EGX 2015: Virtual reality stands out as HTC, Sony and Oculus ready gaming headsets

A sea of traditional — but huge — gaming releases are being joined by whole new platforms

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The Independent Tech

EGX 2015 graced Birmingham’s NEC for the first time since the event’s move from its usual home in the now defunct chambers of Earl’s Court, but the familiar sight of long queues of gamers, eager to try out current and upcoming titles proved that much of the event’s luster hadn’t been lost in the transition. With a stark amount of AAA publishers holding back their biggest future hitters from this year’s show, much of the floor space was relinquished to an increasingly large focus on indie games, YouTube Gaming showcases and most notably the public arrival of the industry’s prospective ‘next-big-thing’: VR.

While Oculus Rift has been a mainstay of the event for the past two years, it was its two closest challengers that drew the most attention with HTC and Valve’s Vive and Sony’s PlayStation VR leaving attendees without pre-booked appointments clamouring for the chance at sneaking in a quick demo. While I fell foul of the booking system for the latter, HTC’s booth kindly ushered me into one of its darkened rooms and the result was frankly mind blowing. With four tech demos on display - each of which highlighted a different aspect of the technology’s potential – Vive certainly appears to be the most progressive of the VR headsets looming on the horizon. The ability to walk freely within the boundaries of an artificial world, untethered from chairs and flatscreen televisions (if not from a rather intrusive cable protruding Matrix-style from the back of your head) is an experience that feels oddly naturalistic in spite of the often alien surroundings.

Whether you’re recoiling from the underwater appearance of a titanic whale that drifts past after stopping momentarily to face you eye-to-eye, painting in full 3D or witnessing the cyber-sardonic wit of Portal’s GLaDOS first-hand in the demonstration’s coup-de-grace, the HTC Vive is a spectacular showcase of an industry still intrinsically fueled by the potential of technology. Although the PlayStation VR – recently rebranded from Morpheus – will likely trump the VR crowd due to its expansive user-base and reduced barrier to entry (i.e. it doesn’t require a completely empty living room), judged solely on my short time with it, Vive’s illusion of reality is the closest gaming has come to dispensing with the need for any form of suspension of disbelief.

In the present however, EGX’s showcase of the next six months of gaming releases was, well, mixed. While indie games like Prison Architect (complete with a glorious prison-cellblock stall to boot) and the Dark Souls-esque isometric action-RPG Eitr stood out amongst the burgeoning Rezzed and Leftfield Collection zones, the general feel of the big budget titles can be summed up in two words: safe and steady.

The recently delayed Starfox Zero gave the impression that muted early previews have been resoundingly on point. While not helped by the fact that one mission is essentially a copy-paste job of a level from Starfox 64 (known on our shores as Lylat Wars), the Miyamoto-produced shooter whiffs of stale design choices, irksome gyroscopic controls and lifeless graphics. While Xenoblade Chronicles X was better received by the Nintendo faithful, many will be hoping that the magicians in Kyoto are hard at work on their next console, the NX, in the hope it might see the light of day at EGX 2016.

With Microsoft proclaiming on posters around the UK that it has the “biggest line-up in Xbox history” hitting shelves in the coming months, it came as little surprise that its golden trifecta of Forza Motorsport 6, Halo 5: Guardians and Rise of the Tomb Raider were present and accounted for. With time at a premium I opted for Lara Croft’s latest Xbox One timed-exclusive adventure due this November. A sequel to the well-received, multiplatform series reboot from 2013, judging from the demo, developer Crystal Dynamics has certainly listened to fan feedback about the bizarre lack of tombs in its predecessor, with crypts, ancient statues and archaic booby traps all making a comeback from the Tomb Raider games of old. With familiar gameplay and a penchant for putting its heroine in grave peril, Rise of the Tomb Raider shows enough promise to be called a genuine competitor to Naughty Dog’s upcoming Uncharted 4, set for release in March 2016.

Away from PlayStation VR, Sony opted to show off recently released games on its home platform with Metal Gear Solid V, Destiny: The Taken King, Mad Max, Rocket League and Until Dawn all on display. The snaking trail of people surrounding the stand, however, had one game in mind: Star Wars: Battlefront. Easily the most sought-after game of the show, Battlefront offered gameplay snippets in two varieties with a stall for a co-op, horde-mode style encounter and a separate, infinitely more popular showing of a 20 v 20 competitive multiplayer battle. Blasters, stormtroopers, jetpacks and ‘that’ John Williams score, Star Wars: Battlefront could be this year’s sales juggernaut, and judging from my short time with the game, it may well deserve to be.

An encouraging early, pre-alpha build of Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst and a riotously fun open-world preview of the anarchic Just Cause 3 rounded out my highlights from EGX 2015, yet in a year where Bloodborne and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain have opted to subvert their predecessors’ worn mechanics to create something entirely fresh, the majority of the blockbusters games on display at the NEC did little to suggest that the norm has been disturbed long-term. Against the backdrop of sublime, experimental movements in the VR space, the safe and steady sequels at the show paled against the opportunity to experience something entirely new. Facing off with a gigantic aquatic mammal before stepping over to the edge of a sunken shipwreck, staring into the distant, partially visible darkness leaves you wondering - like the VR experiment itself – just how far can this go?

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