Beat Saber

From the moment I first read about Beat Saber, I suspected it was going to be something I would love. Now that it’s finally available for Oculus Rift and I’ve spent some time with it, I can confirm that it’s every bit as good as I’d hoped.

Beat Saber is essentially a Virtual Reality rhythm game, although that description does little to convey what a ridiculously fun, engaging experience it is. The aim is to slash blocks, in time with music, with a pair of blades, within a highly stylised, neon-lit virtual environment.

The game’s developers describe Beat Saber as “a mashup of Guitar Hero and Fruit Ninja in VR”. The one factor they neglect to mention (presumably to try and avoid any legal wrangles with Lucasfilm) is that the pair of blades the player controls look uncannily like light sabers. Anyone with a passing interest in Star Wars will no doubt jump at the chance to wave around a pair of realistically rendered sabers while smashing cubes out of mid-air, and watching them shatter around you. The actual music featured in the game might be a bit more subjective, as the soundtrack consists entirely of loud, up tempo EDM. It’s the perfect soundtrack for the nature of the gameplay, but it might not be to everybody’s taste.

Beat Saber is without a doubt the most fun experience I’ve had in VR. It’s definitely a game that is perfectly suited to the medium. It’s just a shame that at this moment, the hardware required to run it (Beat Saber is currently available for Oculus Rift and HTV Vive, which in turn require a relatively powerful PC) makes it inaccessible to many gamers. However for anybody who does own one of those platforms, let’s be honest, the range of high quality VR experiences available right now is fairly limited. And with that in mind I really can’t recommend Beat Saber highly enough.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

The latest chapter in the Star Wars saga has just been released, and naturally myself and my fellow geeks (aka my children) were at our local multiscreen for the opening night. This post isn’t a review as such, more a bit of a brain dump as these days, seeing a brand new Star Wars movie for the first time is always a bit of a strange experience for me. I grew up with the original trilogy and have seen episodes 4-6 so many times now that they hold no surprises for me whatsoever, so the prospect of brand new plot twists wrapped in such a familiar formula is always a bit… just… odd. It would be fair to say that The Last Jedi definitely has more plot twists than any other Star Wars movie so far.

I’m writing this the day after having seen The Last Jedi for the first time, and I’ve already spent more time this morning than is reasonable just thinking over everything that happened – at least the bits I could remember. It’s probably the most incident-packed SW movie, as well as the longest. That’s not necessarily a good thing; the second act did feel quite drawn out and there was definitely a good half hour in the middle where, if my phone had been turned on, I’d probably have been checking my email. But the first and third acts, wow… director Rian Johnson has succeeded in making a Star Wars movie that feels like a continuation of the saga that so many people know and love but at the same time makes brave, and exciting departures, from the well trodden formula. In a lot of ways it feels like the last part in a trilogy, rather than the middle, but I’m already looking forward to see how JJ Abrams will wrap things up in episode 9.

Oculus Rift

Oculus recently launched the Summer of Rift campaign, a season of special events and offers to promote their Rift headset and various third party software titles. For a limited time, the “Rift + Touch” bundle is on sale for $399/£399. The previous price was in the region of £700 for both the headset and touch controllers, so it seemed like a good opportunity for me to take a fairly major step up from my Cardboard viewer and GearVR.

Oculus Rift with packaging

First impressions were very good. The hardware is beautifully packaged, and really gives you the feeling that this is a premium product. Setting and calibrating the headset and sensors was a fairly painless experience – although in my case the space I’m using the Rift in is much smaller than the ‘Guardian’ software (a tool to prevent you bumping into/falling over real world objects when wearing the headset) would like, so I had to skip that part. Once the hardware is set up, the first VR experience you’re presented with is First Contact, which serves as an introduction to both the headset and touch controllers. The first time you look around, then realise that you can interact with your virtual environment via the touch controllers, it’s a pretty incredible experience.

Tilt Brush by Google

So far during the time I’ve spent using the Oculus Rift, the most striking experiences have been just that – experiences – rather than traditional games or tools.

Google’s Tilt Brush is technically a painting tool, but for me there was a major wow factor in drawing streaks of light, stars and psychedelic flashing rainbows in a 3D space, and being able to move into and around the paintings as I was working. It’s also pretty mind-blowing seeing what slightly more talented (!) artists are coming up with using Tilt Brush.

Fantasynth, by HelloEnjoy, is a stunning “audio-reactive experience” taking the user through a procedurally populated environment where the visuals and geometry synchronise with music.


There’s still a huge amount of fun to be had though from games in a VR environment, particularly games that have been designed from the ground up to work in VR. Robo Recall for example is a title that you can download for free once you’ve registered your Touch controllers, and involves battling hordes of humanoid robots with a gun in each hand (although there are slightly more creative ways of defeating enemies, once you get to grips with the environment).

Robo Recall

Overall I’ve been hugely impressed by the Rift so far, although it does still feel like a technology in its infancy, at least where the consumer market is concerned. Both of the currently available high-end VR systems, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, require a fairly powerful PC to run. There’s also the need for the headset to be connected to the PC by a physical cable, which can get in the way when moving around the virtual space. One additional, and unexpected issue I’ve had, is interference with nearby wifi connections and bluetooth devices when the Rift is running. After some Googling it seems as though the USB 3 connections required for the Rift’s headset and sensors can actually emit interference at 2.4 GHz radio frequencies (see here, here and here for more information), so I have to remember to disconnect these cables when the Rift isn’t in use. Still, the Rift hardware is very well designed and the current bundle deal makes it that bit more accessible. I would expect Oculus to release a new improved iteration of their headset at some point in the near future, but for now I’m happy with the experiences the Rift provides.


“Hunted and alone, a boy finds himself drawn into the centre of a dark project…”

That’s the mysterious description of developer Playdead’s latest game Inside, and it’s really the only information you’ll have to go on as the game begins. There are no cut scenes or introductions, there’s barely even a start menu. You take control of what appears to be a young boy (who is never given a name) making his way through a forest. The minimalist presentation is stunning, from the lighting to the sound design. The gameplay is simple but at times ingenious, and the character animation really helps give life to a character that’s never given much in the way of explicit exposition. It’s this deliberate paucity of detail though that serves to draw the player in, and there are various theories floating around on the Internet on what the game is about – particularly the ending, which without wanting to give anything away, is one of the most unsettling experiences I’ve ever had playing a game and will probably stay with me a while.

Inside feels like a natural progression from Playdead’s last game, Limbo. The production values have been ramped up and the gameplay is probably a bit more accessible (the puzzles seem a little easier here). Provided you can stomach the more grotesque elements (it has a PEGI rating of 18 and definitely isn’t a game you want to share with children) I can’t recommend Inside enough.




PlayStation VR


I’ve just spent some time trying out Sony’s first attempt at mass market virtual reality, PlayStation VR. As the name suggests it’s a system designed as an add-on to Sony’s current-gen games console, PlayStation 4. It’s seen by many as one of the more affordable routes into VR but at £350, it’s still a fairly substantial investment for most people.

In the half hour or so I spent with the PS VR I tried two games, Battlezone VR and RIGS. On booting up Battlezone VR, and looking around the interior of my tank, one of the first things that struck me was how odd it felt looking around at objects that appeared to really be right there in front of me, but being unable to reach out and touch them. Once the game got going though, and I started to adjust to the experience, the sense of immersion was pretty incredible. There was enough time to familiarise myself with my (virtual) surroundings before things really got going, and after a few easy enemy battles the intensity of the gameplay started to ramp up nicely. RIGS, on the other hand, throws you straight into a bright and vividly coloured virtual arena where the aim of the game is something to do with blowing up your opponents and scoring goals. I won’t try to explain it beyond that as to be honest I really didn’t have much of an idea what was going on. It was a much more intense, overwhelming experience than Battlezone VR and it didn’t take long for motion sickness to kick in, accompanied by a slight headache.


I’d read a few comments online about the low resolution of PS VR, in comparison to higher end systems like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. It’s understandable given the relatively low price point, and I really hadn’t expected it to be an issue, but it was actually quite noticeable and did detract from the overall experience a little. What was more problematic for me though was the motion sickness and accompanying headache. Although it may just be that, with VR gameplay being such an intense experience, it just takes some getting used to.

I think the key point with PS VR is this is really the first attempt at VR for the mainstream, and I think there’s some way to go before this kind of tech really starts to mature. I personally feel that the hardware needs to be less obtrusive – not just in the size of the headset (although it does feel very light and comfortable to wear) but the fact that at least three other pieces of hardware (PS4 console, PS4 camera and VR processing unit plus optional PS Move controllers) are needed to make it work. Personally I think I’ll be holding out for the inevitable PS VR v2 before I start trying to convince my wife we need one…


Kubo and the Two Strings

I’ve always had a thing for stop-motion, ever since I saw the work of Ray Harryhausen when I was really young. These days, there aren’t many movie studios opting to use stop-motion for special effects, but for the last few years Laika have been using it almost exclusively to tell their stories on screen.

Last night my little boy and I saw Laika’s latest stop-motion movie, Kubo and the Two Strings. We’d been looking forward to it for a while as we’d seen the trailers and were excited by the incredible visuals. The way Kubo used a musical instrument to battle mythical creatures seemed pretty cool too. Happily, it lived up to all our expectations.

The visuals were stunning throughout. Laika used various techniques to produce the character models and sets, from Origami to 3D printing, and there is real artistry evident in the end results. I spent the first part of the film marvelling at the production, and being genuinely amazed at how the animators at Laika managed to produce such incredible and moving performances from their puppets. As the movie went on I was completely drawn in by the story, and Kubo’s quest to find a set of magic armour once owned by his father. It’s an epic tale and at times surprisingly emotional, for what is essentially a children’s movie.

What’s really striking about Kubo and the Two Strings is how it manages to be a work of art while at the same time being a hugely entertaining and accessible movie.

Stranger Things

I’ve just reached the end of the new Netflix series Stranger Things, and I have to say it was the most enjoyable TV I’ve seen in a long time.

Written and directed by the Duffer Brothers, a major part of the show’s appeal (at least for me) is its retro aesthetic, which borrows heavily from a variety of iconic 80s movies; the most notable being ET and The Goonies. The overall style and execution seems to have struck a chord with many folks of a certain age, taking some familiar and well-loved themes and story beats, and wrapping them in a shamelessly nostalgic package.

As the series progressed though, the level to which the Duffer Brothers borrowed from other sources began to grate with me a little [SPOILERS AHEAD]. Kids on bikes being chased by sinister government agents, who manage to escape when their special new friend uses superpowers… I wouldn’t be surprised if that sequence alone didn’t prompt a phonecall from Steven Spielberg to his lawyers [END SPOILERS].

That’s not to say the success of the series relies solely on its more derivative elements. Even without the striking similarities to other sources there’s a great story here, and Millie Bobby Brown is incredible in the role of Elle/11.

I don’t tend to watch a lot of TV – massively popular series like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad have so far gone completely over my head. But the initial premise of Stranger Things was enough to draw me in, and the twists and turns (not to mention excellent soundtrack) were enough to keep me hooked right until the last scenes. In fact I enjoyed it so much I’ll probably be re-watching it very soon.


INKS by State of Play Games

INKS is the brand new iOS game from State of Play, the team behind (amongst other things) the award-winning Lumino City.

INKS is essentially a pinball game (ask your parents) but with the novel twist of using your balls (oo-er Missus) to burst blocks of colour, thus creating works of art across the tables. In gameplay terms, the aim of each level is to burst all of the colour blocks. When all blocks have been burst the level is complete, however the way different colour bursts can be created on the same tables means the urge to replay levels can be pretty strong. It’s without doubt the prettiest game I’ve played in quite a while; even the progress screen is pure eye candy.

screenshots from INKS iOS game

INKS is available for the ridiculously reasonable sum of £1.49 for iOS devices now.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

So the first teaser trailer has just been released for Rogue One:A Star Wars Story. It’s the first movie since Disney bought Lucasfilm to be set in the Star Wars universe, but not actually part of the continuing saga of Luke Skywalker et al., and in my opinion it’s looking pretty bloody good.

It’ll be interesting to see how audiences engage with a Star Wars movie that doesn’t feature the characters they all know and love – although there are rumours the movie will feature a certain Jedi-gone-bad – and it’s obvious from the footage in the trailer there will be plenty of familiar elements to keep fans happy. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is due out on December 16th.