A Mech of my own: We play Hawken with the Oculus Rift, and it’s as good as you hope
The final Rift development kit is heavier than the hardware I’ve used before, but an extra strap helps to alleviate any discomfort. The new screen is larger than earlier prototypes, but features the same amount of pixels, leading to a lower pixel density. Both of these things are expected to be improved before the retail unit lands in the hands of customers in the future.
“You wouldn’t believe the analysis we do on every piece of plastic on here to reduce weight. When every gram counts, and the screen is 90 grams heavier than the prototype, you get a little frustrated,” Nate Mitchell, vice president of product for Oculus VR, said. “We’re getting there. We’ll get back.”
They weren’t using the adjustable eye cups in the demo, but I was still able to use the Rift with my glasses. I’m not saying it was 100 percent comfortable, but it was very doable. I’ll be able to experiment more when my own dev kits arrives, hopefully near the end of the month.
The good news is that I was able to experience what it felt like to pilot a Mech.
The belly of the beast
The version of Hawken on display features a brand-new 3D cockpit, and we’re used to playing Mech games in which we feel like we are the Mech itself. The camera and the aiming controls are linked together. We push forward on our keyboard or controller to move forward. Piloting a Mech in Hawken in virtual reality is a very different experience; you are acutely aware that you are a person inside a large piece of thudding, heavy, violent machinery.
I played with a controller, and found myself walking in a canal on the city streets while turning my head left and right to look for enemy Mechs. This is another very odd feeling. I wasn’t moving any of my weapons or the Mech itself when I adjusted my view, I was merely looking out of the glass of my cockpit to try to find out where the enemy was located. I could look to my left after firing a missile, and watch the mechanism reload to get the next shot ready. The game is filled with tiny details that you may not notice in the standard version.
I practiced with the jump jets, and flew high into the air to land on ledges and roofs of buildings high above the city. One of my favorite things was to jump off, look down, and just fall. The effect is reminiscent of the PlayStation classic Jumping Flash, and it left me feeling shaky and a little ill. You certainly do have the feeling of falling, and my fear of heights was something I had to actively deal with when playing the game. While the resolution was running at 720p and the new screen introduced a fair amount of grain to the image, it was easy to ignore. The illusion of actually being there, inside the Mech, was hard to shake.
The machine was running a GTX 680 in terms of graphics, and my own system is running a 580. “We’ve pretty much used 680s the whole time,” Mitchell explained. I asked if my graphics card was up to the challenge: The game needs to run at a nice resolution, at 60 frames per second. Anything less is hard on your eyes.
“It’s totally dependent of the content in the game,” he replied. “You can tweak some settings and probably bring it in line. That’s one of the great things about the PC platform, you can even tweak your aliasing settings to get more performance.”
There is something very disconcerting about listening to the audio of my meeting while writing this story. I can hear myself grunt, react in fear, and shift in my seat as I play. It’s hard to remember that there are people around you who are watching you play. Even without headphones blocking out ambient sound I was able to get lost in the virtual city while sitting inside my Mech.
“This is not like Doom 3, this is you looking around a cockpit. Which is a more natural experience. You’re sitting in a chair, this does lead to a more intuitive approach,” Mitchell said.
Oculus has been working with the Hawken devs to create this version of the game, and it’s an amazing experience.
The Rift SDK that will come with the developer kits will also be incredibly full-featured, with support for both Unity and the Unreal Development Kit. That means any developer with any experience in those two engines will be able to begin designing Rift-enabled games quickly and easily. Mitchell told me that it would only take an hour or so of tutorials for a brand new designer to create a room in the Unreal Engine, run around it in the Rift, and begin to design their own environments.
For now though, I’m sold on Hawken. The screen is still light enough that you don’t notice much strain on your neck with the new strap, although I’m looking forward to testing for an hour or more instead of just 15 minutes. The pixel density could be higher, but I still felt like I was inside the game, rather than viewing it through the window of a standard monitor.
I turned my head to the left to watch my machine guns fire round after round into a nearby building.