HTC Vive promises the best option for virtual reality – but with a high price, power-hungry processing needs and confusing set-up needs, can it live up to its own hype?

Virtual reality is still a technology caught in that rarefied state where, outside of early adopters and format devotees, many people can't quite believe it exists. Mention you have a VR kit to anyone who's aware enough to know what it is, but not committed enough to drop a couple of grand on a bleeding edge PC and a first-gen consumer headset, and the response is likely to be a cautious, almost whispered: "Is it.... good?"

The answer will depend on who's asking, particularly in the case of HTC Vive. The headset, co-developed by Taiwanese tech firm HTC and gaming magnate Valve, is unrivalled when it comes to showing off what virtual reality can do – especially at room scale, rather than chained to a desk – but it also spotlights how far the technology has to go before mainstream consumers will adopt en masse.

Chiefly, it's a matter of accessibility. Aside from the aforementioned price and tech barrier – whether you're looking at Vive or its prime rival Oculus Rift, the required specs for VR are daunting and costly for all but the hardest of hardcore PC gamers – the kit is, bluntly, a pain to set up.

HTC wants to make you think setting up the Vive is as easy as one, two, three. We mean that literally – the A2 sheet that comes packed in with the hardware breaks it down to a three step process of planning a play area, downloading an installation package, and then all you need to do is "set up VR". Simple, right? Wrong.

That last step obscures volumes. Aside from basic side-missions on the quest to getting VR working (making sure graphics card drivers are up to date, having Steam VR installed, or faffing to register an HTC account and password) you'll probably need to engage in a spot of DIY. Vive's big selling point over Oculus Rift is that it offers room-scale VR; that is, allowing you to move about in physical space, to more closely feel like you're inhabiting the unreal worlds served up by the headset.

To achieve this, the tech requires you position two sensors around your intended play space. These need to be at least six feet high, roughly opposite each other, and angled downwards so they scan an overlapping area. If the units had flat bases with the sensors angled downwards internally, they could be placed on a bookshelf or other tall piece of furniture. As it is, and in what seems a design oversight, they're cuboid and point directly outwards. To angle appropriately, you're supposed to either drill brackets into your walls to support them on pivots, or screw them onto industry-standard tripods or light stands.
In WIRED's case, for temporary review purposes, we precariously balanced them on the edge of a CD case to get the desired effect, and hoped blindly stomping around in a VR helmet didn't cause them to fall. It didn't, thankfully, but a choice between home renovation, buying film crew kit, or risking valuable equipment isn't a great one. The sensors also require a power supply, and although the supplied cord is a lengthy three metres, it may still not be long enough for some homes. More design-conscious owners may lament having to have cables trailing down their walls, too.

The next step is to map a play area. In principle, this is simple – hold one of the Vive controllers at arm's length, walk around your open space, and Steam VR sketches out an invisible boundary. In-game, when you approach the limits of your play space, this will fade into view, with guidelines warning you not to step much further. The only problem is the Vive needs a lot of space. It works best at 4.6m², but WIRED was only able to clear enough space for a 2m x 3m area. Many UK living rooms or home offices won't be so lucky.
Hooking the Vive headset up to your computer is a lot easier though – and with few downsides. A small base unit simultaneously connects to the HDMI socket, a USB 3.0 port and a plug socket, and has enough slack to be positioned close to the front of your PC. The 5m 'tail' that trails from the headset then connects into the front of the base unit, giving you a decent range of movement. There are no built-in headphones, but a standard headphone jack allows for anything from earbuds to full surround sound earphones to be used.
At 555g, the headset is on the heavy side. Arguably worse, it's front-heavy, the visor slipping slowly down your face no matter how tight you adjust the elasticated velcro straps. It's comfortable though, with the padded facemask sitting gently on your face. Equally comfortable are the two Vive controllers, which defy their abnormal looking configuration to deliver a good level of tactile engagement in virtual worlds.

Anyone who's used a Wii remote will feel immediately familiar with the wand-like contraptions, although these are considerably more advanced. Each has a track pad in the centre, which gamescan use however they like. Some will map them as four-button controllers, making use of the clickable functionality, while others rely on the capacitive touch control. A trigger on the underside and two buttons on either side of the grip provide fixed controls, while rumble functions provide physical feedback to what you do in games. The controllers also need charging – making it five pieces of kit that comprise the Vive that require plugs – but these at least store a charge. Battery life is impressive, too.
Any and all of the above complaints have to be followed by the most heavily-qualified "but" in history. Because, once you've bought a cutting-edge PC, drilled holes in your walls, re-arranged your living room and jumped through whatever other hoops your individual set-up requires, HTC Vive is absolutely worth it.

In-game, the Vive's 2160x1200 pixel display (delivered by two lenses serving up a resolution of 1080x1200 per eye) is impressive, even though pixels can still be spotted. Some developers have compared creating games for virtual reality to stepping back to the Nintendo 64 era, and while that's broadly true – VR games that visually rival the likes of Uncharted 4 are still some way off – what's already on offer is still mind-blowing.

There's a moment in The Lab – Valve's free starter pack of eight short VR games, set in Portal's Aperture Science facilities – that hammers this home. In Secret Shop, which is more a sort of guided scene than a game proper, you're left in a magical bric-a-brac shop. As the lights go dim and you start hearing things come to life, you're drawn to a drain in the centre of the room. Get up close, and you see something move. Kneel down – yes, actually on your hands and knees – and you can poke your head into the grate.... prompting the beast inside to leap out and run off. It's a simple jump-scare, but one so masterfully pulled off in how it lures you in that it bodes well for VR's growth as a storytelling medium.

The rest of The Lab is similarly impressive. Longbow turns the dual controllers into a bow and arrow, aiming with one arm and drawing back arrows with the other. Part shooting gallery, part tower defence, its simple pick-up-and-play mechanics are supremely intuitive – so much so that a non-gaming partner we forced to try it out was asking for another go. Similarly Slingshot, where you use Portal's chatty personality core robots as catapult ammo to destroy targets – grab with one hand/controller, load them up, pull back and fire. Simple, cathartic destruction.

Xortex may be the pinnacle of the sample games. Fashioned after bullet hell shooters, you guide a drone around the inside of a sphere, moving to dodge the cacophony of bullets spewed by enemies. You'll start off merely pointing and shooting, but you're soon crawling into strange shapes around your living room as you swerve to avoid enemy fire. It's addictive in the best way.

Although Vive's long cabling is a constant, nagging concern – the pull of the tether is omnipresent, a lingering trip hazard that plays on your mind and shatters total immersion – the ability to truly move around in virtual reality is liberating. While only being able to take a few actual steps in terms of distance means you'll have to recalibrate your in-game position regularly (games will differ on how this is done, but usually a case of pointing at an area with a controller and clicking to re-centre), you'll still feel far more engaged with the environments you find yourself than you would from only being able to look around them.
Spend any time with the Vive, and its strengths become apparent. Going back to the likes of Oculus Rift and not being able to move around or physically interact with the world feels like a step backwards – a ridiculous notion for technology not even six months old in a consumer sense, but one that should incentivise Oculus to get its own room-scale VR solution out the door as soon as possible.

Is HTC Vive perfect? No, far from it – it's heavy, expensive, a pain to set up, and far too complex for anyone not dedicated to the emerging field of virtual reality to want to engage with. But if you're not the one having to do the setting up and can just enjoy the final experience, or you do fall into that dedicated early adopter audience, it's the best high-end VR option on the market at present.