I will be following this with a video review on my YouTube channel, will just take a bit to put together.
Once again, it sucks sometimes being just a dude who writes about games, instead of someone who is paid to do it. In general I like playing and writing what I want, but on the other hand, companies rarely send me their products early and for free. In the case of the PSVR, which Sony apparently only sent out 15 or 20 of to the entire world at launch, it seriously took me this long to get one. I live in a little town that got very few units and wasn’t willing to pay inflated prices to scalpers on craigslist and eBay.
The plus side to this is that like many of you, I am a normal consumer who has to buy this stuff. My rating of this device is based on how realistic it is to upgrade my gaming PC and buy the competition, versus buying this in a real budget. Like the average PC gamer (real average, not average snob on forums) I have a gaming PC that is upper midrange for about 3 years ago. So I could barely handle any high-end VR games without some very costly upgrades. I also needed a new PS4 though and the Pro model had just released at the time. Since Sony’s platform would bring both 4K and VR gaming, an upgrade that would be about twice as much in my situation for my PC. It makes a huge difference that this is the only solution that made sense in my case, because I am not sitting here in an office, staring at 3 devices I didn’t pay for and comparing them. So without further preamble, the review.
I should start by saying that my own VR experience is limited by my amateur journalist status. I did work at Samsung in 2014 and was fortunate enough to use both an Oculus Rift developer unit and the Gear VR prototype (which was a stripped down version of the dev unit) when the Gear VR was being launched. So I have some experience with Oculus’ tech and none with HTC’s. The PSVR is the first consumer unit I have used in a home environment, outside a canned demo.
The quality is what I think will become the new standard of “good enough” for VR. For lack of a better description, it’s basically like having a 1080p OLED screen wrapped around your face. When you first put it on, you will definitely notice the individual LEDs if you have sharp vision. After a while of using it, the effect goes away as your eyes become used to focusing on the image the way they do reality, rather than a flat screen. The effect is a tiny bit worse in the PSVR than the other headsets I’ve tried, because the resolution is slightly lower, but the effect is no more or less annoying until you stop noticing it. The biggest issue with visual quality is anti-aliasing effects or scaling, as in Resident Evil 7.
This is the first unit I have used that was using full room tracking of any kind. All tracking is limited by what the Playstation camera can see. In practice I found this to be about a 2m x 3.5m area that would only go as low or high as I aimed the camera’s roughly 100 degree scope. Sony could easily improve this later by adding additional cameras or sensors, but I found it to be an excellent balance of interaction vs home intrusion. Much like the Wii, Virtual Reality is one of those things where you want to jump around for the first day, but then you remember you play video games to relax. I’ve found that I am most comfortable sitting or standing stationary. Although you can wander around a bit in most VR games (really fun in Batman!), the most interesting stuff is usually right in front of you.
Finally, the sound quality is very impressive! I didn’t even bother with Sony’s earbuds and instead went straight to the Turtle Beach headset I bought for the VR. I had my doubts about Sony’s claims that their magical 3D stereo would be better than real surround sound, but it’s pretty darn good. It is actually completely playable with living room surround sound, although your position is sometimes slightly off. Not at all unbearable though if you want to remain in touch with other people in the room. This is even required for a couple of games with asymmetric gameplay using the TV as well, such as Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes!
This has so far varied from person to person. Some people seem to experience it depending on the type of movement in each game. Resident Evil 7 is the worst offender so far, because it does this strange disconnect where the controller moves your actual character model, but you can still move yourself around and change your view. It can result in a disconnect in position that is a serious head trip. I also found that when I turned off all the anti-nausea aids (like FOV filter, slow walking and limited camera control) and played as I normally would, running around at full speed and aiming very quickly while strafing, I was overcome by intense nausea after about 90 minutes and 2 boss battles. That was a pretty extreme test, but so far I have been the least susceptible to nausea and I wanted to see if there were limits. There were indeed and I had to take the headset off and take anti-nausea meds immediately.
In general though, if you limit yourself to hour-long sessions and don’t play like a baboon on crack, you shouldn’t have too much issue once you get used to it. We’ve found that taking a break at a max of 90 minutes is pretty necessary though. It doesn’t need to be that long, but you will definitely get a headache if you play for 5 hours straight.
Probably the most important trick to avoiding nausea or headaches is to calibrate the headset for each user if they will be playing for more than a few minutes. It’s fine to pass the headset around to demonstrate, or to play party games. When playing long sessions though, it is much easier to focus the image and remain comfortable if you calibrate your eye distance and camera position for each profile. Some games require a ‘neutral point’ for the headset, that it will treat as the center of the room and this is of course different based on height and distance from the camera. Not tuning this for each user can result in having to lean or tilt your head in an uncomfortable way while playing.
Control and Precision
Once again, I have not used the Rift or Vive controllers, so I have no idea how they compare. I would assume they are better, because the Move controllers were designed ages ago and can be purchased cheaper. That being said, both the Dual Shock 4 and the Move controllers do a fantastic job when used properly. Its’ really important to heed the warning about other bright lights near you when playing, because that will cause the dreaded shaking effect. If you ever tried to get any kind of accuracy out of your Nintendo Wii though, you know the drill. Middle lighting and no points of light near the player. Follow those guidelines and the control is actually very accurate. So accurate on occasions that my wife’s 5 minutes in front of an in-game mirror gesticulating and saying “I’m Batman” had me rolling on the floor in tears.
Playing with the traditional controller is a great middle ground between the up-on-you-feet experience of true VR and the gaming we’re all used to. It’s much less taxing and totally necessary for a game like RE7, that takes hours to complete. It is occasionally confusing that you can’t just move your body or touch things with your hands, but that just means the illusion is still working.
The biggest issue with both controllers, is that neither of them was designed for VR. The DS4 is a traditional controller and the Move was obviously designed to be seen while playing. Hitting the tiny face buttons accurately is nearly impossible when swinging the remote around blindly. This results in most games using only the move and trigger buttons, only occasionally using one of the face buttons repeatedly. Worse, 2D menu navigation with the Move controller is almost impossible (and not even supported in many games), meaning you have to pick up the Dual Shock to perform many functions in game and system menus. These are things that could easily be smoothed out with software updates and will likely be solved completely by the inevitable “improved sensor and control” package Sony will surely release this year.
Currently the PSVR has a notable advantage in that two of the most critically acclaimed and hardware pushing VR games are exclusive to Sony’s platforms (for the moment). Batman Arkham VR and Resident Evil 7’s VR mode (the game itself is cross platform) are both limited time exclusives to PSVR. While this means they will obviously come to other platforms later (surely with addons and updates), at the moment two of the best VR experiences can only be played on PSVR. These are of course the first 2 full games we bought for ours. Beyond that we just have free content and a couple really cheap games. Those two games are pretty much worth the price of admission on their own. Resident Evil 7 lets you explore a VR environment that is actually large and detailed, with fully free movement. Something lacking in almost all existing VR games. Batman on the other hand, makes you Batman. The Goddamned Batman. Yes, you are Batman as he goes on a graphically detailed point-n-click adventure that we would have laughed away in 2D, but you are BATMAN.
The rest of the games range somewhere from tech demos to games we’ve seen before that have been VRified. Many of the same genres we saw on the Wii have showed up for a quick buck. Then there are the videos and “experiences” which have shown up before on other VR platforms. These range from amusing shorts like Invasion, where you stand in place and watch a 3D scene, to “games” where you teleport around an environment and can basically just poke stuff. These are all great for trade shows, but the steep price tags for some of them are obvious exploitation of the fad that will harm the industry in general. The perception that it is an overpriced gimmick is the biggest hurdle for VR to overcome.
So… Overpriced Gimmick?
Absolutely not. This is the technology I have been waiting for for years. If you only see VR as a new way for people to be lazy and avoid reality, you are blinding yourself to a world of possibility. VR has limitless opportunities not only for the obvious, like training and simulation, but for the subtle and humanistic as well. I imagine a world 10 years from now where sheltered white kids like myself, from our nice little towns, could learn a lot more about racism from experiencing Roots, rather than watching it. Sure, a VR whip or travelling for a month in your won VR filth isn’t anything like the real thing, but it’s a much better eye opener than a decades old movie on a VHS tape. Or imagine a simulation of what it’s like to communicate with speech impediments or brain damage. You speak clearly, but others can’t understand you. I could go on and on and on. This is a technology that will literally change everything.
For right now, it will let you stand in front of a mirror as Batman. It may not sound like much, but the only way we can get to that better world of empathy and understanding is by financing it with our money. Virtual Reality will only take off if enough of us take the plunge in the early days. From my own experience though, even these early methods of experiencing VR are well worth the cost of admission. It seems like a lot of crap to buy and hook up, until you put your face in it and see a fully VR area for the first time. This is not like any of that 3D glasses crap you can see at the movie theater. If you have not used one of the headsets released in the past few years, no technology you have seen before can prepare you for this. It’s a level of immersion and interaction that no medium has ever come close to in the past. I’ve tried everything from the Nintendo Virtual Boy to high-end arcade VR machines over the years. Nothing before the current generation VR devices ever made my brain cross that threshold to perceiving the VR space as real. To a limited extent, I was doing this within moments of playing the PSVR.
Without any further rambling, I just want to say that I think the PSVR is truly the best positioned consumer VR device. As much as I love PC gaming, I never in a million years expect it to be the dominant entertainment platform. John Carmack and Gabe Newell are way smarter than I am, but they are somehow completely delusional about this. PC gaming is always going to be a niche segment, because average consumers keep the PC in the office and the Playstation in the living room. As someone who has until very recently been in the homes of many consumers working on their devices, I don’t see this changing soon. The Playstation VR is the mainstream, ready to play right now solution that I decided to go with after much thought and I highly recommend it. The VR quality is more than good enough to create the experience and the ease of use is top-notch. The manufacturing quality seems to be up to Sony’s normal standards and I don’t see any of the parts being easy to break. As much as I hate to always say “go with the big, successful company that makes similar stuff”, it is a really good rule of thumb. Startups like Oculus (though they are now owned by Facebook) and players from other industries like HTC will often make the superior product, but it’s almost always the company like Sony that has the market power to force it into the public consciousness.
We’ll see if I invested wisely in the long run, as VR in general may not take off and even if it does, many of the early competitors will likely fail. Here’s hoping it goes universal and multiplatform though, so we can all play the same games on different devices for years to come.