The Valve Index VR system finally gets an official Australian release on August 18 as an EB Games exclusive. Having taken it for a spin over the last few weeks, I can say that as far as consumer VR goes, this is easily the best I’ve experienced so far, but it comes with a couple of considerable caveats.
Valve Index: The Australian Price
You’ve probably already guessed the first — a rather hefty price tag. The entire kit, which includes the headset, two controllers and two base stations, will set you back $1,899.95. There are options to buy pieces separately, though. The headset alone costs $999, a single base station $249.95, a controller 2-pack for $499.95 and a headset and controller pack at $1,499.
Of course, this is additional to the cost of a VR-ready gaming PC, which isn’t actually as wild in 2021 as it was when the first consumer Oculus Rift was released in 2016 — Valve recommends a quad-core CPU and Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 or better. It’s a barrier to entry nonetheless, but I’d also wager that anyone looking to fork out big bucks on a top-tier VR setup already has a gutsy rig ready to go.
The second issue is space. While you can opt for a standing-only option over a room-scale setup, you still need to be able to place the two base stations at different points around you, which can be a bit tricky depending on where you have your PC setup. I’ll explore this in more detail a little later.
The Valve Index Headset
If you’re familiar with VR headsets, there shouldn’t be any surprises here. It’s a fairly standard head-mounted design with all of the usual adjustable bits and bobs — a backstrap, velcro head strap, a knob that allows you to change the distance of the dual lenses to your face, and a slider that adjusts their pupillary distance (how close together the lenses are).
Once set up, the Valve Index sits comfortably on my head and feels secure when I move around. The harness and facemask are both padded with memory foam and covered with anti-microbial fabric, which is great for both comfort and the durability of the headset. My original Oculus Rift really started to get grubby after a few hot summer months, so it’s nice to see some thought’s gone into that side of things.
On the front, there’s a plastic cover that’s held in place magnetically. Behind it, there’s access to a USB port that Valve calls the “Frunk” which could be used for mods in the future, but doesn’t seem to have any official use at the moment.
The headset has one long (just under 5 metres) cable that connects to a second shorter cable which breaks out into three connections — power, display and USB. While the two-part cable system is obviously a great safety feature that’ll stop you from accidentally dragging your computer across the ground, I actually really like it for storage purposes. Because I don’t really have anywhere to store the headset while it’s connected, being able to plug in one cable sure beats having to root around the back of my PC to plug in three.
Inside the headset, each LCD display has a resolution of 1,600 x 1,440 with a 120Hz refresh rate. There’s also an experimental 144Hz mode and backward compatibility for 80Hz and 90Hz. Other headsets, like the Quest 2, top out at 90Hz. As I’ll explain later, this does actually make a difference to the experience.
In terms of image quality, it’s one of the clearest I’ve experienced in VR so far. It’s still not perfect, but clear enough to see things at distance compared to my experience with the original Oculus Rift.
On the front, there are two cameras that allow you to visualise real-world objects, which is super handy for reaching out to move something or just avoid tripping over in general. The in-game chaperone system also shows you a virtual outline of your play area which will keep you from belting a wall or TV with your flailing hands.
The Valve Index Controllers
This is where the Valve Index really separates itself from the competition. Each controller is able to track the movement of individual fingers, as well as gripping motions. The hand straps, when adjusted, are comfortable and feel secure enough to allow free finger movement, but there is a wrist strap on each controller for safety.
The finger tracking isn’t perfect, but to be fair, games aren’t exactly calling for much more than a pointed index finger to push a button at this stage, so it’s not that big of a deal. I will say this, though — flipping off enemy soldiers in VR is strangely cathartic.
One thing that pleasantly surprised me is the haptic feedback. During the first chapter of Half-Life: Alyx — which comes bundled with the Index — I gripped a virtual whiteboard marker to pick it up and wrote on the window in front of me. When the tip of the marker touched the virtual window, a small tap let me know I made contact, allowing me to draw impressively accurately. In games that implemented it well, I found this feature to really heighten the level of immersion.
Outside of these features, the controllers are pretty much business as usual. Each has a directional stick, two buttons, a trigger, a smaller system button and a touchpad surface in the middle.
Setting up the Valve Index process
Unfortunately, this is where I ran into some issues.
My PC is set up in a corner of my living area where it isn’t particularly easy to find a permanent position for the two base stations. In the end, I placed one on top of a shelf next to my PC, and another on a stool I had to place on the other side of the room. The hardest part about these placements is that they each have to be close enough to a power outlet, and Valve is quite clear that they should be placed on diagonally opposing ends of your play area.
It wasn’t possible to meet those criteria in my space without cutting off our hallway with a power cable, so I used the afformentioned stool to sit the base station on, which was kinda diagonal, but more so directly opposite. Because I rent, I can’t permanently attach it to the wall and even if I did, I’d have still have to run a cable to the nearest power outlet, which would look pretty messy. At least with the stool setup, I can just pack it all away after a session.
This is a fairly minor gripe compared to getting the thing to actually work on my PC. For context, I’m running an Intel i9-10850K, 32GB of RAM, RTX 3070 with the latest drivers installed and ready to go. Upon connecting everything and firing up Steam VR, I was hit with a message that my headset display was disconnected. After Googling the error, it’s apparent that this is not an uncommon issue.
I tried all of the fixes — unplugging and plugging the headset back in, changing the DisplayPort on my graphics card, re-installing drivers, unplugging my Xbox controller and a myriad of other suggestions. Eventually, after a last few desperate restarts of the headset, it started working. I have no idea what it was that actually fixed it, only that it took a good two hours of trial and error.
Most subsequent sessions started off fine, but the error did rear its head a few more times. Luckily, I was able to fix it with an indeterminate number of restarts and port changes. Various posts made by people experiencing the same issue date back a little while, so this clearly isn’t a new issue. It’s a bummer that people are continuing to experience this issue with such a premium product, but most did praise Valves handling of replacement units.
Once everything was connected and working, setting up the play space was relatively easy and straightforward. Similar to other VR systems, it mostly involves pointing a controller at the ground and drawing out your playable area.
Despite the setup struggle, when everything’s humming along, it absolutely kicks ass. I spent most of my time in Half-Life: Alyx which, in my opinion, is as close to a VR ‘killer app’ as you’re going to get right now. Apart from generally being a fantastic game, the VR-specific mechanics are nigh on perfect. The gravity gloves — or Russles — are so much damn fun, serving as a way to point out something on the ground, fling it towards you with a flick of your wrist and catch it with the grip motion.
Pointing out a loose pistol clip in the distance and yanking it towards you in the heat of a gunfight just feels amazing, both as a gameplay mechanic and immersion technique thanks to the fantastic haptic feedback.
I could go on and on about Half-Life: Alyx but all you really need to know is that it’s a masterclass in full-length VR gaming, and although I’ve only experienced it with the Valve Index, I doubt it would have quite the same impact on any other VR platform. After powering through the roughly 12-hour campaign, the majority of other games felt like glorified tech demos. That’s not to say there aren’t other VR gems out there, I’m sure there are, they’re just obscured by a tremendous amount of filler content, which has been an issue in the VR space for some time.
Surprisingly, I found that the 120Hz refresh rate makes a huge difference. Long VR sessions have always been quite difficult for me, as I’d either start to feel a bit queasy or develop a headache if I played for longer than 45 minutes or so. The high refresh rate makes movement easier, boosting the longevity of my sessions and improving the overall immersion just through sheer comfort. I could easily play with the Index for two or more hours without feeling gross.
Non-teleport-based movement, however, still makes me feel like I’m gonna hurl. But that’s hardly the Index’s fault and more a VR pain point in general.
If you’re looking for the pinnacle of consumer VR, there isn’t a system out there that can beat the Valve Index. If you’ve got a gutsy gaming PC, a dedicated space to play and the money to pay for a premium experience, the Index is a no-brainer. I just hope you have better luck getting it to work than I did.
If you’re new to VR or don’t want to dish out nearly $2,000, the Oculus Quest 2 might be an alternative. You don’t need to tether it to a PC, meaning you can take it and play it anywhere, and the price is significantly lower. However, Facebook just announced a recall due to the face padding causing irritation in some, so you might wanna hold off until they sort that out.
For those wanting a premium experience at an easier entry point, Valve’s Vive Cosmos is on sale for $899 (usually $1,299). The headset has a six-camera tracking system, which means you won’t have to set up any base stations around your play area. It also has the option of a wireless adapter to live the (expensive) tether-free VR life if you so choose.
That said, you’ll never get experiences as good as Half-Life: Alyx on a Quest unit. Here’s hoping Valve have some more VR masterpieces on the boil.