For many people, the idea of virtual reality conjures up nightmarish visions of Lawnmower Man and Ready Player One. For the rest of us, though, it represents the future of truly immersive gaming, filmmaking, and storytelling. And as of October 13, Sony is poised to become the king of the VR space with an accessible, user-friendly, and surprisingly fun device. What it lacks in technical superiority it makes up for in comfort, brand recognition, and ease of use. That means that while it won’t be for everyone, it was designed with everyone in mind. That is the beauty of the PlayStation VR in a nutshell.
With an ever-increasing amount of options, choosing the right VR headset can be a daunting task. Futuristic-sounding names like the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Google Daydream View, Samsung Gear VR can make your head spin if you’re looking to make the leap into virtual reality, especially if you don’t know the ins and outs of each proprietary headset. That is why the PlayStation VR (PSVR), formerly and unfortunately titled Project Morpheus, is poised to be to virtual reality what the Nintendo Wii was to casual gamers and families. By leveraging the PlayStation brand, clean and futuristic design, and its easy-to-use functionality, the PSVR can be a sleek, sexy entryway into the world of virtual reality for the average consumer. It’s kind of like the Toyota Prius in that regard; it’s not the nicest machine out there, but it looks good and does a decent enough job.
From a pricing perspective, the PlayStation VR offers a lot of bang for its buck, at least upon first glance. The $399 price tag is for the headset alone, and includes neither the mandatory PlayStation 4 Camera nor the highly recommended Move controllers. These peripherals can be purchased separately or in a bundle, which retails for $500 and comes with the PlayStation Worlds demo disc that includes a bunch of samples of other VR launch titles. It’s definitely not cheap per se, but it is certainly a more affordable option than the Oculus Rift ($599) or HTC Vive ($799), which require expensive gaming PCs to operate, and higher quality than the Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard, which are meant to be more entry-level VR experiences.
The headset makes you look more like a member of Daft Punk than like you’ve taped a black toaster to your head, which is a definite plus aesthetically speaking. Comfort-wise, the PSVR leads the pack in terms of wearability, thanks to its halo-like cushioned headband, which is both easy to adjust and swap between users with little fuss. Initially, you will spend a fair amount of time repositioning and adjusting the headset on your face to reduce blurriness and find that sweet spot, but it becomes significantly easier the more you use the device. Of all the VR headsets I’ve worn for extended periods of time, this is the most pleasant, making you feel more like you’re wearing goggles rather than having a massive chunk of plastic and wires hanging off your head.
Where the headset pales in comparison to its competition is in its technical specs. The in-game framerate often dips, graphics can appear blurry, and the movement tracking can be more than a little wonky. (Case in point, it looked like I had broken both of my arms and developed a major tremor when playing Until Dawn: Rush of Blood.) This is part and parcel of the game using the current PlayStation 4 architecture and the preexisting Move controller and camera technology. The forthcoming PlayStation 4 Pro (which retails for an additional $399) will offer greatly enhanced processing power than the current model, which Sony has said will let VR games run more smoothly and at higher framerates, so if you don’t already own a PS4 and want to take part in the VR experience, you may want to wait until that console releases on November 10, 2016.
While the VR headset technology may be new, the Move controllers have been available since 2010, and will be familiar to anyone who has used a Wiimote before. The camera, too, has been available since launch, but both peripherals have been largely underutilized. Now, though, when thrust into the limelight by the PSVR, they do their job well, but not as well as one might like after dropping several hundred dollars. One of the biggest complaints I have heard and, to a lesser degree, experienced, is the responsiveness of the motion controls, which is due in part to the fact that PSVR relies on a single-camera tracking system. If you move around the room too much, the camera can lose sight of you and the system will often try to automatically compensate, which can make for some stomach-churning visuals as it whips you back into where the system believes you are.
The motion tracking issues can be abated by playing in a darker room, as the camera is quite sensitive to the light, especially if it’s coming from behind you. What it doesn’t account for is the occasional trembling that comes with the Move controllers. Sure this is endemic to being human holding movement-sensitive inputs in a three-dimensional space, but as someone with low-grade carpal tunnel in both of my wrists, my hands have mild tremors, which are amplified to an occasionally annoying degree in the game. Unfortunately, it can shatter the immersion at times when your usually steady hands suddenly go all Stephen Strange in an earthquake on you. Others who don’t share my medical condition have reported similar concerns, but it can usually be mitigated by making a concerted effort to hold them perfectly still.
Since we’re on the subject of medical maladies, I only experienced mild motion sickness when playing the Resident Evil 7 demo at E3. Some of my colleagues reported feeling a bit queasy after trying certain VR experiences like Batman: Arkham VR and EVE: Valkyrie, I had no such issues. From what I’ve been able to suss out, this is largely dependent on the game you’re playing. If your body is moving fluidly as though in normal video game, but your physical body is standing still, the result creates a sort of cognitive dissonance that can turn your stomach into a maelstrom of displeasure. As always, your mileage may vary.
Speaking of the games, the PlayStation VR boasts an impressive launch lineup of nearly 30 titles, including standouts like EVE: Valkyrie, Thumper, Super Hypercube, and Job Simulator. Yet for its sprawling launch library and the way it seamlessly integrates with the PlayStation Network’s robust social features, it feels like there’s a severe lack of killer apps and games that will keep you coming back day after day. For example, Batman: Arkham VR sounds like a great idea on paper and is a terrific way to introduce new users to the thrills of virtual reality. Putting on Batman’s cowl and exploring the Batcave, one can’t help but smile when they actually become the Dark Knight. But it isn’t so much a game as it is an experience, which is a problem. You wouldn’t pay $20 for an hour-long movie, would you? That’s essentially what Batman: Arkham VR is: a series of interactive cutscenes. It makes for a terrific way to demo the unit to prospective users, but consumers plunking down $500 on a new VR system should expect more from their new toy.
So, the real question is whether or not the PlayStation VR is worth your hard-earned cash. Currently, it depends on how desperate you are to experience virtual reality in a meaningful way. This is an easy-to-use, aesthetically pleasing, comfortable, and relatively affordable means of experiencing high-end virtual reality. Like any newish technology, though, the first generation of hardware is going to have its fair share of problems. Technical quibbles aside, the real issue for my money is whether or not there will be enough games worth playing to make the PSVR anything more than a really, really enjoyable novelty. However, if Sony can stay true to its promise to support virtual reality and make it a priority among its development partners, and if they can expand the PSVR library in a meaningful way (i.e. through legitimately fun, more fleshed out games), then the world could very well be their oyster. But until the technology of Ready Player One becomes a reality, the PlayStation VR is a damn good alternative and a promising start for one of the most exciting innovations in modern gaming.
PlayStation VR is available on October 13, 2016.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Editor’s note: This review was completed using a PSVR review unit provided by Sony.