I originally purchased my Oculus Rift through some sort of bizarre “Must have the fanciest gadgets competition” between myself and my father (for the record, he has the most money, so he always wins). I purchased the Oculus because it came with the most free stuff, and it had deal on at the time, but my foray into VR was mostly because of Elite Dangerous. Elite (back on the BBC Micro) was the first game I’d ever played with my father many years ago, and I took great pleasure in showing him Frontier’s reimagining back in 2015. I could wax lyrical about what that game becomes once you’ve donned your headset and set up some flight sticks – it’s not just a game, it’s an experience. But I digress. I’m not here to talk about Elite, I’m here to talk about VR’s frst real killer app – and that’s Beat Saber.
Beat Saber is an Early Access rythm VR game from Hyperbolic Magnetism (who appear to have been renamed as Beat Games), a very small dev team in Czech. This team of two became three when joined by Jaroslav Beck, the man behind putting the beat into Beat Saber, creating the music and sound for the game.
The premise is simple – once you’ve donned your headset, you stand in a VR gamespace- I liken it to windtunnel meets neon filled dancefloor – you plant your feet, and using each touch controller, weild your Sabers – one red, for the left hand, and one blue for your right. From the depths on the tunnel, block will appear flying towards you, in time to some seriously punchy electronic music. Cut the block in half in the direction of the arrows, duck and dodge large walls made of light and avoid bombs. Think Guitar Hero for Ninjas (or Jedi Knights if you prefer) and you’ll be on the right track.
While this might sound simple, the depth a player can discover as they work their way up from Easy mode through to Expert is nothing short of exhilarating. VR games in general have a tendancy to make you look and feel a little goofy, but after 10/15 minutes of sword swinging badassery, you’ll feel unstoppable. You’ll also feel, depending on your disposition, totally knackered. As a father of two with middle age weight slowly filling me out, a good half an hour on this leaves me short of breath and in need of a good sit down (apparently, a good session of Beat Saber can burn around 7-8 calories a minute – something close to a Tennis match!).
Slice blocks succesfully, and the combo meter will rise, and with leaderboards for every track, it can be a joy to master a track and lay waste to a friends hard earned achievements. Miss blocks, get your head stuck in walls, or accidentally slice through the aforementioned bombs and it’s Level Failed! as the track slows to a halt. Panting, limbs aching, you won’t be able to help but point determindely at “Restart”.
Currently, Beat Saber features 10 tracks, of varying styles, from the upbeat dance tunes of Country Rounds (Sqeepo Remix) to the dark tones of Balearic Pumping, and each track has a style to it, which leads to some good varied slicing. Admittedly, 10 tracks is not a lot, but the developers are working hard on getting more music into the game in an official capacity – they’ve apparently created their own record label in order to do so. Perhaps it’ll save on royalty fees.
But fear not, because if you think this VR masterpiece sounds lacking in content, the mod community has certainly risen to fill in the gaps. While an official level editor is coming, modders have already worked out how to create new “Beatmaps” to popular tracks – all of this can be installed at a click of a button via beatsaver.com. My personal favourite is Gangnam Style, because you actually do the well known dance. In VR. With virtual lightsabers. Kudos to whoever coded that one!
As well as an engaging Solo mode, the game also features a Party mode for passing the headset around the room, a no arrows mode, which is far more lenient, a no-fail system for practice sessions, and a one saber mode, where all the blocks are blue. (This is not as easy as you might think)
So, is Beat Saber the first VR ‘killer app’? I’m inclinded to say yes, for several reasons. One, the skill level of entry for anyone (bar actually having a VR headset) is low – anyone can slice at some blocks. The game is currently sitting 98% positive reviews on Steam, so the VR community certainly seems to be in love, but most tellingly was what happened after I showed some friends who came to stay for a weekend. I’m getting married in around 30 days, so my groomsmen were staying over, not only for some good gaming, but to go get measured for our suits. A good friend had played Beat Saber with me the evening before, and couldn’t stop talking about it. We certainly came back with suits, so mission successful on that front. He also came back with a brand new oculus rift. I’m just glad to hear the developers are working on online multiplayer, because that leaderboard battle is never going to end.
If you’ve been on the fence about VR, I can promise you that this is the game that will tip you over the edge. It can only work in this medium, and could never be as satisfying or exhilarating any other way. For those holding their Playstation VR headsets and wondering what could be next to play, you’ll be pleased to know Beat Saber is coming your way.
For now, I’ll leave you with this short video of me, playing on Expert – VR Killer App? You bet.