Sampling VR Mechanics In Valve's 'The Lab' VR Demos

A few weeks ago, Valve announced that it would be showing a series of new demos collectively called The Lab. At GDC, my meeting with the company was a brief 30 minutes, but it was more than enough to showcase what The Lab has in store for future Vive owners.

The experience started in a room deep within the Aperture Science offices. Two figures used an orb to travel to a new location. This would be the game’s method of traveling to a new demo. I grabbed the orb and “pressed” it onto my face, and I was whisked away to The Lab’s first stop.

A Breathtaking View

To my surprise, the first stop wasn’t a fictional place. Instead, I was treated to a digital recreation of Vesper Peak in Washington. As I surveyed my surroundings, I also noticed that I wasn’t alone. A small and slinky robotic dog approached me. I grabbed a nearby stick and played fetch with it for a short time. Aside from the initial landing area, I could also teleport to other parts of the mountain to get a higher vantage point or a different view altogether.

This was a reminder that VR isn’t just limited to games. It can take you to locations that you never thought you would ever see up close. I may not ever visit Vesper Peak in my life, but at least I have an idea of what it’s like to be on top of that mountain, thanks to virtual reality.

Throw Robots...For Science

After some time in Vesper Peak, I grabbed the teleportation orb, and it brought me back to another part of the Aperture Science complex. In Slingshot, I could control a mechanized (you guessed it) slingshot. The contraption would automatically load a spherical robot, similar to Wheatley from Portal 2. The rest of the room was littered with piles of boxes, and I would launch each robot in an effort to topple down as many boxes as possible.

By far, this was the most fun part of The Lab. Each robot had its own personality. One thought it was part of a Western movie, and another was a very bad comedian. However, each one immediately realized their doom the moment it was shot out from the large slingshot, which made it even funnier to launch them to the other end of the room. To the right of the device was a small window that told me the amount of damage I caused. In the end, I racked up over $5 million in damages, and I didn’t want to stop.

Even though there wasn’t too much to do in the level other than throw robots, I enjoyed every minute of it. The gameplay was simple, yet addictive, and the personalities of each robot added some humor to the experience.

Defend The Castle

At first, Longbow presented itself in the same way as Defense Grid 2: Enhanced VR Edition did on the Oculus Rift. I saw a miniature scale model of a small castle. I pressed a button on the Vive controller and warped myself onto the castle ramparts, where I would be the sole defender against an army of invaders.

Armed with my virtual bow and arrow, I attempted to take out as many enemies as possible before they reached the castle door. Various traps were placed in crucial areas in case the situation got out of hand. For example, I hit a target above the castle wall to drench the enemies at the gate with hot tar. Another location had a pile of explosive barrels, and I waited patiently before blowing it up, taking two or three foes with it.

Unlike Slingshot, which you could play with one hand, Longbow required both controllers to work. Once again, I was surprised by the arrow’s overall accuracy. Accounting for the overall trajectory, I could easily visualize where the arrow would land. For VR, that’s quite an achievement. Being able to actually aim at something with your virtual eyes is impressive, and Longbow showed that it can work perfectly in the digital world.

Fly A Ship With Your Hand

The final demo was called Xortex, and in it, you grab a small spaceship with your hand and guide it through the small area to take out enemy ships while dodging deadly laser shots. The best way to describe it would be a modern version of Galaga, but in a VR environment. I could easily navigate my ship around the area. Even though the enemy shots didn’t inflict damage on me, I still felt inclined to dodge as many shots as I could while I positioned my ship to take the killing shots on enemies big and small.

Just like Slingshot, Xortex was hard to put down. It was very exciting and showed the potential of what developers can do in such a small space instead of traversing the entire scale of the room.

The demo finished up, and I grabbed the orb for one final time. I was transported to an area called the Hub, which contained other orbs that would lead back to the previous demos. However, before I had a chance to revisit some of the more memorable parts, The Lab was over.

A Good Starting Point

When The Lab arrives on Steam later this spring, users will be able to pick it up for free, which can be considered an appropriate move on Valve’s part. It can be used as a showcase for first-time VR users. Instead of dropping them onto a full title, beginners can start learning about the various VR mechanics with this series of demos.

In other words, think of it as the modern-day version of demo discs from previous consoles. Before you decide to invest in a VR game, The Lab provides a taste of what’s possible in VR. Some prefer traveling to iconic places from the real world,  while others seek an escape from it with a fun mini-game. If The Lab doesn’t convince you that virtual reality is quite fun, then I don’t know what will make you believe.

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