Why now is the time to enter the Matrix (or just buy a VR headset…)

Oculus Rift

Remember the first time you ever saw virtual reality in action? You were young and impressionable and thought it was surely the coolest possible way to play videogames. But it was probably at a time when VR was either a fictional device used as a plot point in some far-off quasi-futuristic movie, or a massive, clunky headset which cost tens of thousands of dollars and shared its three polygons with an Amiga 500 busy running Total Eclipse.

You’re going to need a banging GPU to go with your VR diet, so pick from our selection of the best graphics cards around today.

But now it’s really real and, thanks to some Oculus summer madness, you can grab a complete VR headset with bespoke controllers for less than $400(£400). For our money, the Rift is the most consumer-friendly headset out there, and now easily the best value.

The Vive may be technologically superior as its tracking is so damned on point, but the act of setting the mess of cabling up and getting it to play nice with your PC can be a genuine pain in the frontal lobes. The Rift has a nicer design aesthetic, built-in headphones (more beneficial than you might imagine), and is a comparative doddle to set up. Oh yeah, and it’s also some $400 cheaper…

I know it’s still kinda fashionable to be all like ‘screw VR, it’s dead in the water’, but come on, where’s that wide-eyed kid, excited for our shared sci-fi future? Has life in these post-truth times really beaten all that hope and optimism out of you? I know life can be tough right now, so surely a little escapism is all the more necessary, right? And strapping an entire universe of immersive experiences and games directly to your eyeballs is about as escapist as you’re going to get this side of an afternoon vaping DMT.

Oculus Rift Asynchronous Spacewarp

But I get it. When the Rift and Vive first launched they were super-high-priced gadgets, which needed an ubermensch of a PC to deliver a vomit-free experience, when all you had was little more than an interactive walkthrough of My Little Pony’s Dream Glue Factory to show for your empty bank account.

It’s not like that any longer. With the price of the Oculus Rift+Touch controller bundle now around the same price as a moderately powerful graphics card, it’s never been a better time to get sweaty, disorientated, and obsessed with virtual reality. Sure, I’m talking about jumping on the first generation of modern VR hardware, and there is important new technology being worked on for the next-gen VR headsets, like increased resolutions and (thank the maker) wireless connectivity. But those are all going to add another hefty price premium on top.

They’re also not likely to arrive for a good long while. Oculus have announced a standalone wireless VR headset for next year but that’s going to be some cheap, low-rent halfway house between the current Rift and Google Cardboard. So, you’re going to have to wait a long time for a quality headset to come along with the power, or the value, of the current Rift.

And there’s finally frickin’ content now, people.

There have been a few quality, long-form games from the beginning, such as The Assembly, but it’s only getting better. All those Picard fantasies you’ve held since you first heard about Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator can now be fully lived out via Star Trek Bridge Crew. Okay, not all those Picard fantasies, but you keep them ones to yourself now, eh? But if you prefer your fetishes more rubber-coated than in Federation pyjamas, there’s Batman: Arkham VR.

Greatest detective… pah. What about the greatest scientist (and most sociopathic grandfather)? The Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality is genuinely like immersing yourself into the sub-plot of a twisted end of season holiday special episode of the show.

Robo Recall

But, if you’re more interested in the classic ol’ shooty-shooty-bang-bang, Epic’s Robo Recall will have you exercising your firing range muscle memory, as well as giving you that cathartic feeling of destroying malfunctioning technology without the immediate regret of having smashed up your expensive gaming rig in a fit of pique ‘cos it just keeps on rebooting every single bloody time you try and get the fucker to shut down. Just me? Okay…

Of course, today’s PC VR is by no means perfect. You still need to spend a pretty penny on a rig capable of dealing with the demands of VR, but those demands have come down over the last 12 months. My biggest issue with that, however, is it doesn’t take into account the kind of PC you need for VR.

Forget VR backpacks, seriously they’re more trouble than they’re worth. Your desktop rig is probably a hazard-in-the-making too – the likelihood of you having enough space around where your PC box precariously balances to flail your arms without breaking something valuable, dangerous or, y’know, attached to you, is pretty small. Gaming laptops are genuinely the best devices to use with a VR headset. You can set them up wherever you need, they’re easy to move about, and come with a screen attached so you can bug-fix whatever weirdness goes down during your session.

But they’re still damned pricey for a machine with a capable GPU, though we’ve seen some super sexy ones lately, like this MSI-skinned beauty from Chillblast.

Chillblast Samurai performance

We’re also not at the Ready Player One stage yet where you can spend your entire gaming life suspended in virtual reality. It’s currently only comfortable to game in VR for a relatively short stint, and there are some games which really don’t get anything added from having a VR extension. I was expecting Elite: Dangerous to be the game which meant I would never peel the Rift from my face, but the fact it meant I had to ditch my HOTAS controller and dial back the resolution were steps too far.

But we are at the stage where the games and software are improving all the time. The VR devs are overcoming their early-tech teething problems, finding their ways around the issues thrown up by their early titles, and now have time, know-how, and the resources to focus on creating great games and not just experiences.

And there are more gems hidden away in plain sight too, from retro-fitted VR adventures like the Solus Project to stunning creative treats like Tilt Brush and the awesome SoundStage – seriously, it’s like being wrapped in a 3D version of Propellerhead’s Reason.

So, with the gaming goods a-coming, that makes now the perfect time to get in on the VR action if you’ve ever had even the mildest passing fancy for the future of gaming. At $399 (£399) the Rift+Touch bundle is a bargain, and even when it goes back up to its new price of $499 for the kit it ain’t bad.

Though I do kinda feel they’d be foolish to push the price back up now we’ve had a taste…