then they were going to be available in 2015, and now, supposedly, sometime in early 2016. To be fair, Oculus’ stance has always been that they’ll release it “when it’s ready” and fair play to them for their caution. They’ve stated that they don’t want to kill the potential VR market by releasing a bad product, which is basically why VR never took off in the 90s. 

So as to development, the things that have taken them so long basically come down to investigating every possible hardware and software avenue of reducing latency. Latency is the delay between you moving, and you seeing the world move around you on-screen. Real life has zero latency, so that’s what your inner ear expects. VR has several milliseconds worth at the best of times, and this is what causes motion sickness. One of the crucial things that Oculus did in their process was to partner with Samsung, so they could have the use of their proprietary OLED screen technology, used in Galaxy devices, which, without me getting technical, makes looking at VR easier/faster/less nauseating.

 VR isn't all about games. Check out this meditative VR experience, Deep, in which you control the relaxing experience with deep diaphragmatic breathing. Click the image to open in new window.
VR isn’t all about games. Check out this meditative VR experience, Deep, in which you control the relaxing experience with deep diaphragmatic breathing. Click the image to open in new window.

After doing that, though, it seems they diverted their attention partly towards getting the Samsung Gear VR headset developed. A prototype version (Innovator Edition) is currently available to consumers, with the full version set for a late 2015 release. Pricing is about £169, or around €200, but it only works with a Galaxy Note 4 or the S6 (different version of headset) which you slot into the devices. If you don’t have the phone, this makes the headset something like an €800 prospect though. Software for the device is somewhat limited but there’s enough to play with already with so much more on the way. We see with mobile apps and games how the mobile phone is king and PC and console experiences simply must take the back seat. The Oculus Rift product will undoubtedly lose some of its potential buyers to its mobile-arena sibling, but can cornering both sides of the market be called a bad strategy? Did this segue give other companies the time to get their own offerings up and running before Oculus?

Oculus undoubtedly spearheaded the new VR initiative. Their Kickstarter campaign in late 2012, asking for $250k, raised almost $2.5m, and the world took note. Facebook acquired Oculus for $2bn in 2014 and then the world really copped on. Since then there have been a slew of announcements of similar products, with most major tech brands having an offering (even if Google’s seems to be just a piece of cardboard for your phone). 

The real pity about Oculus’ 2016 release date is that Oculus, arguably the driving force that has made VR a virtual (pun intended) reality won’t even be the first to market in their tier.

Valve (have you heard of ‘Steam’? Yes you have) have partnered with HTC, one of Samsung’s top mobile competitors, to bring us the HTC (re)Vive, which is compatible with the Steam gaming platform. The Vive had a very strong reveal in March, with all reports being that the current prototype is blowing Oculus’ older Crystal Cove (Dev Kit 2) prototype out of the water. Not that that is any indication of the final quality, but it does put the Vive on the map.

Sony have revealed their Project Morpheus headset for Playstation 4 which will also release in early 2016, and Microsoft have their HoloLens offering, which you can see through. The HoloLens augments your view, instead of replacing it. Quite a different product but in a nearby field, without a release date as of yet.

Each set has their own particular input devices, not all of which have been seen yet. Prices for the headsets and controllers haven’t been announced but the Oculus is expected to be cheaper than the Vive at approx $300 vs $450. If this is the case, will the lower price and Facebook’s backing be enough for Oculus to keep market share waiting for them into 2016, while people are already playing with the Vive? Likely it will, but being beaten to market when they proved that there was a viable market in the first place has got to sting Oculus’ pride, as well as their bottom line.

I, for one, am very excited that the VR age has nearly arrived, but I’ll probably, like many, be adopting a wait-and-see approach before deciding which project to drop the big bucks into some time in the middle of next year.

What do you think? What games can you not wait to try in VR? Do you care at all? Do discuss in the comments.