Jumping into Minecraft VR Edition
John Carmack himself would probably recommend Minecraft VR Edition as one of the best ways to introduce kids to VR. He calls it "the best thing to come out on Oculus," after all, and a lot of kids seem to think Minecraft is pretty okay, too. I don't think Minecraft needs further introduction, but there are some specifics about the VR Edition that are worth mentioning. For starters, it's based on, and has the same features as, the Pocket Edition of Minecraft for phones and tablets. That also makes it the same as the Windows 10 Edition beta version of the game. All of those versions are cross-platform multiplayer compatible, something we took full advantage of to pull off our party. Cross-platform play with consoles is coming soon.
Initial impressions from loading up Minecraft in VR are pretty smile-inducing. The render distance isn't very distant, but otherwise everything looks great. A game like Minecraft and its low resolution textures is the perfect fit for the highly magnified pixels that come with VR headsets. Once you're strapped in, the scale of the Minecraft world will hit you right away, Minecraft blocks are supposed to be one meter square, and you start to feel pretty high in the air or deep underground as soon as you start building or digging. Mobs (in-game monsters) are more or less life-size, too, enough to make you a little jumpy the first time a spider comes at you. The low draw distance keeps the frame rate smooth, but the Galaxy S6 I was using was working hard to churn out those frames. It ate through the phone's battery incredibly quickly. Though I didn't have problems with overheating phones, throttling is commonly reported by others online. As one would expect from the Minecraft community, there are some creative solutions to throttling. (Read the user reviews at that link.)
Coming from the old-school PC version with mouse and keyboard controls, playing Minecraft with a controller was a little awkward. That wouldn't be a problem if you were used to the console version already, but it made everything feel really slow to me. Playing Minecraft in VR was straightforward enough, but the controller requirement often made me want to end my sessions with it fairly quickly. It's probably a good thing that using a controller slowed me down and kept me playing in short bursts though—I'm pretty sure that longer sessions would have made me very, very motion sick.
Minecraft VR Edition offers a number of was to help you avoid motion sickness. Each method requires different sacrifices. By default, you start playing the game in a virtual room, sitting in a virtual chair, starring at a huge virtual screen that takes up most of your field of view. Critically, though, the rest of the space you are in is static. As you play the game, you're not whipping the entire world around in front of your eyes—you're just playing on a big screen. This is the mildest way to play Minecraft in VR, and I don't expect many people would have problems with it as long as they were sitting still. I don't expect many people would prefer this method to just playing on a physical screen or other ways of playing in VR, though.
If you tap the side of the headset by the directional pad, your view zooms into the virtual screen until you're fully-immersed in the Minecraft world. I expect this is how most people will want to play to get the "true" experience of Minecraft in VR. Within this mode there are two options for control. The first, "VR Controls," intentionally breaks the smooth motion of your camera control using the thumb stick and forces your view to hop through different preset angles. I suppose it's less intense to play this way, but it feels a lot like a side effect of a choppy frame rate or really bad frame times. The rest of the game is running smoothly, though, something you can verify by watching mobs move or looking around by turning your head. The second mode, Classic, allows the traditional console controls to behave normally, with no imposed limitation on the movement of the camera. Unfortunately, neither mode kept me from feeling queasy.
Here's the deal. I'm completely spoiled. If VR is a niche, then I'm operating in a niche of a niche. For what it is, the Gear VR and Minecraft VR Edition work together to offer a pretty cool experience. However, neither of them have the features they need to make me truly happy playing them. The first problem is easy to relate: since the Gear VR doesn't have any means of external head tracking, your perception of the world is simply not 1:1 with the movement of your head. It's good—quite good, actually—but it's not perfect, and the gaps in its tracking are more than enough to cause problems.
Without true head tracking, there's simply an entire dimension missing from the experience one might get from a Rift or Vive. You can pivot and rotate your view all you want (I found a swivel chair practically essential to get the best experience), but if you lean forward to look at something it won't come the correct distance towards you. All the instances of that problem add up, and, at least for me, are a big part of why I can't play with the Gear VR for very long.
The bigger problem for me is that I flat out can't stand playing an FPS in VR if it isn't decoupled. I know, almost no one reading this will be able to relate, but it is a huge deal. It would be like trying to go back to a mechanical boot drive after being used to an SSD. When I was playing Minecraft in VR it was positively infuriating to be walking along, turn my head to look at something, and then find myself walking in the direction I was looking in. That is not how people work in the real world. If you want to look at something and walk in a different direction, you have to compensate using the camera controls. That puts what you are doing in the game at odds with what you are doing in real life and, as far as I'm concerned, that's the reason for VR motion sickness in a nutshell.
As an entry-level VR experience and a game limited by the hardware's abilities, I can't really knock the Gear VR or Minecraft VR Edition for not fully tracking head and body position. I still think it's worth mentioning though, because both the Rift and the Vive can at least partially avoid this problem in their titles if the software developers are so inclined.
Of course, just because I pack some unusual baggage doesn't mean others have to feel the same way. Let's see how our testing panel of kids felt about the Minecraft VR experience.
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