Playing an actual game with Oculus Rift: hands-on with Valve's Team Fortress 2 'VR Mode'

Valve's free-to-play first-person shooter, Team Fortress 2, is getting Oculus Rift support with its VR Mode update in the coming weeks. Think of it as a large beta test -- Oculus Rift dev kits ship to Kickstarter backers and Team Fortress 2 players on PC can snag a free update, thus feeding Valve valuable feedback on how people play TF2 with VR. The only thing left to know is perhaps the most important: how does it play?

We found out just that on a recent visit to Valve's Bellevue, Wash., offices, where Valve programmer Joe Ludwig lead us through a hands-on demo of the game's VR Mode update on a near-final build of the Oculus Rift dev kit (not quite the one shipping to backers, but far more advanced than the previous Oculus prototypes we've used). Follow us beyond the break for detailed impressions of playing an actual game (read: not just tech demos) with the Oculus Rift VR headset.%Gallery-183116%

Playing an actual game with Oculus Rift handson with Valve's Team Fortress 2 'VR Mode'

We initially piloted a Heavy class, supported by and playing against bots on Payload map "Gold Rush." Ludwig intentionally eased us in with the game's slowest moving character. That's primarily due to the need to acclimate players to the speedy movement of TF2 in a VR setting over longer periods of time. "We found that most people have some level of discomfort after playing for 20 or so minutes the first time," Ludwig told us. Our experience wasn't quite that long, but we didn't experience any motion sickness during the hands-on.

The game is playable in VR, but it isn't designed for VR.

The characteristic reaction to using Oculus with any game world is still a stark one -- the initial feeling of being instantly teleported is jarring, and the most immediately impressive part of the Oculus Rift. However, that's a measure of the hardware, not Team Fortress 2. Playing TF2 is actually quite different from the various tech demos that we've seen from Oculus. Rather than exploring the environment and paying attention to little details, we were immediately thrust into multiplayer. The experience went from one of exploration in the tech demo to one of gimmickry in TF2 -- the game's VR Mode is little more than a new window for viewing the game, and has almost no impact (at least in our demo) on gameplay.

You can turn your head to turn in-game, and you can freely aim all over the generous field of view without altering said field of view -- the latter feels akin to playing an FPS on Nintendo's original Wii, albeit far more accurate. We're told that VR Mode will ship with a few other options for interaction with the game through Rift, offering variations on the way we played. The standard setup has look-dictating movement direction, meaning that innovative uses of Rift, like moving forward while shooting sideways (by looking sideways with your head, as shooting is mapped to the mouse), won't work.

Playing an actual game with Oculus Rift handson with Valve's Team Fortress 2 'VR Mode'

Of course, TF2 wasn't built for use with VR; sure, the game is playable in VR, but it isn't designed for VR. Resultantly, the experience reflects that reality. There's little opportunity to explore TF2's world given the fast-paced nature of the game, and there's little incentive to do so for the same reason. Exploration and immersion are the two most impressive aspects of Oculus Rift -- arguably its defining features -- and Team Fortress 2's VR Mode highlights neither. That said, TF2's VR Mode isn't meant as a tech demo for the Oculus Rift, but as a test bed for Valve's games in VR; it doesn't need to sell the Rift, either, given that only dev kits are available, purchased by developers and those already sold on the technology.

So, what does TF2's VR Mode offer folks who're getting a Rift dev kit in the coming weeks? Beyond acting as a demonstration of how a first-person shooter works in VR, it's a pretty strong warning that ports of existing games don't necessarily take advantage of the Rift's strengths. It also serves as the only full game playable using the Rift at launch, giving eager non-dev backers something to do while they wait for more content.

And it demonstrates that even a fast, frantic shooter like Team Fortress 2 can work with VR, even if it's a bit underwhelming. It's early days for VR -- at least the latest incarnation -- and TF2's port is a reflection of that. We're more excited for what fruit this giant beta test bears than we are to play existing titles with a new headset, and it's good to hear that Valve is too. When asked about the market potential of VR, Ludwig addressed the concerns we're voicing here over TF2:

I think that probably the amount of content that's available is actually a much bigger barrier than the price. Even at a few hundred dollars, there are a lot of people who can spare a few hundred dollars; $300 or whatever, if it's a thing that they're really interested in.

[Image credit: Michael Clinard]