Valve’s Aperture Science technical demonstration revealed alongside the HTC Vive at the Game Developers Conference (GDC), San Francisco, last year wowed audiences. This year, just weeks before the head-mounted display (HMD) officially launches, the developer has come back with a brand new title, The Lab, which is even more of a landmark for the new medium of virtual reality (VR).
For all intents and purposes, The Lab is a mini-game compilation. However, it’s dressed-up with so much charm that it simply can’t be compared to the likes of Wii Sports or the PlayStation Move’s Sports Champions in any form beyond the intention of offering newcomers an easy stepping stone for learning the nuances of the new technology. This goal it will achieve with a splash of style and a lot of self-referential humour, based with the Portal universe that many gamers know and love.
The Lab begins by teaching the player its portal mechanic. Two of the now infamous silhouetted lab workers stand aside a globe that the player may take from its pedestal, and by placing it over your head you’ll be teleported to the location contained within. The first of these is a photo-telegraphed mountainous environment, and is simply a visual spectacle. Within the player has a small robotic dog companion and is able to throw sticks for the dog to fetch. However, they can also learn the mechanics of in-world teleportation here: simply touching the HTC Vive’s motion-controller touchpad will bring up a green box, which the player can place on the ground and after a fade reappear in that chosen location.
The second mini-game showcased with The Lab was known as Slingshot, and is a simply but wholly fun experience. The player is in command of a giant mechanical slingshot into which orbs are loaded and in-turn fired into giant stacks of boxes and explosive barrels. Each of the orbs has a different personality and will rant at the player as they are loaded and fired – including two of which who sounded and delivered dialogue in a remarkably similar fashion to the stars of Rick and Morty – it’s comical and engaging, even though it’s brief.
While Slingshot was compared by Valve’s representative to Angry Birds, the next mini-game included in The Lab relates much closer to real-world activities. Standing atop a toy-like castle the player grabs a bow in one hand while loading and firing arrows with the other. The enemies encroaching upon the castle are, yes, those silhouetted guys once again, but this time they carry shields and weapons, and are trying to break their way into your castle. While fun, the bow seemed hard to aim and the player feedback on the arc and connection point of a shot is slight, making Longbow more challenging than was perhaps intended.
The next mini-game is essentially a bullet-hell shoot-’em-up in VR; the first of its kind that VRFocus has experienced. Trapped inside an arena that measures perfectly to the roomscale environment available, the player must use the HTC Vive’s motion-controller to point at the floating enemies to automatically fire their weapon and take them out. It’s not long before the enemies begin to return fire, and eventually a boss who lays down scattershots of bullets will appear. This mini-game is surprisingly polished, with power-ups and a scoring system already incoporated.
The final moment of The Lab available at GDC this year was a sneak preview of what is yet to come. VRFocus has been informed that there are several more mini-games that will be included at launch, including a new version of that original Aperture Science technical demonstration. The Lab will be made free to all HTC Vive owners at launch, and is currently one of the most exciting VR experiences on the near-future horizon. There’s no doubt Valve has been good to VR developers over the past year, and now it seems they’re keen to be good to VR consumers as well.