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VR Kit is not Virtual Boy 2.0 – TechCrunch

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Even the most successful tech company is going to have a stumble from time to time. Nintendo’s 45 years in the video game industry is spotted with a few doozies, but none are more infamous than the Virtual Boy. The 1994 portable console was marketed as an early home entry into virtual reality, but in actual reality ended up being little more than a blood-red headache.

Nintendo knew the comparisons to the doomed console would come fast and furiously when it launched its next VR venture, so the company took the time to get it just right. In a sense, Labo VR is a cautious push into the virtual realm. It’s nowhere near the all-in approach of Oculus, Vive or even PlayStation VR, for that matter — but it’s uniquely Nintendo.

Like the first Labo kits, it’s a friendly reminder that Nintendo’s chief job is to surprise and delight, and it happily delivers on both fronts. But just as the Labo piano shouldn’t be mistaken for a real musical instrument, Labo VR ought not be viewed as a real virtual reality.

It’s not just the pop-out cardboard form factor, either. Google made that a perfectly acceptable beginner’s approach to VR. It’s more that Nintendo has taken a very casual approach to all of this. The kit’s virtual reality experience is an extension of Labo itself. It’s no more important than the process of building the headset and various accessories step by step on the app. Or, for that matter, sharing all of the above experiences with others.

During a demo of the new kits in New York this week, Nintendo was quick to point out that the headsets are built without a strap. It claims this was a conscious decision so that the experience can be passed around and shared. I’m sure there are some practical reasons behind this decision as well, but it’s certainly a nice thought.

Virtual reality is, by nature of its form factor, a solitary experience. Labo VR doesn’t have any sort of video-out feature to share the experience on a big screen (for now, at least), so the idea of offering it up in a more social play-and-pass scenario is appealing. This goes double for the fact that, like the original Labo kits, all of the games included fall under the casual banner. The experiences share a common lineage with Nintendo analog titles like Mario Party or Mario Paint.

Your mileage with each title will vary. Certainly some (Bird and Blaster spring to mind) will stay with you longer than others and demand more repeat play. On the whole, each buildable peripheral launches with one (maybe two) compatible games. The good news, however, is that, like Labo, the company packs a lot of controllers (and therefore experiences) into a single kit.

The standard Labo: VR Kit ships with six Toy-Con projects (VR Goggles, Toy-Con Blaster, Toy-Con Camera, Toy-Con Bird, Toy-Con Wind Pedal and Toy-Con Elephant), while the cheaper Starter Set comes with two (Goggles and Blaster). If you go for the latter to dip your toes in the water or just to save on cash, there are a pair of “expansion sets” to get the full experience.

Unlike the last time Nintendo came to town with a Labo press tour, we didn’t actually get any time to build. That said, if previous kits are any indication, that’s half of the fun and value proposition here. Also, the amount of time you’ll spend building varies greatly from project to project — take it from me, someone who spent most of a work morning building that damn piano.

Once built, the VR experience is about on-par with what you’d expect from a Google VR. Again, it’s a set of lenses attached to a hunk of cardboard. This is no Rift or Vive and the immersiveness of your own experience will vary. The graphics are cartoony and oftentimes just large polygons. But a well-crafted casual gaming experience can be enough to pull you out of your own head for a bit. Bird is the best example of this.

The controller clips on the headset, with a Toy-Con popping out the other end like a beak. As a player, you hook your hands on either side of the display and flap along as you play a bird, flying around trees and completing different missions to feed an army of hatchlings. It’s a relaxing reprieve from some of the faster-paced games, as you glide around the skies. Add in the foot-controlled Wind Pedal, and the system delivers a puff of air to your face as you boost your bird, adding to the effect.

Blaster, a big, fun novelty gun, is the most engaging of the bunch. When I ended my demos with some extra time to spare, the Nintendo rep asked me if I wanted to give any of the games another go. The answer was simple. A simple first-person shooter, Blaster pits you against an army of alien blobs. You load the gun by cocking it like a shot-gun, and pull the trigger to an explosive effect.

Honorable mention goes to Doodle, which uses the bizarre elephant-shaped controller. The experience is unique from the rest in that it’s not actually a game, but rather a 3D drawing tool. It’s one of the more clever additions to the pack, though actually drawing on a 3D plane with a cardboard controller shaped like an elephant’s trunk is easier said than done. The implementation is a bit lacking, but it offers interesting insight into where Labo VR might go in the future.

Honestly, I just scratched the surface during my briefing. But there’s little question that Labo VR is a fun and singular experience. There’s also a special screen holder, so users who have rough time with VR can experience a 2D version of the games and accessories. Also, as with the standard Labo kit, Nintendo has bundled in Toy-Con Garage, so users can start building their own games when they tire of the pre-packaged experiences.

If there’s one disappointment in all of this, it’s that it will likely be a while before we see a full standalone VR experience from Nintendo. The idea of playing as Mario, Link and the like in virtual reality is no doubt something of a lifelong dream for plenty of gamers who grew up on the characters. But while Virtual Boy is a quarter-century in the past, the memory still lingers.

Until then, Labo VR is a fully engaging take on VR, and a uniquely Nintendo one, to boot.

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Blizzard absorbs acclaimed Activision studio as a dedicated “support” team

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Blizzard Entertainment

The corporate-behemoth organism that is Blizzard Entertainment, which exists in a symbiotic state next to megaton game publisher Activision, became blurrier on Friday with a surprise announcement: It has absorbed a game studio within the Activision family, effective immediately.

Vicarious Visions, a longtime game studio that was acquired by Activision in 2005, has been shuffled out of the Activision ecosystem and pumped directly into Blizzard’s veins. In a statement offered to GamesIndustry.biz, Blizzard confirmed that the 200+ staff at Vicarious Vision has been shifted to a “long-term support” team focused entirely on “existing Blizzard games and initiatives.” The news also includes a mild shuffle of leadership, sending current Vicarious studio head Jen Oneal to the Blizzard leadership board as executive vice president of development.

The statement did not clarify exactly when this arrangement began, nor which of Blizzard’s “existing” projects would receive Vicarious staff support in particular. (Blizzard representatives did not immediately respond to Ars Technica’s questions about the deal.) As of press time, neither Blizzard nor Vicarious have published details or terms about the deal on their respective blogs or social media channels. In fact, Vicarious Visions’ website is currently offline altogether.

Where will they land in the credits scroll?

Vicarious certainly has its share of publicly announced Blizzard projects to pick from, between Overwatch 2, Diablo IV, and whatever World of WarCraft expansion eventually emerges like clockwork. Or, heck, maybe Vicarious has been brought on board to finally wrest WarCraft III: Reforged from its shameful spiral as 2020’s most disappointing video game.

Whatever the project(s) may be, the staff certainly won’t continue the studio’s stellar track record as one of Activision’s brighter spots. Whether it was the studio’s stellar work getting 2020’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 into twitch-perfect shape, massaging the original Crash Bandicoot trilogy into a solid remaster, or even delivering one of the Marvel universe’s best co-op brawlers in an era well before Iron Man redeemed the comic empire’s public reputation, Vicarious will forever be remembered as an Activision bright spot. We hope the same can be said for the team’s future work, as it’s shuffled into the bottom of a credits scroll for existing Blizzard properties.

Blizzard has rarely gone to the trouble of absorbing an outside studio—with “Blizzard North” being the largest exception, when the company took on David Brevik’s existing team (then dubbed Condor) to formally join the Blizzard family in 1995. This concluded a bidding war: “3DO offered us twice as much money,” Brevik said in a 2016 GDC presentation. “We turned them down. Really, because we felt that Blizzard really got us and got [Diablo 1]. We were so close in company culture and beliefs.”

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Xbox Live price increase sets a new $10/month floor for online access

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Xbox users will soon have to pay at least $10/month for the baseline Xbox Live Gold subscription needed for online play on Xbox consoles. That’s a significant increase from the recent floor of $5/month for an annual subscription.

The new pricing, as Microsoft unveiled this morning is as follows (or a “local market equivalent” outside the US):

  • One month: $11/month (previously $10/month)
  • Three months: $30, $10/month (Previously $25, $8.33/month)
  • Six months: $60, $10/month (Previously $40, $6.67/month)

A 12-month, $60 subscription plan was officially removed from Microsoft’s online store last July, but annual digital subscriptions at that $5/month rate are still currently available from a variety of retail partners. It’s unclear if those offerings will continue, but a new annual subscription option was not mentioned in Microsoft’s announcement this morning. Microsoft does note that current 6-month and 12-month subscribers will be able to “renew at the current price” for the time being, though (current members will receive email notices about the new prices, and the new rates won’t apply to them for at least 45 days).

For those who can’t renew at the old rates, the new minimum of $120/year might seem rather steep in exchange for access to online play and a handful of selected monthly “Games With Gold” freebies. A comparable 12-month PlayStation Plus subscription still costs $60, while an annual Nintendo Switch Online subscription runs just $20 (with a bevy of classic emulated NES and SNES games included).

Xbox Live Gold’s new minimum price is also just $5/month less than the $15/month base price for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. That subscription includes all the benefits of Xbox Live Gold and access to hundreds of downloadable PC and Xbox ecosystem games, as well as streaming mobile access through xCloud (regular “Game Pass for console” or “Game Pass for PC” without the Xbox Live benefits currently runs $10/month).

The Xbox Live price increase seems designed to drive more users to that expanded Game Pass Ultimate offering, which passed 15 million subscribers last September. In fact, users who upgrade a current Xbox Live Gold subscription to Game Pass Ultimate will automatically have up to 36 months of pre-paid Xbox Live subscription time converted to Game Pass Ultimate for free (echoing similar conversion deals offered in the past).

Microsoft last raised the price of Xbox Live back in 2010, when a one-month subscription increased from $8 to $10 and an annual subscription went from $50 to $60.

Listing image by Getty Images / Aurich Lawson

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Resident Evil VIII gets May release date, massive preview, playable demo

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After receiving vague teases through last year, Resident Evil VIII: Village has finally emerged looking like a real game, thanks to a sweeping new gameplay reveal video that went live on Thursday. Its immediate resemblance to Resident Evil VII, which we granted a rare Ars Approved award to in 2017, has us quite excited—though things have clearly advanced for the series in four years.

First off, we now have confirmation that this sequel once again puts RE players into a first-person perspective and that it follows the direct chronology of RE7. The footage we’ve seen puts players in the shoes of Ethan Winters, RE7‘s protagonist, who is forced, once again, to find and explore a creepy mansion—though this one is far more palatial than the bayou-adjacent dump he previously explored. While searching for a missing family member, Ethan must contend with a new “family” of sorts: a mysterious, tall, and gorgeously attired matriarch, and her shapeshifting accomplices who seem to turn into waves of locusts and bleed through walls.

Though RE8‘s YouTube reveal is capped at 30 fps as of press time, Capcom sent us footage of the game running at 60 fps—presumably on PlayStation 5, the console that was shouted most loudly through the gameplay reveal presentation. RE8 will launch on May 7 on PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, and PC. All platforms will eventually receive a free-download version of its playable demo, named “Maiden,” but only PlayStation 5 owners have gotten a release date for said demo: Today.

The above gallery offers the clearest hints yet that RE8 will play much like RE7, with a combination of creeping dread, conversational sequences, puzzle-solving, and first-person gunplay and combat. New this time is an emphasis on “blocking” attacks (though, if you ask me, I’ll stick to my usual zombie-survival strategy of running the hell away) and accessing an in-game shop. The gallery also includes a few hints to next-gen graphical flourishes, particularly a reflective pool that may very well see the series employ its first-ever ray-tracing effects. We’ve yet to see the game’s 60 fps reveal appear on YouTube just yet, so in the meantime, we’re embedding the 30 fps footage below:

Resident Evil VIII gameplay reveal.

This reveal also includes footage of a new multiplayer mode coming with RE8 in May, dubbed Resident Evil Re:Verse—which appears to offer deathmatch gameplay with characters spanning multiple series entries, along with transformations from humans to zombies after characters die in a match. How exactly that gameplay will work remains to be seen, though Re:Verse will receive a closed beta test in the very near future.

Listing image by Capcom

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