For a medium that was supposed to be forged in artfulness and creativity, virtual reality’s last few years have been good enough but not astounding. It’s this past year, however, that the medium’s promise is finally being met.
The numbers bear this out. Nielsen SuperData noted that sales of VR hardware will be up 31% in 2019, from 1.6 billion last year to 2.1 billion this year. The newest Oculus hardware is generally a joy; Oculus Quest is even about to eschew using the controller on some games. Sony’s PS VR continues to win big when it sticks to its studios’ love and appreciation for narrative. Beyond the big players, if extraordinary experiences like “War Remains,” “The Collider” and “Unceded Territories” were more game oriented, they definitely would have made this list.
Publisher: Sanzaru Games, Oculus Studios | Platform: PC VR
The first feeling when playing this game? It’s the childlike amazement that comes with the promise of VR fulfilled. Look up at the milky, starry skies and see a mystical aurora as you walk through a wintry forest. That’s just the cherry on top of a game that feels like the very idea of magic realized. Even the sound design is perfection — from the crunch of boots on the snow to the band playing in a roadhouse. Combine that with the brutality of battle and gameplay as taut as that in “God of War.” Fun addition: Loki looks and acts a bit like an older Adam Lambert when he’s onstage with Queen. Big and sometimes over the top, “Asgard’s Wrath” is an essential RPG opera of godliness.
‘L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files’
Rockstar Games | PC VR, PS VR
“L.A. Noire,” with its fedoras, tough talk and Dashiell Hammett-inspired interrogations of potential criminals, is arguably one of the best games of the decade. For the VR version, the open world is transformed to include seven in-your-face cases, so you’ll really feel the essence of its 1940s Tinseltown. If your powers of observation were key to questioning witnesses and crooks in the original, it’s even more useful observing the give and take between the cops and the creeps in the VR version. Yes, there are occasional stutters in frames rate, but the overall experience makes you realize why the acclaimed author Hammett wrote that murder “makes you sick, or you get to like it.”
‘No Man’s Sky Beyond’
Hello Games | PC VR, PS VR
Because of the ever-changing nature of the far-flung planets and their unique denizens in “No Man’s Sky Beyond,” I can’t think of a game more suited to the wonders of VR. I even enjoyed the physical nature of mining, which I usually hate to do in any sort of game. When I’ve had enough of exploring and making note of the odd monsters and creatures, my ship is its own delight: Zipping through space to another mystery planet is a thrill ride.
Insomniac Games | PC VR
When I played “Stormland” at E3, it totally crashed. Once it rebooted, there was a power outage in the convention center. I left frustrated because I knew it had potential. Once “Stormland” was polished and released, the brilliance of its luxuriant world and sci-fi narrative was evident. As you move so, so smoothly through islands high in the sky, you can switch between shooting and stealth play and discover new weapons to make Vesper, the android you play, superior to those who dare to engage you in battle. It’s a step forward for Oculus VR games, and I didn’t get dizzy as I tread its paths. An added bonus: Insomniac often adds new challenges to this alien universe.
‘Blood and Truth’
London Studio | PS VR
Developed by the acclaimed studio that created “The Getaway: Black Monday” and “The London Heist,” “Blood and Truth” goes farther in its efforts of immersion. Where “Heist” relied on cheeky British humor to get by, “Blood and Truth” has humor along with the kind of high-tech action that includes burning planes and missiles whizzing around your head. In other words, you’re in the middle of war and panic. The detailed visuals, including jumping off a plank high above terra firma surrounded by a night city panorama, make this shooter full of high drama and vertigo-filled beauty.
‘Five Nights at Freddy’s VR: Help Wanted’
Steel Wool Studios | PC VR, PS VR
You will scream despite yourself. When you cut to the chase, “Five Nights” has always been about jump scares. The hair-raising panic of creepy animatronic animals sneaking up on you works even better in this collection of VR mini games, especially during one snippet when you’re in a room with security monitors. You see the horror moving toward you and you have to keep it out. The fever of terror washes over you in two ways: There’s the possibility of impending doom, and there’s the fear of being stuck in that small room. It’s utterly claustrophobic. And that’s just one of 50 small nuggets of eeriness.
‘Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series’
ILMxLAB | PC VR
Is it an Oculus experience or is it an Oculus game? It doesn’t matter because it’s so exciting. Meeting an intimidating Darth Vader and battling eight-foot droids with your lightsaber takes you into the world of Star Wars’ dark side like no prior offering has. And ZOE3, your droid, is played by Maya Rudolph, brilliantly voicing scenes written by David S. Goyer (of “Dark Knight” and “Blade” fame). Yes, the second and third episodes are half the length of the first. But play it, you must.
Agharta Studio | PS VR
When a studio begins the game development process by researching the Silk Road and Berber history, and looking into Mœbius and Jean-Claude Mezières for sci-fi inspiration, that’s a good sign. Especially awesome here is undersea travel in your spaceship. The mix of strategy as you level up your ship, stealth to avoid battle and crazy shooting of the evildoers is well-balanced. While the narrative is generally uninspired compared to the artwork, this one’s on the list because of the exotic mash-up of ingenious, gilded environments and futuristic riffs on times past.
‘Trover Saves the Universe’
Squanch Games | PS VR
It’s not the graphics that make “Trover Saves The Universe” a winner, although they are properly cartoony. Nor is it the virtual reality, though it does allow you to get inside Trover’s wacky world. What accentuates the characterizations and enhances the whole experience is the mature humor that will make you laugh — loudly — despite yourself. Trover, a purple being with face-eyes that pop out, is lovable and funny. It’s important, too, that Justin Roiland, “Rick and Morty’s” co-creator, worked on this endeavor. Games in general don’t have enough humor, and humor is probably the hardest genre to pull off. It doesn’t seem difficult for Roiland, who knows games well. That’s the golden key to Trover’s guffaw-filled excellence.
Zoink AB | PS VR
Somewhat like “Moss” in 2018, “Ghost Giant” features a touching, cute and charismatic character you view from above — this time a forlorn feline named Louis, rather than “Moss’s” brave mouse. But if you look at this as a funny animal story, you’re not looking closely. There are broken lives in the story, and you’re there to witness the struggle and try to soothe Louis as a helpful Ghost Giant with mystical, blue, see-through hands. As you solve puzzles and explore the joyful moments of non-playable beasts in a fairy tale village, you’re emotionally moved again and again during the four hours it takes to play this gem.
Goldberg is the founder of the New York Video Game Critics Circle and New York Game Awards.