Review: The Lab

Does this roster of mini-games live up to expectations?

In what will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been following virtual reality (VR) for the last two-to-three years, it’s been left to Valve to create the medium’s first ‘must have’ title. The Lab is a short and simple package, bringing VR its own Wii Sports on the HTC Vive, but with the attention to detail that Valve lavish upon all of their internally developed projects it’s nothing less than essential for fans of the Portal franchise.

The package offered at launch is a slightly expanded version of that which was revealed at the Game Developers Conference (GDC), San Francisco, last month. Featuring eight mini-games – four of which are actually ‘games’, whilst the other four most closely related to ‘experiences’ – The Lab is positioned perfectly to introduce players to this new medium. And it’s all wrapped-up in the wonderfully sardonic humour that Portal fans know and love.

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The first experience the player is invited to join is a recreation of a mountain side developed using telephotogrammetry. The location is stunningly beautiful, though the interaction is kept simple: the player has a dog-like robo-companion, and can play fetch with it. The basic rules of teleportation as a construct for movement are also taught here, touching the HTC Vive motion-controller’s touchpad to bring-up a translucent reticule and pressing it to instantly teleport to the chosen location.

The wonderful Angry Birds alike, shoot-’em-up and castle defence mini-games appear within the collection, as does a recreated version of the original Aperture Science technical demonstration – now known as Robot Repair – along with the DOTA 2 inspired Secret Shop. Upon launch however, there are two previously unseen experiences also.

The Human Body Scan is just as it sounds: an exploded 3D scan of the human body. Showing the internal structure of the human body, the player can select sections and cut away parts to view the human body in more detail. Solar System is an accurate recreation of the Milky Way with each planet depicted in its accurate relative scale. Neither of these additions alone would make The Lab a hugely interesting piece of software, but they do well to accompany the sheer joy provided by the more gameplay-orientated mini-games in the collection.

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To access any of these mini-games or experiences, the player must simply approach their terminal within the titular lab and pick-up their representative orb before placing it upon their head. It’s a simple and immediate design, and throughout it’s coated in layer-upon-layer of Portal mis-en-scene. From the voice calling over the public address system to the activity in the background – and of course the representation of human life within the mini-games themselves – The Lab is as much a Portal videogame as Link’s Crossbow Training is a The Legend of Zelda videogame.

So while falling short of being that ‘killer app’ VR is most desperately searching for, The Lab is a perfect starting place for adults upon receiving their HTC Vive. Given that it’s offered for free, it’s likely that many will do just this. The Lab is a wonderful eye-opener to the possibilities of what Valve might do with their beloved videogame franchises further down the line, as even at the very beginning they’re striking hard with one of the most convincing reasons for their audience to invest in VR.

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