Game review: The Lab is Valve’s new VR game for HTC Vive

The makers of Half-Life and Portal have made a brand new game for the launch of the Vive VR headset, but what exactly is it?

Five years or so ago Valve would’ve been one of the top contenders in any argument over who is the best game developer in the world. But now the arguments rage over their intentions rather than their abilities, and whether they’ll ever go back to making tradition video games such as Half-Life and Portal. But while that’s not happened yet they have been tempted into making a launch game for the HTC Vive, which they helped to design. But it’s like nothing you’ve experienced before…

Before we get caught up in our own hyperbole there is a fact about The Lab that immediately makes it sound less exciting than it is: it’s a mini-game compilation, essentially the Valve equivalent of Wii Sports or Nintendo Land. Although all the games are set in a ‘pocket universe’ of Aperture Science (the fictional company from Portal) there’s no real story and instead eight completely unconnected VR games.

Although the headset itself works just the same as Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR, the experience of using Vive is usually quite different. It can be used just sitting down, but it comes bundled with two cameras which essentially turn an area of your room into a holodeck – tracking your movement and allowing you to physically walk around the virtual world.

We went into more detail on the basics of Vive during a recent tech demo preview, but the hardware bundle also comes with two extremely precise motion controllers – which is why the whole thing costs a whopping £689 and requires a very beefy PC to run properly. Although the upside is that a) it’s the most technically advanced VR headset available and b) The Lab is free.

The only way you will be disappointed by The Lab is if you go into it expecting Portal 2.5. There is an Aperture Science-themed hub world to wander around, but the easiest way to move about it is by using the controller – which sees you walking about as if on a Dungeon Master style grid (the furthest the room sensors can be apart is 5 meters, so the moveable space is never that big).

This is going to be a problem for all VR games though, and it’s worth bearing in mind that The Lab isn’t just a showcase for what Vive can do but a just as clear illustration of what it can’t.

Only a few of the games carry the Aperture Science motif through from the hub area, but Slingshot is definitely set in the Portal universe. It’s basically Angry Birds in 3D, but where you’re shooting personality cores at crates in a warehouse. This has all the trappings of a Wii mini-game compilation, except the difference is that VR is a vastly more impressive gimmick than Nintendo’s primitive motion controls ever were. And despite the mundane-sounding setting the destruction you can wreck is glorious. The dialogue from the personality cores is frequently hilarious too, and just as good as the regular Portal games.

By contrast, Longbow has nothing to do with any existing Valve game. It’s also just as much a tech demo for the motion controllers as it is the headset, proving them to be vastly more accurate and responsive than any of Nintendo, Microsoft, or Sony’s efforts. We’ve always considered bows and arrows more fun than guns, and by using the two Vive controllers together this feels impressively realistic despite the Minecraft style graphics. As a game though it’s highly simplistic, as you just stand on some ramparts shooting at invaders.

Surprisingly, there’s not a traditional first person shooter in The Lab, but there is this: a bullet hell shooter in full 3D. As great fans of 2D shooters we’ve always been frustrated that the same mechanics and concepts have never been carried through into more modern games, so Xortex is almost literally a dream come true. Unlike most of the other games you can just sit still for this one, as you pick up a spaceship from in front of you and zoom it about the 360° zone of space you find yourself in. It’s one of the few hints at how a normal third person action game could work in VR, and as such it’s interesting that it’s also the mini-game with the most longevity – with proper difficulty progression and a leaderboard.

Although it sits on the opposite end of the ‘proper video game’ scale to Xortex, Postcards is nevertheless an important glimpse at how virtual reality will be sold to the masses. It’s meant to be a virtual holiday and despite the lack of interaction the virtual vistas, stitched together from real photographs, are still stunning. It’s very easy to imagine how this is going to evolve in the future, but at the moment all you do is click on spots you’d like to move to, a bit like Google Street View, and play stick with a little robot puppy.

Human Medical Scan
On the face of it this seems one of the less obvious VR applications, although in terms of how headsets are likely to be used for non-entertainment purposes perhaps not. There’s no pretence of this being a game, but instead you’re presented with a 3D human body created from detailed CT medical scans. You’re then given the ability to look at the innards by peeling away the layers with the controller.

Solar System
From the icky depths of the human body to the inky depths of space, this is the other edutainment option. Outer space is already a popular topic for VR apps, but because this is Valve there is a bit more to this one: you can pick up and throw the planets, should you want to pretend you’re Galactus in a feeding frenzy.

Robot Repair
This is the must Portal-ish of all the games, and the same demo we saw when previewing the Vive a few weeks ago. It’s also easily the most graphically impressive, with a representation of GLaDOS’s testing facilities, and the psychotic AI herself, that is breathtaking in scope and physicality. In gameplay terms though it’s not much more than an interactive comedy sketch, where you’re an actor miming to a pre-existing script.

Secret Shop
The final mini-game isn’t based around Portal but Dota 2, or at least its item shop. That might not sound too encouraging but this is arguably the most complex of the demos and the best at demonstrating Vive’s unique selling point: that you can actually walk around a virtual space instead of just staring at it. The shop is far more interactive than any of the other areas and there are several spells to set off, including one that shrinks you down to miniature size and will give anyone suffering from arachnophobia a heart attack.

From a technical perspective The Lab is hugely impressive, effortlessly proving the potential of every aspect of VR. What it doesn’t do though is counter the impression that all current VR games are just thinly-veiled tech demos. Here there’s no pretence about it, and once you’ve played all the games once this is really only something you’d boot up to show off to friends.

But in that sense it succeeds perfectly, and we refuse to believe that anyone will come away from The Lab not believing that virtual reality is going to change the future of… not just video games but society in general. The question though is when that future will actually come to pass.

The Lab is not in itself a deep or substantial experience (especially since it’s free, it’d be churlish for us to give it a score) and so while it offers a fascinating glimpse at things to come it still feels like no more than the first stepping stone towards a newly palpable future.

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