On October 13, 2016 Sony released the PlayStation VR unit; their first foray into the virtual reality realm. Sony is aiming to bring a more immersive console experience into the homes of a myriad of consumers across the globe. Compatiable with both the standard PS4 and the PS4 Pro, the PSVR unit is a budget-esque option for those unable or unwilling to break the bank for either the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift.
But how does it hold up? Over the past few weeks I have spent numerous hours analysing the PSVR’s performance to see if you get bang for your buck or if it’s anything expensive gimmick.
I guess you can come at this looking at a person who’s never played high-end VR headsets before or someone who is accustomed to them. If you are the latter, you will find the PlayStation VR the best designed headset in terms of aesthetics, ergonomics and comfort. The PlayStation VR on paper is supposed to weigh more than the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, but due to the design in the balance between the back of the headset and the front, as well as the cushions and the lack of face straps (which annoyed me about the other two), the PSVR really stands heads and shoulder above the competition due to its weight distribution strategy and their experience in making quality tech products for decades. It’s certainly the prettier of the bunch too. While I compare the Vive to an insect and the Oculus to a prettier looking version of the Samsung Gear, PlayStation VR looks like Sony legitimately infringed Daft Punk’s copyright to get this futuristically-designed beauty.
If you are new to VR, certain things may come as a surprise. High-end VR requires a lot of cables. Not to mention, the setup can be lengthy. Thankfully, Sony packages in a very helpful guide that gets the headset running in mere minutes. PSVR’s competition packs a lot more wires and there are a lot more steps to set it up from on both the hardware and a software side. While it’s not quite plug and play, it’s the closest we have to that with VR. It isn’t perfect though. Sony made weird design choices especially with the processor unit used to connect the VR headset to the TV and your PlayStation 4. Firstly, there is no real clean way to connect the cables without them hanging out the front of your setup. The PU also requires a USB port on your PS4 (which are only found at the front of the console). Moreover, Sony recently clarified that it lacks the HDMI support for HDR content, which will result in annoying HDMI cable swapping if you want to take full advantages of the PlayStation 4 Pro when it launches.
The VR Experience
First and foremost, VR works. You feel like you’re in the world, motion controls are relatively accurate, 3D Audio is fantastic and the sense of scale and scope is finally being realised. Most importantly, most of it works really well. It really is one of those ‘you need to try it to fully comprehend the feeling’ situations, but you feel like you’re right there, whether it be going down elevators, leaning over balconies, interacting with objects or hitting the throttle on a sports car. It’s the biggest step closer to complete immersion since the dawn of 3D gaming with the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation 1. It is an exciting time indeed.
One major concern with VR is motion sickness. This is usually the case with VR babies where their body and brain has to accustom themselves to the experience. However, one unavoidable cause of motion sickness is when games drop below 60fps. Thankfully, the PSVR supports 120Hz refresh rate, allowing for smooth experiences. In fact, I haven’t played a single game that has even had a hiccup with framerate (which is a nice change); games run buttery smooth and that’s fantastic. That isn’t to say there haven’t been reports of motion sickness though, and it seems to be common to specific games (Here They Lie is a prime example) rather than the headset or VR itself. In fact, a lot of the launch line-up was surprisingly relaxing and almost therapeutic to me.
The low resolution of the headset can startle first time users. It is a lower resolution than the Oculus and Vive (but not by much), and players who might be used to 4K resolutions may be taken aback at first. However, this is to be expected when you have a screen planted on your face. Moreover, the pixel effect becomes less noticeable once you immerse yourself in the experience. The actual graphical fidelity in some games did look impressive though. RIGs and Batman Arkham VR are pretty games in their own right. While other developers have taken advantage of great art direction like Rez: Infinite, Wayward Sky and Battlezone. There are some games that do stick out like a sore thumb though. The Luge game in PlayStation VR Worlds and Driveclub VR are continuously brought to mind as games with lower than expected graphical fidelity.
The biggest weakness isn’t directed towards the headset or the PlayStation 4 itself, but rather the camera and motion controls. PlayStation VR relies on a camera released in 2013 and motion controllers released in 2010. Now the tracking works most of the time. But unlike Vive’s room scale VR strategy, PlayStation VR is restricted to one camera as opposed to two. This can result in the camera losing tracking when you turn too far around for example. Lighting in the room can also affect how well the tracking performs. Some games require different room configurations for optimal play.
Games where you’re in a cockpit don’t require much space, but other titles like Job simulator need considerable space to move around and reach below and above you. At points, I was sitting too low so wasn’t able to grab something in-game without hitting my actual floor. There is also the occasional jittering, actions being unresponsive and some recent reports of the viewpoint being constantly shifted to the left. However, these seem to be few and far between. Through the majority of my playtime, motion controls and tracking worked flawlessly and accurately.
Social Screen and Cinema Mode
One of the cooler features is the cinema mode. This allows users to replicate a virtual cinema and can play almost every PlayStation 4 games and watch and film in VR. Whilst you do get a trade-off in resolution, being completely isolated and immersed in a film or game certainly adds extra value to the headset as a whole. Moreover, you can connect your VR headset to just about any HDMI output. So all those Nintendo, SEGA and pre-PlayStation 4 games that run below 1080 run perfectly in cinema mode. The other cool feature of PlayStation VR is its social screen features. The Processing Unit bundled with the headset projects a direct feed of the headset to the TV, so others can see what you’re seeing. Watching my friends play Until Dawn: Rush of Blood was incredibly amusing. Moreover, some games use the second screen for asynchronous multiplayer like Playroom VR and Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. It’s actually an under-marketed feature but I think it’s pretty neat.
The games are fun, the experience is fresh and it feels like the good ol’ days when we weren’t playing games just to finish then, but to beat them
Without a doubt, the strongest category that the PlayStation VR murders in is its line-up. I published an article a while ago comparing Playsation VR’s launch line-ups to the Playsation 4’s and why Sony has done a better job this time around. I can now confirm that this is the case. RIGS is a refreshing take on the online competitive first person shooter category easily surpassing Killzone: Shadowfall and while I do have issues with PlayStation VR Worlds, it was a lot more fun than Knack and a better demonstration of the tech.
The Variety of Appetisers
While most of the games are shorter experiences, they are good and reasonably priced. Until Dawn: Rush of Blood is a really well put together self-aware horror roller coaster ride, with simple mechanics employed across seven levels (with high replayability). Batman Arkham VR lasts for about an hour, but is packed with so much content, references and Easter eggs, each second of that hour is great. Wayward Sky, Rez: Infinite, Thumper and more all fall short of the five-hour running length. However, each one is magical and each one will be replayed through at least once to show friends. I’ve put four people through the manor segment of Batman Arkham VR already and the reactions never get old. We’ve played all the levels in Until Dawn multiple times now and I am currently trying to beat my scores in Rez. The games are fun, the experience is fresh and it feels like the good ol’ days when we weren’t playing games just to finish then, but to beat them.
There are full console-like games too…
Though it’s not all doom and gloom for those that do want that AAA meaty experience. RIGs offers a solid campaign with a multiplayer mode with options that rival games like Titanfall, Evolve and Star Wars: Battlefront for content. Battlezone has 4 player co-op which is a blast and campaigns are randomly generated creating unique playthroughs. EVE: Valkyrie offers a single player campaign, PVP modes and a co-op mode with cross-play with Oculus players. Driveclub VR packs just as many tracks, cars and modes from the original while Superstardust Ultra is essentially the same game. The meaty experiences are there, and they are fun.
But stay clear of these…
Not all the games have been an enjoyable experience. PlayStation VR Worlds is an inconsistent mess with some games not being fleshed out enough (London Heists), others that should’ve been charged separately (Danger Ball) and some that should have been dropped altogether (Luge). For the same price, you can buy both Until Dawn: Rush of Blood and Batman Arkham VR which make for far more interesting and complete experiences in terms of gameplay and story. Driveclub VR is another disappointment unless you have a steering wheel setup.
The future is bright….
Playstation VR is clearly off to a good start with its launch lineup. However, it needs to continue to support the device if it wants it to become truly successful. So far they are on the right track. Since launch we have been graced with god-like strategy game Tethered, The Vive hit Windlands, the free Call of Duty: Jackal Assault mission, Ubisoft’s Eagle flight and the beautiful Robinson: The Journey from Crytek. We are still looking forward to the Battlefront VR mission, Resident Evil 7 and Gran Turismo Sport in the near future.
The Demo Disc
With every PSVR headset Sony has packaged in a free demo disc that contains around 18 games, including the Resident Evil Kitchen Teaser, Driveclub VR, RiGS, Rez and more. This is a genius move and those who can’t decide what game they should get can really get some benefit with the demo disc. There are also some other free content like the Playroom VR, which reminds me a lot like Nintendoland, making get-togethers especially fun in virtual reality.
Favourites: Rez: Infinite, Thumper, RIGS, Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, Batman Arkham VR
Don’t Recommend: Driveclub VR, PlayStation VR Worlds, Harmonix Live, Here They Lie
For a first generation VR headset in a market that hasn’t really experienced VR, Sony has done an outstanding job in landing with a bang. It does have minor annoyances like infrequent tracking errors and I cannot wait for the next generation of headsets where cables are done with. However, it is super comfortable, easy to setup and features a diverse line-up of experiences for everyone (and a lot of free content to go with it). In the design and game library categories, PSVR towers above the competition. While performance issues like low resolution, tracking and aged motion controls may have taken a minor dip in comparison to the high-end PC virtual reality headsets, you can’t argue with the price. It’s an affordable way to get people to finally try high-end VR, and the experience is almost identical for more than half the price.