The PlayStation VR has been out now for a week, trying to settle into that fine purchasable sweet spot for consumers that has minimal setup, reasonable prices, and a great lineup. As far as those objectives are concerned, consider them accomplished. Compared to the money you’d spend building a top-shelf PC in addition to purchasing an Oculus Rift or sticking all the HTC Vive Lighthouse baubles onto your walls, the PSVR is the best thing you can do.
Well, to a point. It’s very middle-of-the-road in both departments. You still have to have bought a PlayStation 4 at some point in your life, and for the extra money in pure headset price versus the Rift or the Vive, the PSVR delivers a far worse experience. And the Rift so far only requires two or three steps to get going, while the PSVR demands a not insignificant amount of wire-wrangling.
Game-wise, though, it really is rather terrific, locking down several exclusives that are sure to be staples when showing off the tech to friends and family. There’s Rez, a game made for virtual reality before it was even a thing, and Thumper, a nearly transcendental and brutal musical revelation. It even managed to lure over Job Simulator, arguably the best and most complete VR experience out there, even though some duds sour the mix.
Nearly all of it, however, is hampered by a modest approximation of more competent VR systems. At the cost of retrofitting into technology that the PlayStation 4 is already capable of using, it can only do so much in terms of what truly makes that virtualness closer to reality: tracking. It is, in a word, a mess, albeit a vacillating one at times.
There’s a lot to unpack here, though. For your convenience, I’m going to break it down into sections so we can really get down into the nitty gritty of this multifaceted, complex experience. Are you ready? Here we go!
Whether through a history of producing a large variety of hardware for different purposes or being the last of the current trio of VR headsets, but the PSVR is easily the most comfortable and the best-looking of them all. Rather than the all black and decidedly industrial molds of the Rift and the Vive that lend themselves a busted Sam Fisher air, it provides a striking color profile of highlighting white and accenting blues.
Even though it’s the heaviest of the three by 60 to 140 grams, it’s the only one that isn’t taxing by simply existing on your noggin. Sony apparently purposefully added weight to the back of the headset just to get it properly balanced, for which I am eternally thankful. With the rapid head movements required by some games, it rarely makes you feel the extraneous forward momentum of the side-to-side whips that the Vive is especially guilty of.
It’s also the only one without the overarching middle strap, which you would think would make the entire thing more unstable, but with a multi-step process of putting it on, it creates a perfectly tight and secure fit. A button on the back strap will lock it to the ideal size for your dome, another on the actual display will move it forward and back to accommodate your face shape, and a dial on the butt will lock it all up. It takes a bit to acclimate yourself to the process, but it results in an incredible feel.
And for what it’s worth, it also accommodates glasses the best yet. It’s the only headset I’ve felt that wasn’t dangerously close to just snapping off the arms of my frames. As a result, however, the headset also tends to leak in light more than the Rift or the Vive, and it’ll do that without fitting around glasses anyways.
There’s also a fantastic consideration made for lining the interior of the headset with an odd, soft plastic that makes wiping it down a god damn breeze. Seriously, after going to several industry events (including E3), diving headfirst into a dripping ocean of a day’s worth of strangers’ sweat is not a good time. I mean, it also makes the whole thing a more comfortable and tender experience, but that sweat thing is a fucking godsend.
The display is also a single-screen system, which admittedly cuts costs but also gives reduces the effective resolution of each eye to 960×1080 (down from the Rift and the Vive’s 1080×1200) and a lower 100-degree field of view. I, however, couldn’t tell much of a difference. What really stuck out was the choice to not use Fresnel lenses, which means there is no streaking, smearing, or dulling of color ranges. It’s an especially vibrant viewing venture, though the ever-present grid-like, screen door texture is still visible on black surfaces.
While the hardware of the PSVR is a resounding success, the actual experience of using it is decidedly less so. It even dabbles in becoming an absolute nightmare at times. It has sensors to detect changes in orientation, but movement largely based on the lights adorning the front and bezel of the front mask, utilizing the same PlayStation Camera that has been shipping with the system since launch.
It mostly works, capable of following you as you lean forward and back, side to side. It’ll detect you standing up or dipping down to the ground to pick something up, but it greatly suffers from drifting. It tends to lose a sense of the calibration origin as you play games, so badly, in fact, that at the end of several games, I was forced to turn a complete 90 degrees left or right just to face forward, and using the recalibration feature didn’t even get it close to right again.
Worse than that, it also has a habit of wobbling in and out of the world as you try to stand perfectly still. It’s hard to describe in words, but it’s as if both someone is forcibly pushing your head forward and back several inches at a time per second while the entire world throbs. I tend to have an iron stomach with most things, having spent marathon runs in the Rift and never once throwing up in my whole life, but this active pulsating actually forced me to close my eyes and collect my shit at many, many times.
This is compounded by the fact that this light-based tracking is also how the DualShock 4 and the PlayStation Move controllers are followed by the Camera, which means that the very things that you are using to interact with objects in games are subject to the same drift and wobbling. At the end of Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, for example, my guns were pointed straight up into the sky. And in Tumble VR, which is otherwise a stellar highlight of the system’s lineup, was pretty much unplayable when the tracking went off even a little as it requires precision movement of physically accurate and weighted blocks.
And if you put the controllers in front of the mask’s lights or turn away from the Camera, forget about it. In some cases, your virtual hand or whatever will jump the virtual equivalent of two or three feet in any given direction without you moving a single inch. (This will happen even when you don’t overlap the lights.) Some arcane bit of advice floating around is for you to situation your camera higher than where you plan to sit/stand so you never obscure your headset with your hands, who even has the space for that?
Even if you play within the recommended space requirements (6.2 feet by 9.8 feet) and user placement (5 feet from the Camera), it doesn’t help. Coming from a science background, I employed the scientific method to test different environments, lighting conditions, etc., and none of it helped. This included standing up fake walls around me of different materials at varying widths and lengths under all sorts of colored lights and redirected sunlight and it seemed like none of it mattered. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.
(For what it’s worth, I also borrowed a friend’s complete setup and ran it through the same tests with the same impossibly varying results. But I’ve also heard that this is a hardware problem that some folks have solved by trading in the whole PSVR system, so I guess I’ll have to try that next. I’ll keep you updated.)
Granted, there are many times when the system will work perfectly fine, but this is supposed to be a product that convinces the broader consumer horde that VR is a technology worth investing in, and that’s pretty much impossible when it has a high chance of making people debilitatingly sick and appearing overwhelmingly broken. Hopefully this gets fixed through firmware updates, but who knows. At this point, this singlehandedly ruins the entire endeavour.
The fact that there’s a separate processing unit that allows for individually processed video is great news for streamers and just audiences in general. This little black box takes in the stereoscopic video signal and mixes it down to a 2D one for television display. This means you don’t have to deal with the weird, one-off solutions or double-displays of Rift and Vive games while allowing for unique, asymmetric experiences like in Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes.
It is unfortunate, however, that you have no way of seeing notifications from within the headset. You’ll hear the tone, for instance, of a trophy popping, but you’ll have no idea what it is. It’s almost maddening to a point, wanting to just see what is happening on the system level but with no recourse to do so other than jump out of whatever you’re doing.
Let’s get back to the good stuff because there are some genuine bangers on this baby. For being locked into living on exclusives as a consequence of being on a closed ecosystem, this is a strong launch lineup. Very obviously there are some wholly worthless titles, but the majority are worth at least considering, let alone purchasing outright. Here are the best of the best/decent/mediocre.
The primo showcase piece is clearly Rez Infinite, a remake of the 2001 Dreamcast original. Not much has changed, still locking you onto a rail as you are assaulted from all sides by music, colors, shapes, and other inexplicable existential enigmas. But now that it’s in virtual reality, it feels as if all those things are literally coming at you, out of you, and into everything around you.
It’s an experience that is like no other, one almost impossible to put into words. It feels like your brain has been ripped from your head and placed into a higher dimension. This is especially true in the single new level “Area X” that is a nonstop explosion of sensory overload. And, perhaps because it is so abstract, I noticed the least amount of drift in this game than any other I played.
Thumper is similar to Rez Infinite in many ways. It’s musically oriented, it’s abstract as hell, and it’s an all-out assault on your senses. But it’s also a completely unique game, blending elements of F-Zero, Guitar Hero, and the endless runner genre. It almost defies explanation.
Part of what makes it work is the entire aesthetic of the thing. It has the ethereal gradients of the 80s mixed over the indecipherable fractals of the wallpapers section of DeviantArt. And as it all zooms past you and thumps into your view, it feels like the game is pulsing directly into your bloodstream. The impact of it all is as vital to the game as any other part of it.
Playing off that same sort of retro-futuristic milieu is SuperHyperCube, an exceptionally non-Fez game from Fez developers Polytron. It’s basically a video game version of that Japanese game show game “Brain Wall” except you are using your spatial awareness to align an esoterically shaped bundle of cubes with a hole in a wall. You’ll have to deal with increasingly inconvenient shapes and holes as well as moving walls and the like.
I like the aspect of having to anxiously move around the block, trying to determine the proper orientation of it to get through to the next wall, though it was admittedly kind of tiring after a while. But the satisfaction of smashing down through the hole when you’re sure you got it right is unbelievable, just as is the terror of knowing you have no fucking clue what to do and it’s all about to crunch down upon you like a Death Star trash compactor.
Batman: Arkham VR
To be totally frank, Batman: Arkham VR is pretty much just a tech demo with a Batman skin. That being said, it’s a pretty terrific tech demo. All you really do is go through an incredibly linear experience of Batman attempting to solve a mystery surrounding the circumstances of an attack on an ally, but my gosh does it excel at simply immersing you into the role. The opening moments, in fact, are some of the best moments you’ll find in any VR experience anywhere.
Donning the Batsuit is a terrific sequence, and finally seeing yourself is tremendously empowering (while giving you the opportunity to greatly abuse this wonderful technology), especially as you see the robust inverse kinematics take hold and your hands move Batman’s hands and touch and hold things. The story even manages to hit some compelling points for Arkham series fans.
Straight up, Headmaster is bonkers, and that’s what makes it so good. The premise is that you, a soccer player, has been sent to a Football Improvement Center because your performance has been lackluster of late. And apparently the way you get better at soccer is to just head a ball into the goal over and over again.
But in this case, the goal often includes cups, basketball nets, and, oh yeah, fucking dynamite. It even ties everything together with one of the strongest stories of the entire lineup of launch games. It’s funny, it’s engaging, and it is a genuinely rewarding and demanding game of skill.
Harmonix Music VR
Nonsense. One hundred percent nonsense.
Well, one of the included minigames is, anyways, and in a good way. The rest are pretty forgettable, albeit finely made. It’s probably not worth the $15, but I really just wanted to mention it for “The Dance” minigame.
Is It Worth It?
What I’ve learned over the course of the past three headsets and more than enough hours in a reality not our own is that if you’re asking if VR is worth it, you probably don’t need to be buying it. I wholeheartedly believe that VR is going to be a full and meaty medium of its own in the immediate future, but it’s really not there yet. We collectively have no idea of what a mature VR experience looks like.
And because of that, if you are looking for a reason to own a VR headset other than to just have one, you’re out of luck. There’s a lot of cool stuff out there to play and try, but there’s nothing that will make you believe that it is a necessity. And that means that if you’re wondering if you should buy one instead of telling yourself to go buy one immediately, then a purchase at this point is simply out of the question.
But if you are just deciding between a PlayStation VR, an Oculus Rift, or an HTC Vive, then it comes down to what you already have. Do you have a PC that can handle VR? Then spending the extra $100 to get a Rift (minus the $200 Touch controllers when they come out) is definitely worth it just because it works, like, all the time.
If you have the money and the PC (or the money to build a PC), then just get the Vive. It is the most complete and best VR experience out there. The controllers are great, it is the only room-scale solution, and it is deeply tied into the biggest PC game store in Steam through Valve. The Vive would be the one I’d get if I only got one.
The only reason you should get the PlayStation VR is if you already have a PlayStation 4, just have to own a VR headset, and have a heavy amount of faith in Sony to fix the egregious tracking issues. Seriously, the problems I’ve had with two different PSVR setups have convinced me that this is a substantially broken product, though talking to other games journalists that have had less severe problems is both more troubling and somewhat reassuring.
All of that is a shame, though, because so much else about it is amazing. It feels great, it looks terrific, the games are mostly good, and it’s damn cheap. But the one thing it’s supposed to do—which is fully immerse and keep you immersed in a virtual reality—isn’t done on a consistent basis. And that, for me, is a deal-breaker when there are objectively better and more complete alternatives out there.