Metro Weekly

PlayStation VR review: Pretty spectacular, but not essential (yet)

Sony’s big gamble with virtual reality is a success, even if its stance as the affordable option is a little misleading

PlayStation VR -- Everything you'll need to enjoy it, Photo: Sony
PlayStation VR — Everything you’ll need to enjoy it, Photo: Sony

Virtual reality has left the nascent stage of its development and is finally ready for the big leagues. At least that’s the bet Sony is making with PlayStation VR (starstarstarstar), the gaming giant’s new headset. It brings interactive, virtual, immersive worlds to the masses in a way few other implementations have achieved, but one big question hangs over Sony’s VR gamble: is it any good? The answer, after a week of use, is unequivocally yes. Whether it’s an essential purchase is another matter entirely.

Let’s start with the basics. For $399, Sony is promising full virtual reality. That’s something of a misnomer, considering that PlayStation VR requires a PS4, PlayStation Camera, and two of Sony’s Move controllers — they’re technically optional, but you’re missing out on a core part of the experience by not getting them.

All in, you’re looking at around $560, which is a lot. But Sony has 40 million people out there who already own a PlayStation 4, and even with the price of a console on top, PS VR is still significantly cheaper than the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, both of which require a powerful PC or laptop in order to run their virtual worlds. You’ll need at least $1,500 to get the best experience out of those options, which swings affordability back in Sony’s favor.

Photo: Sony
Photo: Sony

For that price, Sony has had to make some concessions. While the PS VR is lightweight and phenomenally comfortable for extended periods of gaming, it uses a single 5.7-inch 1080p OLED screen. That means a relatively low resolution image for each eye, something anyone who’s tried either the Rift or Vive will notice. In practice, however, it’s a relatively moot point. While you won’t be blown away by any of the graphics on offer with PS VR’s first wave of games, you also won’t spend your time picking out each individual pixel and complaining about muddy textures or low resolution text. Everything is crisp, clear, and beautifully smooth.

Indeed, that’s one of the biggest surprises about PS VR: how usable it is. Chances are that if you’re the sort of person who struggles to watch 3D content or look at screens close-up for any length of time you won’t like it, but for most others the PS VR can easily be passed around between a group of people. Adjusting the headset is simple, as there’s just one band that wraps around your head, while the display hangs below and moves forward and backward. Getting setup takes thirty seconds at most and everyone who tried my PS VR found they were quickly able to get a clean image to both eyes (the option to adjust for specific pupil distance is there, but I’ve yet to find a need for it).

What isn’t so easy is actually setting up everything outside of the headset. PS VR runs through a separate box, which looks a lot like a miniature PS4. No fewer than six cables plug into this box, including HDMI and USB connections to the PS4, as well as two connections to the headset itself (yes, this means your home entertainment setup will be ruined, and you’ll lose one of the PS4’s two front-facing USB ports). However, the cable to the headset is lengthy — I was able to walk from one side of my large living room to the other without putting any tension on the wires — so freedom of movement is only limited by the relatively narrow field of view of the PlayStation camera. Once you’re all plugged in, the PS4 will ask you to put the headset on and walk you through calibration. All-in-all, it’s about five minutes before you’re good to go.

Photo: Sony
Photo: Sony

It’s not the simplest of setups, but once you’re finished it removes one of the biggest hurdles to VR: ease of use. Leave the headset and its processing box plugged in and you can just pick up and play whenever you like. Pressing a button on the headset cable turns it on and once you put the headset on (it detects whether or not you’re wearing it, which is a nice touch if you need to quickly remove it in the middle of a game) the PS4 dashboard will be stretched out in front of your face. From there, you’re into the most important part of the VR experience: the games.

Unfortunately, at least at launch, what’s on offer is a mixed bag. For starters, all you’ll get in the box is a demo disc (remember those?) with a selection of short tasters. While they’re a fun introduction to VR, covering racing games, shooting games, puzzles, story-driven adventures and VR experiences, it would have been nice for Sony to bundle at least one proper title with the system. However, Sony’s tech demo of sorts, The Playroom VR, pops up on the PS4 dashboard when you first use PS VR, and it offers one of the most engrossing experiences I had with the headset in the form of Robot Rescue, a single-player title (most of Playroom’s games involve players using PS4 controllers and watching the TV while another uses the headset). Here, the player is a giant camera, following and controlling a little bot as you maneuver him around a gloriously cute and Nintendo-esque platformer. It’s stunningly presented and feels wonderful to play — make it a full game please, Sony.

Robot Rescue is a wonderful example of VR making a platformer more interactive, Photo: Sony
Robot Rescue is a wonderful example of VR making a platformer more interactive, Photo: Sony

There are a couple of other free titles and demos available on the PlayStation Store, but if you want the full VR experience, you’re going to have to start coughing up more money. Quite a lot of it, actually. Unfortunately, Sony and its partners are pricing VR games almost at the same price as full games, despite many of them offering a severely reduced amount of gameplay.

Batman: Arkham VR (starstarstarstar) is one of the standout launch titles, putting players into Batman’s suit (literally so, at the start of the game), and guiding them through an investigation into Gotham’s seedy underworld. It’s immersive, beautifully crafted, and displays all of the style we’ve become accustomed to from developer Rocksteady, but for $20 it will last you an hour if you don’t dally.

That said, if you’ve ever wanted to be Batman, this really is an outstanding way to do it. Reaching down to his utility belt, grabbing a Batarang and throwing it out into the digital ether is phenomenally smooth — and surprisingly accurate — which only enhances the immersion. Environments are nicely detailed, action is rendered well, and the story is surprisingly dark — even for the Batman series. If you’ve ever wanted to know what it feels like to be a comic book hero, this is about as close as it gets without donning your own costume and trying to fight crime (we don’t recommend this, just buy Batman: Arkham VR instead).

Donning Batman's suit is an immersive, engrossing experience, Photo: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Donning Batman’s suit is an immersive, engrossing experience, Photo: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Driveclub VR is a standalone version of Sony’s flagship PS4 racer (we’re still waiting for Gran Turismo to arrive), but for $40 you’re not getting the same experience as the full-fat game. Sure, driving games are one of the best examples of VR’s usability, letting you look around the cabin and out across the racetrack, but the graphics highlight the lower resolution of PS VR’s display in a way other games for the system don’t — even though the framerate is impressively smooth. Looking for the next apex is made harder when you’re struggling to discern objects in the distance. Rigs Mechanized Combat League is a first-person online shooter where players take control of sophisticated fighting robots in a gladiatorial-style deathmatch and one of the PS VR’s biggest and most active launch titles — but you’ll pay $50 for the privilege. Again, the PS VR’s starting price of $399 starts to look a little deceptive.

But if you can overlook the price and the lower graphics quality of certain titles, when the PS VR gets it right it does so in spectacular fashion. As mentioned, the Move controllers are an absolute must. Sure, they can be a bit finicky and you can’t fully turn around as they require the PlayStation Camera to see their glowing ends, but they offer true one-to-one movement in games and are the best way to truly feel like you’re in another world. It’s something exemplified by Job Simulator (starstarstarstarstar), a downloadable title ported over from PC, which drops players into a futuristic museum where people pay to experience mundane jobs from the age of humanity, such as office clerk, auto mechanic, and cashier at a grocers (apologies to everyone whose job I just insulted). It’s bursting with humor and charm, but it’s also phenomenally immersive. Sony recommends playing games for an hour and then taking a break, but I lost an entire evening to just one of Job Simulator’s fake scenarios. It’s exactly the sort of game that sounds awful when describing it to someone, but blows their mind when you hand them the headset and a pair of Move controllers. Watching people lose themselves in its world as they throw staplers, fry steaks, tweak engines and more is proof enough that Sony’s experiment with VR has worked.

Job Simulator makes an office job feel exciting, interactive and hilarious, Photo: Sony
Job Simulator makes an office job feel exciting, interactive and hilarious, Photo: Sony

The question remains as to whether PS VR is a must buy. For those interested in testing virtual reality, there are much cheaper ways to do so, such as Samsung’s Gear VR or Google’s Cardboard/Daydream VR initiative. But if you own a PS4 and have the money to spend on the headset, two controllers and a camera (plus a couple of games), it’s absolutely worth doing. As developers learn to get the most out of the system, I can’t wait to see what experiences are dreamt up — and if Job Simulator is any proof, we can expect to see some of the amazing VR experiences on PC make their way to Sony’s console. The average consumer will have to decide whether they make their purchase on PS VR’s potential over the actual experiences available right now, but make no mistake that what’s there is pretty spectacular, for the most part.

Many are speculating as to whether virtual reality will eventually follow 3D into the annals of gaming history, a short flash in the pan that will ultimately be ignored. But I’m not so sure. After just a week, I’m hooked on what Sony is selling. I want to put Batman’s mask back on, I want to jump back into my office cubicle, I want to work my way through more immersive adventures. PS VR is by no means a perfect virtual reality experience, but it’s one obtainable by more people than either of its PC-based rivals — and that, ultimately, could be the reason enough for it to succeed.

PS VR is available now for $399 from Amazon and other online and big box retailers. Two Move controllers are $99, while PlayStation Camera is $59.

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