Bethesda has given some of its biggest games a VR makeover. Are the results any good?
Bethesda’s 2016 revamp of Doom was a brilliantly paced shooter; constantly edging the player forward with its clever decision to turn staggered enemies into walking health packs. And the studio’s 2011 title The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim remains one of the richest, most accessible open-world games to date. Both work perfectly well on screen, and Bethesda is now bringing each, along with Fallout 4, into virtual reality. Will they translate? Or will the flow and control be lost among the comedic arm flailing?
At a recent hands-on event, I was able to run through a sample of Skyrim VR and Doom VFR games. Seeing as the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR all currently lack definitive reasons to invest in a VR headset, there’s been a sizeable amount of interest in whether these meaty titles will make for convincing virtual-reality experiences. Below are my thoughts on each.
Despite its hyperbolically macho, gun-toting appearance, Doom is all about traversing the game’s labyrinthine spaces; ricocheting from one brawl to another with all the grace of a dancer. It should, by all accounts, be the absolute worst game to recreate in virtual reality – which tends to work better with slower, room-sized interactions.
Bethesda gets around this in Doom VFR (the F stands for fucking) by changing the dynamic from the 2016 game. Instead of plonking the whole game in VR, a handful of specially chosen environments have been selected and stitched together in a vague narrative about robots. Instead of running around the level, the player teleports from point to point, with the action slowed down as they aim for a place to move.
Played with the HTC Vive, this system is helped by allowing the player to spin 360 degrees, aiming with one hand and chucking grenades with the other. You can even pull off the equivalent of Doom’s Glory Kills by teleporting inside a staggered enemy – exploding them in a shower of entrails. Neat-o.
It’s fun enough, but I found it hard to imagine playing for more than a handful of minutes. Its creators have done an impressive job of thinking about how Doom’s space could translate to VR while reducing nausea, but the teleport system sacrifices one of the reboot’s staples: a sense of flow. Zipping between locations lets you traverse the environment, but you’ll generally be shooting with your feet firmly anchored to the ground. This ultimately means you feel less like a nimble soldier and more like a clunky turret, limply throwing air grenades.
While Bethesda has rejigged Doom into a new shape for Doom VFR, the meat and bones of Skyrim VR remain largely unchanged from the six-year-old game. There are hundreds of hours of gameplay here, from the main story through to the DLC expansions. While it sometimes feels like Skyrim has been rolled out on every platform imaginable, its sheer size still makes it one of the most substantial offerings for VR yet.
The first thing you notice when you don the PlayStation VR headset, however, is the very low resolution the game needs to run at to work with the hardware. The good news is this manages to keep frame rate running at a decent speed, but if you’re expecting a visual experience on par with Skyrim as you’ve known it on PC and consoles, you’ll be disappointed. The game is also planned for release next year on HTC Vive, but for now it is a PlayStation exclusive.
While it’s fun to shoot electricity from your palms, the combat lacks any real sense of precision. Swordplay is a fumble of swipes and stabs, and teleporting feels awkward – particularly when you have to be constantly facing forward for the PSVR to pick up your gestures. At the same time, I found the whole experience to be hilarious in a cartoonish way, particularly when you let an arrow rip right in front of a bandit’s face. One of the great things about Skyrim is how it accommodates such a wide variety of weird, smaller experiences, and there is definitely room for VR in amongst all of that.
Like Doom VFR, this is a game that clearly hasn’t been designed from the ground up for VR. Instead of playing through the entirety of the game in virtual reality, I could imagine trying small sections of the sprawling adventure in a VR headset, swapping back and forth much like Resident Evil 7.
Indeed, both games feel very much like a stopgap for virtual-reality gaming. It’s fun to play with familiar mechanics in an immersive environment, but it often feels like Bethesda is jamming a square peg into a round hole. It’s perhaps a wider symptom of the industry’s apprehension, albeit an understandable one, towards creating VR titles for a small audience of headset owners. But what’s really needed is a braver step – or even teleport – forwards.