It’s easy to forget what VR gaming is all about. The hunt for deeper, longer experiences often leaves us chasing well-worn cliches: multi-hour epics with character progression, cinematic action sequences, stat buffs and complex systems.
These are all well and good and can lead to rich, moreish games, but too often we see them taking precedent over the features that are truly unique to the platform. Zenith is a fine MMO and certainly benefits from additional VR features, but in its current state you could hash out a fairly comparable flatscreen version of most of the game. Cities: VR has the joy of realizing the Skylines experience in 3D, but the original offers a deeper, more technically proficient game. Only rarely are we seeing titles that could truly only be done in VR.
Two promising new games reminded me of that this week.
They were Kayak VR: Mirage and Blacktop Hoops respectively. Kayak is a visually-arresting tour of the world by water with smart, authentic controls, whereas Blacktop has the beginnings of VR’s most physical and enjoyable take on basketball yet.
If you’ve played Phantom: Covert Ops then you’ll have a headstart with Kayak VR. Developed by Better Than Life, the game uses your VR motion controllers as paddles to realistically navigate crystal-clear waters. This isn’t just about holding forwards on a gamepad and watching the camera glide past; every stroke is accurately calculated to mirror real-world movements. Dip your paddle deeper into the water and make a wider stroke and you’ll move quicker than you would if you made a fast, shallow movement. Hold it still on one side and you’ll steer yourself in the given direction.
Even navigating the straight segments of a river is an achievement here, and your reward is some of the most stunning sights you’ll find in VR. Similar to when you finish a gruelling hike or bike ride, stumbling upon these places comes with a sense of pride and accomplishment and you can feel yourself slowly start to improve your technique the more you play. That’s a very rare, and meaningful thing in any game, letalone VR.
Currently the Kayak VR’s planned for an early access release on Steam in June with a handful of maps, race modes and free roam options.
Blacktop Hoops, meanwhile, is Vinci Games’ effort to bring at least a bit of the playful culture and exhausting intensity of street basketball to headsets. It needs a bit of polishing, but there’s something special at the core.
Unlike other VR basketball games, for example, Blacktop dares to be about more than simply shooting hoops. There’s a dribbling system that is smartly somewhat magnatized; the ball tends to snap back to your hand and will even stay there for a second or two before you throw it back down. It’s a little sticky and takes some getting used to — especially if you want to pull off tricks — but it feels like Vinci is really onto something here.
It’s even better being on the attack; trying to swipe the ball out of your opponent’s hand is a concentrated moment of focus, the exact same type you’d apply to real life, and you have a real sense of your physical presence in the world as you try and block the ball.
Perhaps my favorite part, though, is the experience. Allow your opponent to score and they’ll get up in your face to brag, conjuring a genuine rivalry between you and an AI opponent. It helps, too, that the game is absolutely gorgeous in its own right, which a wonderfully realized street-side court and diverse crowds of onlookers.
The controls definitely need a little work; jumping with the click of a stick isn’t the best button layout, as I’d normally press it in expecting to sprint and unexpectedly leaping into the air. Similarly, the grip button is an odd place to toggle running. Overall there’s just a little too much finger-knotting going on. The more Blacktop can remove its dependency on button inputs and hone in on intuitive gestures like the dribbling, the better it’ll be. But even in its current state it’s the best expression of basketball in VR I’ve seen.
Two very different games, then, and two very compelling reminders of where the real magic of VR lies. If both Kayak VR and Blacktop Hops can make it to full release with robust offerings and refined controls then they could join the ranks of Walkabout, Golf+ and Eleven Table Tennis; games that get damn real close to the real thing. It’s nice to be reminded that contemporary VR is capable of that, every once in a while.