Despite Nintendo claiming it has no interest in virtual reality and Microsoft only cautiously promising Oculus support for its Scorpio console next year, Sony has made it clear in no uncertain terms that it’s very much on board the VR hype train.
The result of this is PlayStation VR, a headset designed exclusively for the PS4 which promises a (relatively) cheap way to join the virtual revolution.
The big questions are obvious. Does PlayStation VR really transform the way you play PS4 games? Will it make you ill? And is it the future of gaming?
While I plan on addressing that last question in more detail in another article coming soon, below I’ll at least do my best to answer some of the other questions you may have and reveal whether I think PS VR is worth buying (because I know you’re all waiting specifically for my opinion and nobody else’s).
Notes and stuff
I bought my PlayStation VR at launch – it was not sent to me for free by Sony.
I’m not telling you this to imply my review will be non-biased. After all, while it’s obvious to argue that someone getting free hardware may be inclined to give it a good review (if they’re unprofessional), after spending £350 on a bit of kit you could also expect some folk to write an overly positive review in an attempt to justify their purchase.
I only mention it for the purposes of transparency, so you know I’m coming from the position of a consumer who bought this with his own money, but has enough experience as a critic to give an honest opinion regardless.
I also bought DriveClub VR, TumbleVR and PlayStation VR Worlds, whereas I received review codes of Eve Valkyrie and Loading Human: Chapter 1.
Reviews of all games will be coming to Tired Old Hack soon except for Loading Human: Chapter 1, which I’m reviewing for Official PlayStation Magazine (support them and buy that issue when it’s out to see what I think).
Finally, there will be Amazon UK affiliate links in this article. If you like the sound of what you’re reading, or you planned on buying something I mention here anyway, please do so using the links provided. You don’t pay any extra, and Amazon gives me a couple of pence to go towards improving this site.
The PlayStation VR headset is surprisingly comfortable. I say surprisingly because, as someone who’s previously used the Oculus Rift DK2 and Samsung Gear V2 and found it almost painful to use for long sessions, I’m glad to say the same isn’t the case with PSVR.
This is mainly because its design means you bear most of its weight on the top of your head. Whereas other VR headsets tend to fit round your eyes and rest on your nose, PS VR instead fits round your head and you pull its goggles towards your face.
As a better way of explaining it, other VR headsets feel like you’re wearing a snorkel but PlayStation VR feels like you’re wearing a crash helmet.
There’s no need to go into elaborate adjustment rituals any time you switch the headset from person to person, either. Whereas early versions of the Oculus Rift made you adjust each lens depending on the player’s eyesight and the Gear VR has a dial that changes the focus but is never really perfect, PS VR somehow magically doesn’t need either of these.
Of course, it isn’t really magic. I’m an idiot, but I’m not that much of a fucking idiot. I’m also no expert on lens technology but whatever Sony’s done, it’s somehow ensured that the display is relatively clear for all players with minimal effort.
A large part of this is the way it remains comfortable for people wearing glasses (like me). I’m short-sighted, meaning other headsets force me to make the decision to keep my glasses on and have them jammed into my face, or take them off and put up with a blurry picture. It’s the technological equivalent of having to decide whether to be punched in the face or toed in the balls.
By making its headset flexible enough to easily support glasses wearers, PlayStation VR ensures I can get the best of both worlds, with an in-focus picture that doesn’t result in me getting painful red marks on the bridge of my nose for having the sheer fucking gall for wanting to be able to see properly.
Long story short, then, Sony has overcome the first VR hurdle – headset comfort – with flying colours.
Setting it up
The headset may be thing of beauty and comfort, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a hell of a faff setting the bastard up.
Don’t get me wrong: in the grand scheme of things it isn’t too bad. The Oculus Rift still has a fiddly installation process and the HTC Vive is a complete ball-ache, requiring you to set up sensors and conveniently have a massive empty room handy as if you were the guy from The Human Centipede.
Compared to those, PlayStation VR is a relative breeze. It’s just messy, is all.
Despite some promotional images sneakily (and falsely) implying it’s just plug-and-play, the PlayStation VR actually needs an external processing unit in order to work. This extra box (which looks a bit like a mini PS4) needs its own power source and requires you to ‘pass through’ your existing set-up.
What does this mean? Well, instead of having a single HDMI cable going from your PS4 to your TV, now you need to have one HDMI cable going from your PS4 to this new processing unit, then another HDMI cable going from that to your TV.
Then you need to have a power cable running to the processing unit, another USB cable plugging into the front of the PS4 so it can communicate with it, and then the headset itself which attaches two more lengthy cables to it.
When all that’s done, the result is a single black box sitting somewhere in your living room with six separate cables sticking out of it, creating a massive spaghetti junction unless you can expertly hide it away. The problem is, if you hide it away instead of sitting it in your living room, the distance you can use PSVR from is limited somewhat.
It’s a bit of a mixed bag, then. Compared to other high-end headsets the set-up process is relatively painless, but unless you’re a Cable Tetris™ wizard it has the potential to leave your living room in a hell of a mess.
The processing unit is also a bastard if you’re a bit of a tech-head looking to make use of the recent HDR update. For those not in the know, HDR is a new colour standard for fancy TVs that increases the range of colours available. It makes the blacks look darker and the whites look brighter, with more variations in between.
As an owner of a 4K TV that supports HDR, I’m very happy with the HDR content I’ve seen so far: it makes the picture look much more realistic and reveals extra detail that may otherwise have merged into the background.
The problem is, this new processing unit doesn’t support HDR, meaning if you’re passing through it to play standard PS4 games (as Sony expects you to do) you won’t be able to make use of it.
Considering Sony recently held a big press conference in which it essentially heralded HDR as the next big revolution in PlayStation gaming, this is nothing short of a shambles. The set-up is messy enough as it is without me having to switch around two HDMI cables on the back of my PS4 and TV every time I want to play an HDR supported game: this could be a regular occurrence if Sony’s suggestion that many future games will support it comes true.
It may be (relatively) easy to set up then, HDR bullshit aside, but if its games look like a poorly-maintained anus then PlayStation VR is essentially dead in the water at launch.
Thankfully, this isn’t the case… for the most part.
While I’d like to consider myself a bit of a stickler for detail, I have to admit that I can’t see an enormous difference between the quality of the image on PlayStation VR and that on Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive.
On paper, the others fare better. Oculus and Vive both have display resolutions of 1080×1200 per eye, whereas the PlayStation VR offers 960×1080 per eye.
The result is an image that’s slightly softer than its rivals but nowhere near enough to make it a less entertaining experience. It’s still perfectly suitable for the vast majority of games and when you’re literally talking about a hundred fewer pixels of detail you would need to be pretty pedantic to see a massive difference.
Crucially, this lower resolution allows the PS4 – which is less powerful than the expensive PCs required to run Oculus and Vive – to maintain a smooth framerate for its games. A fast and smooth framerate is essential for VR to ensure any potential motion sickness is kept to a minimum, and developers have to make sure their PSVR games run at a bare minimum of 60 frames per second (preferably 90) or else Sony won’t allow them to be sold.
This means that – for now at least – many of the PlayStation VR games are relatively basic affairs, offering either slow (or no) motion with detailed graphics or fast motion with simplified graphics.
A good example of the former is Batman: Arkham VR. By essentially limiting players to a series of static 360-degree environments (the player views them in first-person and moves by selecting new areas to ‘teleport’ to) the developer is able to pack as much detail in there as possible without the worry of having to load in new assets on the fly.
The latter is best exemplified (that’s yer man Scullion busting out the big words) in a game like Battlezone, which has relatively fast-paced tank battling gameplay but places it in a simplistic environment to make up for it.
Fortunately, Battlezone makes lemons out of lemonade by making these basic arenas look Tron-like in appearance, giving the game a futuristic feel. It’s an effective way of getting round the problem of low-quality environments but unless a better solution is found soon expect to be doing a lot of things in Tron-style worlds soon.
The alternative is something like Driveclub VR, which to be blunt looks like goat shit. The original Driveclub remains one of the most beautifully realistic games on PS4, but the problem is it ran at 30 frames per second. To get the game running at a bare minimum of 60fps without any frame drops something has to take a severe hit, and sadly it’s the graphical detail.
The result is a game that – and I’m trying my very best not to go into the usual over-the-top “this looks like an N64 game” shit you get on forums when a game looks slightly underpowered – legitimately has scenery that at times could pass as a bad PS3 game (or maybe even a very good upscaled PS2 one in some stages).
The solution might be coming as soon as next month. The PS4 Pro launches on 10 November and promises to offer a good deal more power than the standard PS4 console. While for non-VR games this will be used to either upscale to 4K or add extra graphical detail to 1080p titles, with PS VR’s locked resolution it goes without saying that the Pro should hopefully be using that extra power to make VR games look more detailed.
For existing PS4 owners though, that will mean dropping another £349 on the upgrade, essentially punting the ‘cheap VR’ argument on its arse.
To be clear before I start here, it’s absolutely impossible to give a definitive opinion on whether PS VR makes you motion sick. Anyone claiming it either does or doesn’t is simply wrong.
All I can do is give you my own take on how it affects me, as long as you’re completely aware that it may affect you worse or it may not affect you at all. Everyone’s brain and stomach reacts to virtual reality differently, and the only way to truly know before buying is to sort out a demo – either at a shop, or from a friend who already has a PS VR.
From my perspective, before using virtual reality I’d only been motion sick three times in my life while playing a game. The first was Timesplitters 2 on the GameCube back in 2002, the second was Bionicle Heroes on Wii (while I was reviewing it at Eidos’s offices, which was awkward) and the third was the wobbly head in-car view in GRID Autosport.
In all though, I’d like to think I have a relatively strong stomach when it comes to playing games. After all, during my time at ONM I managed to play all the way through Ninjabread Man without vomiting into a bucket, despite the very concept of it making that a very real possibility.
Then I got an Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 and motion sickness became an all-too regular occurrence, to the extent that I sold it on to a colleague shortly after buying it. I put it down to a combination of prototype hardware and indie developers not having the experience to optimise their games to prevent motion sickness, so I remained confident about the future of VR.
PlayStation VR is much better, but I’ve still had a few iffy moments when using it. The first time I tried Driveclub VR I barely finished a single lap before my head started getting very warm and that queasy feeling started rushing to the back of my eyes.
I had to take the headset off and lie down in a darkened room for about an hour to get over it. I know that sounds like a comedy cliche, but it literally was what I had to do.
Oddly, the next day I tried it again – I’d spent £17.99 on the prick so I was adamant I was going to finish at least one fucking race – and I managed to race through three separate races with few issues.
At this stage only a week in it’s hard to tell whether this was an adjustment period as I ‘found my VR legs’ or whether there are other factors – tiredness, general ill-feeling, focusing on an area I shouldn’t focus on – that can force motion sickness and should be avoided.
Like I say, the best advice I can give is to try it out first if you’re in any way unsure. This isn’t a cheap piece of kit and there’d be no worse feeling than having it sitting in your room unplayed because you can’t use it. Well, I mean, there would be a worse feeling: putting the thing on. Which is sort of my point.
Is it worth it?
Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it? Annoyingly, my answer is a non-committed “it depends”.
There’s no denying that PlayStation VR is a great piece of kit. It’s extremely comfortable to wear and despite being relatively cheap compared to other rival headsets it still offers some interesting experiences.
That said, it’s maybe a little too early to predict where it’s going to be in a year’s time. The launch titles are a real mixed bag, with some gems in there and some utter shite too (more to come on that as I review individual titles in the coming weeks).
All technology eventually loses its ‘wow’ factor too – the glasses-free 3D of the 3DS was fucking sorcery and yet people were turning it off a fortnight after launch – and the real test will be whether developers can make more experiences that go beyond standing, sitting or racing that won’t make some gamers ill.
Is PlayStation VR the future of gaming? No. Not the sole future, at least.
There will always be a market for ‘standard’ gaming because no matter how immersive VR is some folk will always want to crash on their couch after a hard day’s work and just lie in front of the telly playing some games.
But that’s fine. It doesn’t need to be THE future. PlayStation VR has the potential to be a brilliant supplement to the main console, expanding a developer’s toolset and giving it new ways to engross the player.
If you can afford to drop £349 on what’s essentially an experience just now (assuming you already have a PlayStation 4 camera and two optional but recommended Move controllers, otherwise that’ll cost you extra) then you’re going to be blown away by what PS VR does, especially if you’ve never tried any other VR headsets before.
Just bear in mind that when you buy it, you’re also buying into the possibility (no matter how slight) that if its game library doesn’t continue to grow and if developer support starts to wane, Sony’s track record means it could be ditched early like the EyeToy, PS Move, PS4 Camera and Vita before it.
PlayStation VR is amazing. But it has to continue to amaze months and years into its life in order to truly make an impact and not become the next Kinect. Over to you, developers.
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