Update: Remember that Star Wars VR game we saw at GDC 2016? You can snag it on HTC Vive starting on Monday, July 18 free of charge.
Original review continues below...
Imagine that you're in the audience of the historic screening of L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat, the 1895 short film that depicted a train coming towards the audience. Imagine seeing a moving image, an entirely new medium, unfold before your eyes for the very first time.
Picture that, with all the emotions of fear and joy and surprise and wonder, and I think you'll be able to begin to understand what it's like using the HTC Vive.
Describing what it's like to use virtual reality of this caliber is an almost impossible job. It's like describing video games to someone who's never played them before or a symphony performance to someone who has never been to a concert. It's possible, yes, but the words you use will pale in comparison to the experience of actually trying it for yourself.
But, from both my experience and that of the dozen or so guests I've had stop by to try the Vive over the past two weeks, the Lumiere train analogy remains the best I can come up with.
Virtual reality is an entirely new medium and, to that end, has some of the problems all new mediums face when they first start out. The naysayers will claim that there aren't full games out yet – technically not a true statement, but one I hear all the time nonetheless.
They'll say that it's too expensive and the hardware just isn't that good yet, but while it's a somewhat pricey setup, the experience you'll get on the HTC Vive is unrivaled. It's lightyears ahead of Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR, miles ahead of PlayStation VR and completely floors its main competitor, the Oculus Rift.
When paired with the proper hardware – a PC with an Intel Core i5-4590K and either a Nvidia GTX 970 or AMD R9 390 GPU – the HTC Vive is an incredible gateway into a new medium, one that is currently dominated by short demos and rough-around-the-edges games, but should one day play host to full-length films, television shows and contemporary art.
The positives, in condensed form, include: one-to-one movement tracking; a perfectly natural 110-degree field of view; there's nary a screen tear or dropped frame when you're using the right equipment; movement feels natural; it has best-in-class controllers; and the experiences, the demos and the games available through SteamVR, simply blow the competitors away.
The headset will start shipping soon and, thanks to a partnership with Valve, it will launch with dozens of games and experiences for you to try on day one.
But before we tackle games, let's take on the elephant in the room: price.
The HTC Vive itself sells for $799 / £689 / €899, and that's before you buy a computer with the recommended specs.
For comparison, the Vive costs twice as much as the PlayStation VR and $200 more than Oculus Rift. Now, ultimately the question is whether you'll find that it's worth the extra cash for a better experience.
That's a fair discussion to have, albeit one that we can do almost nothing about right now. New hardware, especially at the cutting edge of a nascent industry, is going to be expensive.
But wait, why is it so expensive? What exactly does it do?
How does the HTC Vive work?
The first time we got our hands on the HTC Vive was at Mobile World Congress 2015, where HTC first made the announcement of its partnership with Valve, and it has been retooled and vastly improved since that original showing.
The consumer version works wonderfully, is vastly easier to setup and feels ready to be shipped to the public which, considering that units are supposed to go out any day now, is a very good thing.
Like other virtual reality headsets, the Vive has the arduous task of completely immersing you in a video game by producing two images simultaneously. However, unlike PlayStation VR and Oculus Rift that use a single camera to track your head and extremities, HTC Vive has two base stations, which sit on the wall attached to the included wall mounts or a high shelf and help map track your movements as you walk around in the 3D world.
What the stations track are small divots on the top of the two controllers and on the headset itself. There are 72 of these dots speckling the controllers and helmet that help accurately track the Vive.
Inside every box is a Vive headset unit, two controllers, two base stations, a cloth to wipe down the lenses, a small hub that sits between the headset and your PC, charging cords for the controllers and power cables for base stations. Also packaged with every unit are three games: Job Simulator, Fantastic Contraption and The Lab. It's everything you're going to need for a great virtual reality experience minus the computer that powers the whole thing.
New to the consumer version is a spectacularly simple setup program that should, for the vast majority of tech enthusiasts, allow you to breeze through the setup process.
Once you're plugged in and the room has been mapped out, you're free to roam around every inch of the digital space. This means digital worlds can be more expansive and more immersive on the Vive than the other two systems and, thankfully, less nausea-inducing, too.
The only limitations you'll encounter once inside your digital world are faint blue walls made up of lines that keep you inside the playzone. These blue lines are superimposed into your game by SteamVR, the software put out by Valve that's running underneath every virtual experience.
It's called "chaperone mode," and its practical application is to prevent you from moving too far outside the area that you've set up for the Vive and potentially stumbling into furniture/plants/animals/etc around your home and hurting yourself.
As for the games themselves, what's there is simply amazing.
In the course of two weeks, I've played 20 or so titles, some of which are much, much better than others. I'll cover them in detail in a moment but, in short, they were mostly fantastic showcases for VR, full of personality and just as varied as you might expect. One minute I was on top of a castle fending off stickman invaders with a bow and arrow, the next I was inside of an arcade cabinet fighting spaceships in three dimensions. I played mini-golf on an impossibly constructed multi-level course and trained to become both a ninja and space pirate.
Some of what I just described is part of Valve's The Lab, a collection of games that the iconic developer put together to introduce players to virtual reality. While I haven't seen every third-party title on the Vive (it's almost impossible considering that about 5-10 new games have been added every day in the past two weeks), the difference between first-party and third-party titles are night and day.
This is something I see changing in the coming weeks, months and years, however, and not something I hold against the system on day one.