Games like ‘Augmented Empire’ are why Gear VR needs a controller

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If you’ve ever used a Samsung Gear VR before, you’ve probably found yourself awkwardly tapping the side of the headset to issue a command, or fumbling with its four-way touchpad to make a selection in a menu. This inelegant, embedded touch control is a necessary evil — a compromise that allows the headset to be a self-contained VR experience free of the complicated peripherals and set-up required of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. I struggled with its faults at Oculus GDC demo day, as I uncomfortably tapped my way through a battle in Augmented Empire.

Holding my arm to the side of the headset, constantly rapping the side of it to direct characters and attack enemies, I thought that there had to be a better way to control a tactical RPG in virtual reality. Then somebody told me that Samsung hand announced a new Gear VR earlier that morning. One with a motion controller. That sounds so much better.

The new Gear VR’s included motion controller is more than just Samsung’s answer to Google Daydream, it’s a piece that’s been missing from Oculus’ mobile VR platform — and nothing makes that more apparent then a game like Augmented Empire. It’s a tactical RPG akin to games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and tasks the player with leading a soldier through a series of story-driven battles played on a grid. Well, technically, in Augmented Empire the battles are played on a very meta augmented reality hologram platform within the virtual reality experience, but the net result is still a top-down tactical battle game that needs the player to input a lot of commands. The Gear VR is terrible at that.

It’s not that the experience isn’t passable — using the center of the player’s vision as a cursor and "clicking" by rapping the side of the headset is a tried and true Gear VR control setup — but holding up your arm for extended periods of time gets old quick. By the end of my moderately short demo, I was already tired of it. Even just having a handheld button to replace the arm-extending tap would improve the experience by a wide margin.

Fortunately, it’s coming. Augmented Empire’s developer told me they were excited about the new Gear VR controller, agreeing that the game is at its best with a proper input device. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an experience I was able to have: despite announcing the new Gear VR and controller that morning, the new hardware wasn’t on demo at Oculus’ GDC showcase.

Still, it’s a promising development for Samsung’s mobile VR kit, and not just because it will make games like Augmented Empire better. If Oculus Connect 3 taught us anything, it’s that motion controls are a game changer in VR — a seemingly small, but significant tweak that makes even the most basic VR experiences feel more immersive. Bringing a simplified version of that to mobile VR is welcome, and frankly, long overdue.

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