You might not know it, but Houston is one of the places where virtual reality is really making strides into the mainstream market. The Omni, which allowed for free-standing movement in virtual environments, was founded in Houston. Now, Exitus VR is stepping up to the plate with a new facility where players can enter a virtual world that will make them forget the reality they are currently inhabiting.
The Exitus setup uses the Oculus Rift headset along with Razer to immerse a user. Unlike with the Omni, you play sitting down and manipulate their world mostly through hand motions. Surprisingly, this is actually even more convincing as a setup since it prevents the somewhat stomach-turning aspects of full-body motion. Though your mind can be fooled into believing in the virtual environment, your body never loses its inner-ear stability thanks to being stationary.
Now, the Exitus setup isn’t a new gaming platform. Folks hoping for an arcade experience that will allow them the VR experience of, say, Halo, or something more terrifying, like the Amnesia series, aren’t going to find it. Though the team at Exitus promised me that “something really big” was coming down the line in regards to wedding their setup to mainstream gaming, they wouldn’t say more.
Instead, Exitus gives you a single game to play, Cosmos, and 60 minutes to play it. The game is set on a doomed space station that holds an odd artifact that causes hallucinations. You are beamed up via avatar to deal with the mess before the station explodes. Think visuals from Half-Life meets the tone of The Swapper.
Owners Nicole Gregorio and Brenda Gibson explained to me that the idea they had for Cosmos and the setup in general was to create Escape the Room scenarios, but on the grand scale only video games can achieve. They hoped that in addition to the paying public, Cosmos would also be useful for corporate team-building exercises. It beats sweating over paintball in the Texas sun, I can tell you.
Full disclosure: I would rather eat a cat turd than interact with other players in a game. I game alone, and that’s how I like it. Too much exposure to the worst of gamer culture has not made a team player out of me.
Right off the bat, though, I saw exactly what Gibson and Gregorio were talking about. The environment in Cosmos requires teamwork right from the start, and I can finally get the idea of video game camaraderie. It didn’t take long for me to bond with a group of total strangers over the puzzles that Cosmos presented, and to feel needed and wanted.
There’s a level early on where you're required to fly around a room touching glowing orbs. It took my group a little while to figure out what the heck we needed to do, and even after we did, there was still a lot of fumbling around trying to make it work. What’s interesting to me is that in any other, non-VR game, this would have gotten very aggravating very quickly. It would have been indicative of broken design and bad play.
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In Cosmos, though, there really is a sheer joy in even awkwardly flying around. There’s even a sequence out in space that is honestly haunting and beautiful in a way that made me completely lose any sense of self here on Earth. Exitus chose their location well. Everything about Cosmos screams of the possibilities of the future.
That’s not to say all is perfect. Early on it became clear this was another experience the colorblind like myself were going to struggle with since that possibility was not built into the design (ironically, it only upped the feeling of teamwork once I confessed this in play and people rushed to help me). The Oculus is still not optimal for puzzle games where very finely tuned helmet settings are required; thus, a lot of the game was blurry to me in the beginning. And honestly, I think simple hand controls (possibly in gloves) that allow controlled movement over waving hands would still be the best way to navigate the environment, though I admit Exitus does it better than any other VR I’ve tried.
There’s also the price…$200 for a team of four in an hour of play certainly puts Cosmos out of this reporter’s price range for the near future. Sure, it’s cheaper than a home setup, and for the newness of the current technology, it’s expected you'll pay a bit more, but I imagine that the market for a $200 round of gaming might be somewhat small.
If that’s not an obstacle, I can definitely say that Exitus enters the world of Houston’s niche gaming with a bang. Their game is solid by all accounts, and the experience in playing it was indeed one-of-a-kind in a way I still can’t replicate at home. I really did forget what was real.