Valve co-created the HTC Vive, and they’re quite the venerable game development studio. As such, many VR enthusiasts were counting on Valve to deliver the killer app that would send Vive headsets flying off e-shelves and unapologetically yank money from our wallets like a Steam Summer Sale. The Lab is what they’ve delivered, and while it may not be the game we’ve all been pining for that ends with the number “3,” it’s a fantastic showpiece for the HTC Vive, the perfect introduction to virtual reality, and a playground that’s difficult to walk away from.
If this is the future of teaching tools, sign me up for a lifetime subscription.
The Lab cleverly disguises itself as a suite of addictive mini-games and experiences — mostly within the Portal universe — possessing that trademark Valve polish and sharp humor, but don’t be fooled: it’s instructional software. Offered for free on SteamVR to Vive users, it introduces players to important virtual reality concepts like room-scale, locomotion, projectile physics, and object interaction (I still haven’t grown tired of just blowing up a balloon and sending it realistically on its way with a slap).
If this is the future of teaching tools, sign me up for a lifetime subscription. Sure, it’s educational in the sense that Valve is deftly showing you every aspect of your new virtual reality toy, but it’s also ludicrous amounts of fun.
The Lab begins at a leisurely pace by teleporting players to a living “postcard,” in this case Vesper Peak in Washington, faithfully recreated using a technique known as photogrammetry. You can physically walk around, pick up and throw a stick for Fetch-bot, or teleport to various vantage points to take in the scenery. By simply placing you on this mountain and giving you no more than a couple textual and environmental cues, Valve has taught you literally everything you need to know about enjoying the Vive.
Later you’re dropped into the titular lab and given the freedom to roam about and select what your next adventure will be. You can enjoy a few more of the scenic “postcards” (although none are as breathtakingly beautiful as Vesper Peak), but you’ll want to jump straight into Longbow, a tower defense game that puts you in the shoes of a bow and arrow marksman trying to prevent a horde of silhouette invaders from sacking the castle.
Longbow just feels magical. Audio cues combine with the Vive’s motion controller haptics to create an illusion of resistance in your mind. You feel like you’re really pulling back on the string and letting the arrow fly. You can lean over and peer down from the ledge you’re standing on to take down invaders underneath with a headshot, or turn around and light your arrow on fire to melt away shielded enemies. And it’s all done with colorful humor and masterful game mechanics that don’t require even the shortest tutorial. You’ll know intuitively what to do, and you’ll be back for more because your shots feel so accurate that you’ll notice yourself improving after each round.
You won’t return repeatedly to everything inside The Lab, but several will leave you craving fully-developed incarnations.
Xortex remains my favorite mini-game in The Lab. Remember the old shmups like Galaga? This is a wondrous bullet hell-infused VR recreation of those classic arcade games. Here, you’re holding your ship in your hand, moving it around like a child might imitate flight with a paper airplane. You simply aim the ship at invading enemies and pull the trigger to fire on them, making sure to physically ducking and weaving to avoid enemy fire. Again, it’s fun distilled down to its purest form. Uncomplicated and whimsical, while simultaneously reinforcing that you can move around realistically in 3D space.
In total The Lab offers 8 brief experiences (including a chilling close encounter with GLaDOS), from the serene postcards to Longbow’s tower defense, from robot repairs to secret rooms hiding a host of enchanted creatures from DotA 2. Valve also rewards you with toys and trinkets that represent each pocket universe that you can experiment with inside the lab itself.
You won’t return repeatedly to everything inside The Lab, but several will leave you craving fully-developed incarnations. I’d gladly give Valve $20 for a complete game in the Xortex universe, and I’m begging other VR developers to create a tower defense game that uses all manner of bows and elemental arrows. Here’s to hoping that, at the very least, Valve will create a few content expansions.
Platform: HTC Vive
Price: Free to HTC Vive users
Release Date: April 5th, 2016
Comfort Rating: Comfortable
The Lab isn’t what you’d consider a traditional system seller, although it demonstrates virtual reality so elegantly and convincingly that it stands to sell additional HTC Vive systems by selling VR itself. If you’re expecting a Vive, slide The Lab to the top of your “play first” list. If you already have a Vive, dazzle your friends and family with The Lab, because it’s Valve at their absolute best. Even if it’s not a game that ends with the number “3.”
Read our Game Review Guidelines for more information on how we arrived at this score.