I've been playing video games for over thirty years, and in that time I've seen a lot of gimmicks introduced. Devices like the Power Glove and Nintendo's R.O.B. looked cool in magazines and TV commercials, but failed to live up to the hype. Innovative ideas like the Nintendo Wii revolutionized the industry, inspiring countless clones and knockoffs. Two recent examples, the PlayStation Move and Microsoft's Kinect stumbled out of the gate, mostly because both were late to the game and failed to properly support the devices with good software.
2016 ushers in a new era: the age of virtual reality gaming. The Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive arrived on the scene last spring, both bringing the VR experience to PC gamers with a hot enough computer and $599-$799 of disposable income. Both headsets received positive reviews, and left many in the console crowd with a bad case of envy.
Enter PlayStation VR. Coming in at a slightly-more economical $399 and offering a plug-n-play experience with all versions of the PlayStation 4 it provides a more cost-effective, user-friendly VR experience. It was announced back in 2014 under the codename Project Morpheus and finally hit store shelves last week. I've spent the last few days exploring the system and some of the games that released with it, and what follows are my early impressions.
The centerpiece of PlayStation VR is obviously the headset, but a somewhat complex series of cables and a breakout box are also necessary to create virtual reality worlds. At first glance it's all very intimidating: you have the standard AC adapter and power cord, two HDMI cables, a USB cable that connects the breakout box to your console, and of course the thick cable that runs from the box to the headset. Sony was kind enough to throw in a set of entry-level headphones, which are necessary if you want to achieve the high level of game-immersion that VR has to offer, but I wasn't surprised to find that my set arrived broken. But I didn't buy PSVR for the headphones, so I threw them in the trash and replaced them with a trusted pair.
While I haven't used either the Vive or Oculus Rift I have held each unit in my hands, and upon opening PlayStation VR I immediately noticed that it fails to match its competitors in terms of build quality. It doesn't necessarily feel cheap, but the headset and breakout box just can't equal the competition when it comes to style. The buttons and dials you use to adjust the headset to fit your head in particular feel like they were designed by a committee and that compromises were made in order to make everyone happy. They work, but it's a cumbersome chore that you have to perform every time you want to use the device.
Connecting everything was far easier than I initially thought it would be. The provided Quick-Start Guide explains everything with a swift clarity that had me up and running within twenty minutes of opening the box. Once connected, the breakout box emits a cool red light when in standby mode that looks exactly like K.I.T.T.'s iconic grill beam from Knight Rider. Given the sheer amount of cables involved I was surprised to discover that once everything was hooked up it was easy to tuck them all out of sight.
The breakout box, which acts as a go-between for the PS4 and PSVR, looks pretty cool in standby mode.
The cable the runs from the breakout box to the headset is long enough to give you freedom of movement throughout the play space, which for me was restricted to about a 6" x 6" area. You'll definitely notice it when you turn around or move forward, but I never felt it was in danger of tripping me up or pulling free from the breakout box. The unit's power switch is located on the cable and also houses the headphone jack, as well as buttons to adjust the volume.
The headset works together with the PlayStation Camera, which is required, to calibrate everything to ensure that you have the best virtual experience possible. There were a lot of early reports of people struggling to make VR work with the launch Camera (a revised version of the device was released a couple weeks ago), but I haven't experienced a single hiccup from mine. Just follow the step-by-step calibration set up, which I've only had to do a single time so far, and you should be fine. The headset itself is lightweight, comparable to a bike, football, or hockey helmet. Expect to get some Darth Maul-like red lines all over your face once you take it off though. If you've ever gone scuba diving you'll be familiar with the sensation of having your nose pinched a little, I found it far more comfortable to breathe through my mouth while wearing the headset.
A button and wheel combination is used to tighten the headset to a comfortable, yet stable level.
Enough about setups and build quality, how does PlayStation VR work? Pretty damn well. The load times are considerable, but once your PlayStation 4 transmits the information to your headset the results are awe-inspiring. As a virtual reality virgin I was amazed that I could physically turn around and see the imaginary gaming world continue behind me. Even the game menus are impressive, developers deserve applause for embracing this new technology and realizing that there was potential to do cool stuff beyond the actual game itself.
The rendered worlds really pull you in, it's easy to get so enthralled in them that it comes as a shock when you bump into a table or couch (I highly-recommend having a "spotter" present when you first start out to avoid injury or damage to your belongings). Many times I looked down expecting to see my hands and being disturbed that they weren't there, and while this ruined the immersion a bit it also made me appreciate just how deeply into the VR world I had wandered. Several times I'd be swinging around Gotham as Batman or riding a rollercoaster when my loyal cat Kirby would brush up against my leg and I was surprised to look down and not see him in the game world. It sucks you in, especially if you block out the outside world with a good set of headphones.
Two separate screens are used to create the illusion of virtual reality.
Graphically, the visuals are clearly a downgrade from the high-definition look and performance delivered by playing on a television. There's a distinct blurriness to everything, as if you're looking at it all from your peripheral vision rather than from straight on. This is particularly noticeable whenever text pops up on the screen, and it quickly became apparent which developers were aware of this and thus avoided words at all cost and which ones didn't. If I had to find a system to measure PlayStation VR's visuals to, I would say that late PlayStation 2 games are a fair comparison. But that isn't surprising or a deal-breaker, virtual reality is in its infancy and expecting it to come close to replicating graphics rendered in a traditional way is unrealistic.
One of my biggest concerns about VR was the potential vertigo and disorientation that might accompany such a device, and how long I would be able to use it each time. Unfortunately I did find that nausea eventually sets in, with the time limit wildly varying from game to game. I was able to finish Batman: Arkham VR, a game that can be beaten in ninety minutes, in one sitting while I could only stomach about fifteen minutes of the surprisingly good Driveclub VR before my brain needed a break. That's a shame because I feel like sim motorsports is a genre that could really benefit from virtual reality, but I don't see how I could handle running a 250 lap race in iRacing while wearing this headset. There's always a chance that VR simply takes some getting used to, but right now its racing applications are limited for me.
Overall, Sony's first foray into virtual reality exceeded my expectations. VR has so much potential and feels like it could be what takes the video game industry in a fresh new direction. Like everything else it will all come down to what developers can do with the hardware, as a new peripheral is only as good as the games you can play on it.
PlayStation VR launched with an decent software lineup that provides a surprisingly diverse catalog of games. So far I've only sampled four of them, and this is what I thought of them:
One of the most talked-about games introduced at the 2016 e3 show, Batman: Arkham VR is the top performer of PlayStation VR's launch lineup. This is the one title that I've played that recommends the use of two PlayStation Move controllers, but since I only had one of them I stuck with the Dualshock 4. But even though I couldn't play the game the way developer Rocksteady intended, I was impressed enough to consider it the best of the initial batch of PSVR games.
Arkham VR is short but delivers on the promise it made at e3, to put you in the armor-clad boots of the Dark Knight. To be able to explore Wayne Manor and the Batcave gives you a sense of wonder that the proper Arkham games simply can't deliver. Despite the fact that you can't walk around the entire place the game is structured so that it doesn't feel restrictive. And honestly I can live without being able to explore Bruce Wayne's pantry...
The game doesn't offer any combat, but it does a wonderful job of recreating the detective portions of Rocksteady's previous Arkham games. And while I won't spoil the story it fits in nicely withthe rest of the Arkham storyline. Batman: Arkham VR delivers a strong performance that could pave the way for future superhero games on PlayStation VR.
My disdain for Driveclub has been well-documented, but if you're new to the site then you should know that I despised the game. Naturally, I was skeptical when I saw that rather than let the franchise die a well-deserved death they were bringing it to PlayStation VR. But after playing the game's demo I enjoyed it enough to spend $40 on the full version.
As I said above, virtual reality enhances the racing genre perhaps more than any other. To be able to look to your left and see the leader as you steal first place away from him is unbelievably cool. To not have to push a button to look around the cockpit, to be able to move your head to check your mirrors...it brings a whole new sense of reality to the experience. You can turn around and see a rendered back seat with so much detail that you'll swear you can smell the leather that covers the seats.
The downside to all this realism is that no game has ever made me feel more nauseous than Driveclub VR, which is heartbreaking because it's the one that I keep wanting to come back to. No matter what course I try the game leaves me feeling like I've spent all day on a Tilt-a-Whirl after about fifteen minutes. I'm holding out hope that as I become more comfortable in virtual reality worlds that I'll be able to stay longer in Driveclub VR's world.
Let's get the bad stuff out right away: I hate that this game has the Until Dawn name attached to it. It has absolutely nothing to do with Until Dawn, which was one of the best games of 2015, and using the title is a disgusting display of the notorious cash-grab.
That said, this is an okay game with a handful of truly terrifying moments sprinkled in. If anything, Rush of Blood displays how effectively VR can be used in horror games, and gives me even more hope for next year's Resident Evil 7. Most of the terror found here is little more than the tired jump scares we've seen a million times before, but experiencing them in virtual reality lends a sense of gravity to the situation that isn't found when seen on a flat screen. To have a ghost appear next to you is terrifying in VR, and while most of the game is spent as an on-rails (literally) shooter, it offers a glimpse into the potential impact scary games could have on the virtual reality market.
This one was a free game mode included with Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration, and honestly I wasn't too impressed. Much like Arkham VR, it allows you to explore Croft Manor in the name of finding Lord Croft's lost will, using a similar teleportation mechanic to move from spot to spot. The problem here was that the game asks you to turn around a lot, you're constantly spinning 180 degrees to inspect items as you conduct your search. This kept messing up the camera's tracking which prompted me to turn around, which broke the illusion VR is supposed to offer. I also ran into a lot of "you're out of the playspace" warnings, even though I knew I was well within the camera's view area.
Maybe a recalibration was necessary or something, but this one just didn't work for me. I'm not disappointed though, the proper Rise of the Tomb Raider was so good that I'm more than willing to overlook the shortcomings of this throw-in VR experience. Much of my troubles with Blood Ties felt more like poor game design than problems with the hardware.
PlayStation VR isn't a must-buy item for gamers right now, and might never reach that point. It's a luxury item that is still years away from reaching the summit of its potential, a device requiring not only $399 worth of disposable income, but enough real estate within your home to allow it to perform at its highest level. That said, it's really cool and I don't regret buying one. If developers can build on the strong starts made by Batman: Arkham VR and Driveclub, if they can take some of things Rush of Blood does well and expand upon it then virtual reality has a bright future on the PlayStation 4. If they fail to do so then PlayStation VR will be buried next to the Vita in the Sony graveyard.
• Unique experience
• Cheaper than Oculus/Vive
• Deep immersion level
• Decent software at launch
• Still very expensive
• Spatial requirements
• Lots of cords/cables
• Graphics don't look great