As technologies go, VR is still running around in diapers, costing you money and messing up your front room. Strange then, that a six year old game is the one to give us a glimpse of what the virtual world can really deliver. Yes, I'm a bit sweaty, I've shamed myself by driving my car directly into a group pedestrians and I've besmirched the good name of the L.A.P.D. by punching a suspect, but gosh darnit I've had fun in L.A. Noire (opens in new tab): The VR Case Files for the HTC Vive.
Even if you played the game back in 2011, this feels like a new experience, thanks partly to the visual upgrades to 500 different props and partly due to the new ability to possess the body of Cole Phelps and then dance around in front of a mirror. You haven't lived until you've forced Man Men actor Aaron Staton to do the macarena.
Rockstar has been smart, hand selecting seven cases for the game's VR outing - Upon Reflection, Armed and Dangerous, Buyer Beware, The Consul’s Car, The Silk Stocking Murder, Reefer Madness and A Different Kind of War - rather than just recreating the whole thing and leaving you to flail about in hours and hours of virtual bafflement. It uses the HTC Vive system, which tracks your body and hands in a 360-degree space, and the HTC Vive controllers, so you can grip and manipulate items with surprising nuance.
A major problem with the magic of VR so far has been movement. Too slow and people with strong stomachs get bored. Too fast and people throw up in wastebaskets. (True story.) Rockstar has decided to give people three options. Teleport to where your on screen reticule is, teleport to specific highlighted landmarks (my personal favorite) or the most fun of all, pump your arms like a sprinter to propel yourself forward. It was quite the workout, and a real novelty, but mother always said sweating is for horses and laborers, not ladies.
I played through one of the cases Rockstar has adapted for VR, Buyer Beware. That meant searching a dead body and the surrounding area for clues, questioning witnesses and driving between locations. It started well, I was handling the corpse of a murdered man with ease, rifling through his jacket and spotting bullet casings glinting a few inches away. The interrogation went well too, thanks to Rockstar's update to the original system. Truth, Doubt and Lie, the old options, have been replaced with Good Cop, Bad Cop and Accuse, which makes so much more sense and mean you're less likely to accidentally commit emotional brutality.
It's at this point I have to give a shout out to the MotionScan tech first created for LA Noire. It's aged better than Cher, making the people you have to interrogate feel real, rather than like creepy Black Mirror extras. It's given new life to the actor's performances, and I got a little sidetracked just watching a nervous shoe shop worker in silence. As I questioned her she twitched, flicked her eyes to the side, got more and more rattled by my questions. It could have been built for VR, and makes you hope something like it will be again.
Anyway, back to cop business. After taking some notes from the witness and checking my notebook - the accuracy on VR means you can use a pencil to doodle in it, and I was shocked and disappointed to hear no one has drawn a penis yet - I was in the car and off to a new location. It was a disaster. Not because gripping the wheel and driving in VR was hard, but because I am a terrible driver. I may or may not have entirely failed to get a driving license in real life. Let's just say that while fun, my time in VR reflected my actual skills.
My investigations eventually meant I got to try punching, something you control with, you know, actual punching. I might be a lady in the real world, but as Cole Phelps I'm a lawsuit waiting to happen, dodging oncoming blocks with a well time duck and pummeling the face of my attacker like a Paul Hollywood smacking about some Focaccia dough. Turns out I ended up sweating anyway. Sorry mother.
My glimpse of the game was short, and it's just been delayed so the Rockstar team can add another layer of polish, but it's one of the most convincing VR demos I've experienced. It's exciting to think what else Rockstar could do with the technology, although the idea of a Manhunt VR remaster is the stuff of nightmares.
L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files will be released in December.