Immersive, accessible VR experiences have long been a goal for game developers, but until recent years, that goal has felt slightly out of reach.
While the public has long been eager to visit virtual worlds like they saw in film and on TV, for decades VR technology was limited by the price of equipment, the power of the hardware the average gamer owned, and a general lack of quality titles. In the second half of the 2010s, however, affordable VR technology moved away from the realm of science fiction and into gamers’ homes. In the past few years, massive franchises like Star Wars, The Avengers, and Half-Life have been made into notable VR experiences, and the tech has steadily become more impressive.
Beyond that, tons of smaller developers have designed their own VR titles, helping to innovate the growing genre and provide niche experiences for dedicated enthusiasts. Here are 2021’s best VR games, from high-profile releases with VR components to indie titles that may have flown under the radar for many gamers.
Hitman 3 VR
One of the best VR experiences this year shipped with one of the first AAA titles that made it to shelves in 2021: Hitman 3. The most recent entry in the timeline of Agent 47 is a polished addition to the long-running series. Hitman 3 took the formula established in the 2016 reboot of the franchise and perfecting it for a solid entry that earned high marks from critics across all major platforms.
The PS4 version of Hitman also gives players the chance to play the entire game in VR with the PSVR headset. While Hitman 3 was designed as a traditional third-person stealth game, IO Interactive managed to make the results work, delivering the best-reviewed VR game of 2021. Upload VR said, "Hitman 3’s slick professionalism and lethal efficiency make for an empowering, exciting VR caper with plenty on offer."
Hitman 3 is also one of the more expansive VR experiences available on the PSVR. While gamers can beat the core story in about ten hours, anyone who already owns 2016’s Hitman or 2018’s Hitman 2 can import those titles’ levels into Hitman 3, effectively letting them play through those games in VR as well.
While many high-profile VR titles, such as Half-life: Alyx or Microsoft Flight Simulator, put a premium on presentation, others are willing to forgo hyper-realistic graphics and focus on mechanics instead. Hyper Dash, a competitive five vs. five shooter available on the Valve Index, Oculus Rift, and HTC Vive, falls very much into the second category, with simple visuals supporting solid VR gameplay.
To get the most out of Hyper Dash, players need to be ready to face a steep learning curve in a game that requires the mastery of VR movement in a competitive arena. Players walk and sprint like any other shooter, but what sets Hyper Dash apart is the constant teleportation that players use to move around the map and gain advantageous positioning. Every mode except deathmatch is team-based, meaning you almost always have squadmates to watch your back, although even they won’t be able to save you on many occasions.
Pure Player VR‘s review said, "You will struggle at first and going online straight away may not be the best option, but once you’ve got the controls down, found your way of playing, and gotten familiar with the maps, it’s a blast to play.
If there’s one thing that VR technology strives for, it is immersion. The opportunity to place gamers in a 360-degree environment that reacts naturally to intuitive movement is a unique opportunity for compelling world-building, and games such as Cosmodread show how VR can take the horror genre to the next level.
Cosmodread sends players into the dimly lit corridors of a dying spaceship with a torch and weapons with slow, manual elements, such as a crossbow that needs to be drawn for each use or a pump-action shotgun. The procedurally generated level design keeps players from ever knowing what might be around the next corner, keeping tensions high in what VRFocus called "A definite must-have for those that love this genre."
Anyone looking for the best horror-survival VR experience of the year can pick up a copy of Cosmodread, which is available for Windows Mixed Reality, HTC Vive, Valve Index, and Oculus Rift headsets.
Floor Plan 2
Since most VR setups require a pretty substantial financial commitment, some of the best VR games that have come out in 2021 are designed with serious gamers in mind. However, the developers at Turbo Button are not afraid to dive into a much lighter world with Floor Plan 2, a simple puzzler with a charming and approachable aesthetic.
Floor Plan 2 takes players into the muppet-inspired world of a fictional company called Puzzl as a new hire eager to get their bearings in the office and solve some surprisingly tricky puzzles. Players visit differently themed rooms, such as a nightclub, a space station, and a museum, traveling from one floor to the next thanks to a transdimensional elevator system. The art direction, improved mobility options, and solid challenges posed by the game’s puzzles help make Floor Plan 2 one of the year’s standout VR experiences.
According to The VR Grid, "Floor Plan 2 is as good as VR puzzler as any out there and this 2nd installment has, in my mind, established it as a franchise to be respected." Gamers can play this family-friendly puzzler for Oculus and Steam VR systems, with support for PSVR expected to arrive sometime later this year.
While VR games offer plenty of opportunities for developers to innovate mechanics and find fresh takes on old genres, the technology behind them is also capable of producing beautiful visuals. That’s the part of the experience that Mare highlights, as it casts the player as a bird helping a lost little girl find her way through an abandoned but stunning ancient ruin.
Mare has been in development for years, and its striking graphics have long drawn comparisons to like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Now that the game has arrived, those comparisons have only gotten stronger. Due to the game’s lack of dialogue or traditional narrative, its visuals are often made a focal point of the experience. However, this plays to the game’s true strength. Upload VR‘s review stated, "Mare is a breathless beauty of a VR game – simplistic in its progression perhaps but never anything less than astonishing to take in."
Critics have been enthusiastic about Mare, despite the game’s short length. The VR Grid noted that the game can be beaten within three hours, although the reviewer said it remains "worth every penny" of its $20 price tag. Mare is currently available on Oculus Quest.