If you wanted to play virtual reality (VR) video games three years ago, you had to make some investments. You needed a PlayStation, or a supercomputer with a super graphics card to download and smoothly run just about anything. If you didn’t have either, you had make those investments first. Then, you needed at least two poles set up in an unfathomably-large living room. You also needed lots of cables. Basically, you needed money.
Since then, the VR industry has witnessed a kind of silent boom, and we’re quickly approaching the moment where VR headsets might cost as much as a console—and run games all on their own, no supercomputer needed.
The first headset elbowing into this cable-free, wallet-friendly space is Facebook’s Oculus Quest, which goes for just under $400, requires no outlets or computers, and can be tossed (gently) into your carry-on luggage.
How do speed and graphics compare to previous cabled VR technologies? Pretty darn well. Most VR gameplay (for any headset) isn’t going to match the kind of graphics you’ll get from the latest PC games. And that’s not a negative. VR is a platform where, interestingly enough, graphics aren’t even close to the primary test for playability; the best games succeed through minimalism, stripping the 360-degree world down to essential lines and motions (usually side-to-side and not back-and-forth, which can leave you feeling nauseous). Sometimes, the more realistic the game, the less fun it can be to play. As far as speed is concerned, we experienced no lag times even when casting the gameplay on other devices, which you’ll definitely want to do when playing with friends.
Any downsides to the Quest? Though the headset itself is reasonably priced, gamers may feel miffed by the cost of each game (app), which, though less than your standard console game (usually around $30, compared to $60), may not offer as many hours of novel experience. In the end, you want to buy games with high replayability (part of the criteria we used for the below.) Since everything is cable-free, you may also have to sacrifice a bit of battery life. You’ll likely need to charge the headset after each gaming session. We found battery life to be around 2.5 hours when gaming, though the device charges pretty quickly. Think of it as a way of controlling your VR screen time.
So before photo-realistic graphics allow us to time travel to WWII for Call of Duty 87 (and, when we sprint, somehow, not make us want to puke) these are the games to hold you over.
Here are our picks for the best 12 VR games by category for the Oculus Quest.
Beat Saber hype is real. The game best demonstrates simplicity: two light sabers in either hand, one motionless platform, lots of giant colored cubes flying at you and timed to the music, slashing, obstacles, objectives. It’s something like Guitar Hero meets Fruit Ninja with lightsabers and we dig it.
While not every game is marketed as “fitness,” most games, if played competitively enough, will work up a sweat. Still, there are games designed primarily to work up a sweat, and they actually deliver. I tried it out in my living room, only planned on doing 10 minutes, went 30 instead, and left sort of … soaked.
While it may not be a substitute for some of the more traditional living room, video training programs, it is, well, way more fun.
If the crowd-favorite VR game Super Hot makes you feel like Neo in The Matrix, Pistol Whip lets you be frickin’ John Wick. The game features an effective conveyer-belt, arcade-style movement, and it forces you to dodge laterally and squat so often that you’ll probably wish you were just sprinting. Played hard enough, this shooter actually proves to be one of the best workout games. With an aesthetic like Max Payne on acid, a slapping soundtrack, and Keanu Reeves-like gunplay, Pistol Whip is easily one of the best games we’ve played. For shooter fans, make it your first VR purchase.
While Oculus’ various boxing games make for great workouts, fighting fake opponents in a ring doesn’t quite provide enough variation for replayability. Sports Scramble will cover your basic racket/bat sports and let you compete against randos, which is really all we want from sports games. It’s all about competition.
With Scramble, the swing mechanics are impressive. I’ve taken tens of thousands of swings inside batting cages and in actual games, and I could generally use my space skills to direct the VR baseball, sitting back and sending the ball to right field, or jumping on a fastball and taking it to left. On the other side, pitching can feel a bit easy. But we’re just here to smack home runs anyway. Which, on higher difficulties, feels super satisfying.
If you want to feel like Alex Honnold in Free Solo (but with zero risk and zero work to get there), The Climb is your game. Scale mountains across the world with surprisingly smart climbing mechanics and real-world stamina. The more challenging faces also take quite a while to scale, which makes summiting that much sweeter and also stretches the gameplay out to make this purchase totally worth it. You might freak out a little the first time you fall.
It’s the kind of immersive arcade space shooter you used to only dream about. Stand on a platform, Matrix 3 style, as waves of robot aliens fly and shoot at you. Duck, dodge, and blast the hell out of them in what’s actually a super hard and physically-intense set of levels.
Don’t dismiss this app as a stoner game, which, admittedly, it might just be. Tripp gives you access to various visual and auditory experiences weekly. Move your head to help direct the experience, which includes breathing exercises and flights through what can only be described as that 2001: A Space Odyssey death sequence. Or mute it and play your own relaxing beats. We promise it’s all legal.
Best Family Game
Play as Quil, a young medieval mouse questing for all those classic heroic exploits in this adorable adventure. A platform game that feels like a giant interactive toy set sitting in front of you, Moss will remind you of Redwall and give your kids some actually challenging puzzles to sort out as Quil journeys into the forest. It’s fun, imaginative, and way better than your boring bedtime story, anyway.
Puzzle is maybe the most stuffed category and for good reason: puzzle games take advantage of VR best by exploiting 360-degree interactivity. Think of them more like virtual escape the rooms, or rather escape the vaguely Soviet Mars space station (Red Matter).
I Expect You To Die makes escape all about international espionage, the game’s title the line a classic villain might let linger after leaving our hero strapped in a torture device surrounded by sharks. The game adopts the older, more playful James Bond tone of the ’70s and ’80s, forcing you to navigate all kinds of entrapment and betrayal. Just like the 007 films, don’t skip the opening title sequence. Good luck, agent.
Okay, so Wander is essentially just 360-degree Google Maps Street View. And while you might ask, why should I pay for Google Maps Street View, you’re not imagining just what street view looks like in VR. It looks like you’re on the damn street. Travel almost anywhere, show your friends around your hometown, figure out which exit to take on the highway. The uses are many.
If Spike Jonze wrote and directed a VR experience, you’d get A Fisherman’s Tale. We don’t want to say too much about this one, so we don’t spoil it. Just know this game reveals the full potential of the VR medium.
Best Free Content
Within reminds you that the limits of VR don’t stop at gaming. Full of immersive stories, documentaries, and animated films, Within is your box office ticket to content exclusive to the medium. It’s fun, educational, and will help widen your definition of “art.” It’s the future of entertainment, after all.