Dear 1992-me, I am The Lawnmower Man now, finally…
Before we get into this VR headset, can I just have a quick gripe about how long it’s taken the Valve Index VR to reach Oz? The “Complete Kit” landed in the US way back in mid-2019 for $US999. We get it (only via EB Games) on August 18 for 1900 dollarydoos.
I’ve got to say it, folks— Valve’s disinterest in the Aussie market has me dreading the roll-out of the much-coveted Steam Deck.
Assuming you weren’t willing to pay through an orifice to import a Valve Index to Australia up until now, has the wait been worth it? Well, unlike Valve, I don’t deal in painful delays. The answer is a resounding yes.
MY VR HISTORY
While the last thing I ever want to do is talk about myself, the fact is, it’s worth knowing about your reviewer when it comes to anything VR-related. Mileage varies. It’s not a hobby for every taste (or stomach). Personally, I’ve been with the medium since I donned a VR-1 mask in Sega World Sydney, circa 1997. I was also an early adopter of the Oculus Rift and PlayStation Australia sent me one of the first PSVR review units in the country.
I’m well into it.
My “VR sea legs” have been earned – motion-sickness no longer manifests. As a critic, that represents a blind spot. Some of the games tested in this article could very well give you the sweats and make you dizzy at best. At worst, you might do The Technicolour Yawn across your living room floor.
Dropping nearly two grand on what could become a “vomit retch-ality” headset represents a leap of faith on your part. With that PSA complete, let’s break this bad boy down…
First impressions out of the box: this thing looks and feels slick. Everything about the Valve Index, from the packaging down to those little controller nubs and buttons, feels like a premium product. And hey—for that exorbitant admission fee, it really, really ought to.
More importantly, these controllers are ergonomically designed, and I can confirm (after forcing many a family member to have a go) the headset is comfortable for a wide array of face sizes and head shapes.
This is mainly thanks to a material approach to the face mask and cranium cushioning. What’s here just feels quite a bit nicer than the foam inserts of some of the competitor VR headsets. It’s also a damn sight more light-preventing than the “swimming fins” rubber used on my PSVR.
The only downside to using material: it’s more susceptible to perspiration build-up for those of you operating in hotter climes. So much so, Valve sells face inserts separately. You can swap that sponge out if a user in your midst is, uh, slicker than your average. I didn’t cop any of that, personally.
Speaking of the option to switcheroo, the outer visor of the Index can be swapped out too. That’s great news, because in the short term that reflective surface is prone to sticky fingerprint smears and I can see it being scratched in all but that most fastidious of households.
The Index feeling comfy is a pretty big win for Valve because the fact is it lives on the heavier end of the headset scale. You’re going to feel a moment of minor shock when you scoop it up for the first time. Fortunately, it’s not as neck-snapping as it sounds at 810g, like that ’90s-era SEGA World one I tried on half a lifetime ago. In truth, Valve has mitigated a lot of the bulk by dispersing it cleverly, evenly across your melon. I adjusted quickly.
Those of you with misshapen coconuts can sleep soundly on your oddly proportioned pillows, as well Three main adjusters are on hand to ensure both a snug fit and the best viewing experience. First up, you have an IPD adjuster to set how far apart the two lenses are—anywhere between “Hammerhead shark” wide to “Garfield eyes” close. Then there’s a head strap adjuster knob on the back, plus an eye relief adjuster which manages the distance from the eye lens to your peepers.
I found that they were all positioned in easy to find places, and could be used intuitively whenever I was blinded by the headset. I’ll talk more in-depth about the controllers in another section, but I can say now that they also feel well-constructed, durable and at 196g they exist in an average weight class when compared to competitor VR inputs.
Lastly, I’m well aware of horror stories online about stick drift. During a week of roughly 9-5 testing, I didn’t run afoul of anything like that. I’ll be sure to update this article if that ever changes.
EASE OF SETUP
While the Index isn’t as plug and play as Sony’s PSVR, it’s a damn sight easier than that first Oculus Rift experience some of us had. Most likely the hardest part for you will be to carve out a play area that gives you enough room that can support Room Scale VR (at least 2m x 1.5m) or else you’ll be limited to Standing-only or a seated setup.
Then, you’ll need to hook up at least two base station units that must sit on the two opposite “diagonal ends” of your playspace. These need to be pivoted at the centre of the playspace – downwards if your wall/ceiling mount or upwards if you’re plonking them on a coffee table. These will require their own mains access, too.
Lastly, the headset itself has an umbilical cord with three plugs: a mains adaptor, a USB 3.0 connector and a DisplayPort jack. Strictly no HDMI support, but that probably won’t be an issue as most modern GPUs have one. Oh, and speaking of: the min spec here is a GTX 970+ or AMD RX480+.
The physical setup is all relatively painless. 10 mins for an initial setup, 10 mins to slowly update the firmware of every peripheral involved, and then I’d suggest leaving it all where it is. You can set your base stations to Power Cycle when the headset requests their presence, which is handy. Also, I’d unplug the headset from the PC connection point as opposed to the back of the unit, to save on wear and tear. Don’t constantly unplug it from the breakout point on the cable.
Simple, easy stuff.
When it comes to dispensing its eye candy, the Index uses an RGB LC display to provide 1440 x 1600 resolution per eye. The increased clarity they provide—over my “VR Gen 1” devices like the Vive and PSVR— is truly impressive. Transitioning from older VR gear to the Index will feel like you’ve gone from having slight cataract issues to being a corrective surgery success story.
While some of the older units may deliver fuzzier virtual worlds, their OLED technology can outperform the Index in certain scenarios. I definitely noticed and missed the absence of those much deeper OLED blacks when I was skulking around Sevastopol Station in the VR mod of Alien Isolation. On the other end of the light spectrum, godray effects can look a little garish on the Index. Expect to be mainly annoyed by it whenever a loading screen places stark white text on a black background. Beyond those moments, I honestly think this is something that most of us can easily live with.
Truth be told, I had little time to fret about any contrast and colour depth shortcomings. My mind was busy being blown by arguably the biggest gun in the Index’s visual arsenal: superior max refresh rate.
I lack the words to adequately explain how much better VR feels in 144Hz—especially in terms of virtual hands responsiveness. It’s one of those “you have to experience it for yourself” things. No YouTube video out there can do the fluidity of shifting from 80 to 144Hz justice.
It’s a there-ness beyond there-ness. I don’t think I can go back now. Playing in anything less than 120Hz will feel more horrific than getting my face chewed off by that bloody xenomorph.
CONTROLS & EXPERIENCE
When it came to putting the Index VR through its paces properly, I started by prioritising the “full finger supported” titles curated on this Steam list. That said, I also gravitated to some tried-and-true classics that don’t make full use of these fandangle input devices.
For action titles, I got my stab and shoot on with Superhot VR, Boneworks, The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners and Gorn. Sweat and “screen fog” tests were conducted in rhythm games like Pistol Whip and BeatSaber. Lastly, I sunk many hours into endurance experiences like Skyrim VR, No Man’s Sky and some Le Mans in Project CARS 2, purely a means to see if the controllers came with RSI issues.
I’ve got to say, though, despite having access to all of the above, I kept boomeranging back to Half-Life: Alyx. Even a bit after a year past release, it still stands as the perfect proof of concept for this device, especially the Index Controllers.
The two big differences here are multi-finger tracking, along with the ability to “not grip anything,” thanks to some cleverly designed straps that effectively lash your mitts to these units. Inside of two minutes of interacting with them, you’ll know it— the Index Controllers are nothing short of game-changers.
They have this power to make even a seasoned gamer like myself gawp in child-like wonder at the most mundane in-game actions imaginable. Inching open a door, cocking a weapon, plinking on a piano, or deftly juggling a Coke can before deciding to crunch it – you’ll get way too many endorphins from doing these things. Achieving things via finger grips as opposed to any sort of ‘use’ button is pure magic. Even better, I experienced basically no tracking issues with them.
Honestly, the only real downside I can level at this product is the need for a 6-metre umbilical cable. Anybody who’s experienced the wires-free fun of Oculus Quest 2, will be irritated by it from time to time. If you haven’t cut the cable before, I doubt it’ll feel like too much of a hindrance. Ignorance will be mostly bliss.
Also, before I forget, the Index’s high quality “off ear” speakers (and mic) represent the finest integrated sound on any VR headset. You can hook up your own using a hidden audio jack, but I don’t know why you’d ever want to. Not having some earmuffs on your head is yet another small degree of freedom that enhances immersion.
Is the Valve Index the perfect VR headset at the end of the day? No. Just like its competitors, it excels in some areas but is inched out in others. The proposition of buying this ultimately comes down to conducting a little survey with yourself that’s entitled: What Do I Value Most in a VR Experience?
If you’re (literally) very black and white when it comes to the contrast ratios of your displays, then OLED headsets such as Vive Pro, Quest or Pimax XR perform better. There are better “per eye resolutions” to chase as well.
For me, I value interactivity above all things. In this regard—and until the PSVR 2 comes along and possibly take things a step further via finger tracking + DualSense style haptics— the Index Controllers represent a very, very compelling reason to make a purchase. Combine those with some impressive 130-degree FOV and 144Hz refresh rate, and the Valve Index delivers incredible immersion, despite its other shortcomings.
The fact that I can get all the other high-quality accoutrements needed to use said controllers in a (slightly more) cost-effective Complete Kit should, for many of you, be the last motivator you’ll need. In short, Valve’s Index floored me. It’s pricey, but it’s every bit the “VR 2.0” experience I was hoping for.
The Valve Index was reviewed using a retail kit provided by Valve.