Does VR have a long-term home on PlayStation, or are we looking at the new Kinect?
Editor’s note: We’ll have a definitive review of PlayStation VR closer to its launch on October 13, but in the meantime I wanted to share my thoughts and experiences after four days of poking around with the hardware and some of its games. There’s a lot to take in, from individual games to the nuances of setting up the headset for the best experience, so I’ll add more thoughts every day until I’m happy I’ve seen everything PlayStation VR has to offer.
For now, here are my impressions of the PlayStation VR and its first games and experiences.
Setting-up PlayStation VR
“It’s a great example of smart product design and idiot-proof clarity. If you struggle to set this up you shouldn’t be allowed around plug sockets.”
Set up of the PS VR couldn’t be easier. Every cable is labelled and the printed instructions are a big old floor book that basically says “do this, fool”. Anyone who’s tampered with a PC recently or calibrated the convoluted HTC Vive will appreciate a step-by-step walkthrough without any complications. It’s a great example of smart product design and idiot-proof clarity. If you struggle to set this up you shouldn’t be allowed around plug sockets, basically.
Getting the headset screen and vision right takes a little bit more tweaking as it’s a personal set-up. But being able to adjust the headset screen and push it forward and back feels great. The headset also sits more comfortably on your head than the Vive, which tends to grip your face like a pair of scuba goggles. It rests more on your head and back of the skull, supporting the weight of the unit rather than it hugging your face.
The cool rubber that sits around your eyes and nose is comfortable too, especially for those of us who wear glasses, and there’s very little light able to creep in. You can also recenter the screen once it’s on your face by holding the Options button down for two seconds, and you’ll probably spend a fair bit of time tweaking the fit depending on how weird your head is. I have one ear lower than the other like some kind of mutant but it’s not a problem.
You’ll find that you need to adjust the headset while playing, and it’ll take a few minutes to find that sweet spot. Chances are you’ll lose that sweet spot after half an hour or less and have to readjust, which can upset your immersion. You can open the quick menu to adjust headset position easily enough, and I found I was doing this as a matter of course for each new game or session I tried. Better to have everything right in place before you start than have to pause the game because images are going blurry.
When it comes to tracking your position, the PS camera uses the lights on the headset, DualShock 4 and Move controllers, so it’s worth dimming any lights in your room and pulling curtains if you’re sitting in direct sunlight. If not you’ll notice the screen wobbles when you’re not moving, but it’s an easy problem to correct. There’s a neat VR menu option to Confirm Your Position which shows bright lights on screen as dark colours. If any of those aren’t your headset or controller, you’re going to need to switch them off or cover them up.
In terms of space, you’ll only need to sit about two meters from the camera, which seems reasonable in our tiny European houses. Once you’re comfortable with the headest you’ll find that tracking works well and accuracy seems spot on for the helmet, Move controllers and DualShock 4. Using the machine pistol in London Heist feels like you can really pinpoint targets, tyres, windows and headshots, and you can put spin on the ball in Danger Ball with a twitch of your neck.
The included in-ear headphones aren’t bad, but if you’ve got a proper overhead set of ear-cans you’re going to want to use those instead. Once your ears are cupped inside those and the headset is on you’ll feel much more submerged in VR. It’s worth noting that wireless headsets aren’t supported at all – not even Sony’s official PS4 headsets.
Screen quality and visual fidelity
One of my gripes with the HTC Vive is the prominence of the screen-door effect, where visible geometric shapes are like spots in front of your eyes. Surprisingly I didn’t find it as noticeable with the PS VR, but the quality of the screen is always going to be a limitation. What you see is a sort of light mesh effect in front of everything, like you’re looking at the game through a very fine sieve. It’s something you have to accept when using any VR headset but that’s not easy when we’ve spent the last few years spoiled by 1080p, 60 frames per second wonders.
“Visual fidelity is nowhere near as sharp or defined as we’ve come to expect from the PS4 and the reality is closer to PS3-era graphics. None of these games are going to look like Uncharted 4.”
Visual fidelity is nowhere near as sharp or defined as we’ve come to expect from the PS4 and the reality is closer to PS3-era graphics. None of these games are going to look like Uncharted 4. None of these games are really going to be at the standard we’ve come to take for granted from the current PlayStation and I find that a little hard to deal with at times. Textures are blurry, edges to structures and characters are blocky, objects at a distance are undefined.
But that’s the nature of VR in 2016. If you can’t get over that, you’re not going to get a lot out of any VR headset. It’s going to be an even more prominent gap when you compare the visual fidelity of PS VR to the PS4 Pro when it comes out next month. After four days I’m finding it less of an issue because I’m getting used to it, although it was initially a jarring step down in quality. At this stage it’s acceptable and I’m fine with it, although you have to ask yourself if hardware that costs GBP350 should settle for “fine”. I’ve certainly gotten used to average streaming services, long downloads and the convenience of YouTube quality over 1080p, so maybe “having it now” makes up for average tech solutions.
Having said all of that PlayStation VR can do close-up really well, especially when it plays to the space illusions that VR creates. Bullets rain down around you, dust particles drift across you vision in the breeze, and you can see the wrinkles in characters’ faces when they lean in to snarl at you. Games that play to this are the most effective, and it genuinely feels like something we haven’t experienced before in games. Just check out the warehouse and pub scenes in The London Heist or pretty much all of Batman: Arkham VR to see developers who really understand how to get the best out of the technology.
Should you buy the PS VR?
It’s a lot of money – you could buy a console and a bunch of good games for the same price – and you need to accept that this isn’t the future of video games. It’s a new direction, and an interesting one, for sure. But it’s not going to replace your console and TV set-up anytime in the next 10 years. At this stage there’s a lot of fun to be had with VR and the games I’ve played so far show variety, with a handful offering up a genuinely new experience. But as with any launch, some games are great and others mediocre.
There are questions about the long-term support PS VR will receive, but that’s up in the air until after its first three months on sale. We still have another week until October 13 to play through the launch titles, and we’ll be dropping reviews for them as we go and adding them to this page, as well as updating with more impressions of the hardware’s strengths and limitations.