PSVR Impressions

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I was never compelled to give PSVR a whirl. It was an expensive peripheral with demo-like software, and with that in mind, I thought four hundred dollars was a steep asking price. There weren’t any kiosks around me to try it out, and none of my local friends had purchased it. What was perhaps the final nail in the coffin was that I had an industry friend telling me horror stories about how this platform wasn’t real VR anyway, and that Shuhei Yoshida himself got motion sick while playing Driveclub VR. That has ‘yikes’ written all over it!

The immediate question I asked had been, “Well, why isn’t it real VR?” Well, there’s a couple of things that VR needs in order to provide total immersion: fantastic graphical fidelity and a steadily high frame rate. The PS4, which the PSVR is meant for, has trouble pushing 1080p at thirty frames-per-second, let alone 60 (or even 90), and that’s with only a single video stream. Virtual reality sends video to each eye, so concessions are made to hit performance targets… meaning the resolution is lowered and the graphics are compromised. That’s not to say that a game tailored for PSVR can’t look good, but you’ll never experience the same crisp visuals that you’re used to seeing on your flat screen television.

It was a reasonable enough explanation.

But one year I bought one of those stupid ‘slide your phone inside this headset’ things. Its primary purpose was to be used in conjunction with my Ghostbusters costume a couple of Halloweens ago, but curiosity got the best of me and I tried some of those VR experiences on YouTube. The novelty was cool, but I thought it’d be better if I could do something proper in VR one day.

Well, with all the cool titles available for the headset in 2018, I was beginning to feel like it was time to give Sony’s hardware a chance. There were bundles that came with the headset, the camera, two move controllers and even a couple of games, but at $350, I still wasn’t willing to bite. Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know? Well, when the holidays dropped the price down to $250, I was finally ready to open my wallet.

As a longtime skeptic, I’ve got to hand it to Sony: PSVR isn’t perfect, but it’s addictingly fun and makes me wish every game had VR capabilities.

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Setting up the hardware is a drag. If you’re adamant about using the Move controllers, they have to be charged a while. You have to connect the PS camera to the back of your console and put it in a suitable spot. The PSVR headset comes with its own external box which has cables out the wazoo: The headset has two cables that plug into the front, two HDMI cables plug into the back (one to the TV and one to the PS4), and then there’s one for the power cord. It’s crazy to see so many cables running for a single device in 2018, so here’s to hoping that the next wave of virtual reality hardware is wireless across the board (with the option of plugging the headset into an outlet if need-be).

Once everything was charged and connected, I figured I’d ‘test drive’ the unit with Driveclub VR.

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The first thing I noticed was the lower resolution of the PSVR ‘screen’. Because of the lower resolution, there’s definitely a bit of ‘screen door’ effect. In practice, things look immaculate up close, but distant objects are somewhat blocky. This isn’t an issue when you’re just looking around prior to a race, but when your car is going well over one hundred miles per hour, it can be difficult to discern which way a turn is going to bend, meaning you’ll have to, at times, rely on your memory.

Outside of that, my initial impression of VR content was quite good. The car’s cockpit was in my face as it should have been, and depth was immaculate across the board. I truly felt immersed in that world. You can stand on the side of the road and view your car from a variety of angles before a race, and looking around made my jaw drop. Seeing little details, like a plastic bag flitting in the wind, really helped to sell that this wasn’t just a virtual world.

For racing, VR introduced a substantial quality of life improvement. In most 2D racers, you never know how close another vehicle is unless you’ve positioned the camera behind the car. In VR though, the ability to turn your head in the cockpit makes this a non-issue.

Despite loafing about on a sofa, the sense of speed you get from barreling down the road is incredible. Taking turns at breakneck speeds as you’re millimeters away from crashing into the car next to you is exhilarating.

The only real downside to the Driveclub VR experience was when the in-game movement didn’t precisely track with what my head was doing. If you made a quick jerk of the wheel, for example, the game would sort of jerk your vision for you, and that produces a brief feeling of dizziness. Not enough to make me feel nauseous, but it didn’t feel good. This caveat aside, Driveclub VR was enough to get me hooked and I simply did not want to stop playing.

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Next up was Skyrim VR. It was the first game I played using the Move controllers. It takes a little getting used to, because while the wands are intuitive when it comes to attacking and blocking, the rest of the controls can be a bit cumbersome. On the plus side, the game gives you plenty of options. You can teleport over short distances by holding a button, pointing it on the ground a short distance away and then releasing. You can also opt to hold a button down for walking. Both methods of control have their pros and cons. The teleportation method means you don’t have as much control as you’d like, and walking around means you’re going to deal with some funky head stuff. When you’re standing on a ledge and looking down, it can be dizzying. Turning while you walk is also disorienting, but a few PSVR games have a ‘fix’ for that: snapping. Instead of having the camera spin you around, you can push a button that will ‘snap’ your vision around 30 degrees. This definitely helps with VR ‘motion sickness’, but it’s immersion breaking. The major draw for a game like Skyrim is its immersion, but I guess this is what happens when you retrofit an older game for VR.

Another thing I noticed was that Skyrim doesn’t sport the Special Edition’s graphical improvements. It’s a bummer, but I’m not surprised. Bethesda’s engine has never been the most optimized, and VR requires 90 frames-per-second. Still, if you’re a fan of this game, the VR experience is well worth playing. I pump at least fifty hours into this game each year, so being able to ‘live’ in its world is nothing short of a dream come true. The game looks extremely dated in 3D, but Skyrim’s open world is still a marvelous sight to behold.

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Beat Saber was the next game I tried, and I already knew what it was about. It’s basically Guitar Hero, but you’re slashing blocks with light sabers. That sounds fun enough, but it’s even more so in practice. There are obstacles that come at your head, which requires you to physically dodge out of the way. Each block requires to be slashed from a specific direction, so the difficulty can ramp up pretty quickly. I experienced some tracking issues though. My in-game vision slowly veered off to the left, but I figured out the culprit. Because this game requires you to flail your arms around, it would cover the VR headset from the camera on occasion. Moving the camera up higher seemed to resolve the problem.

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Tetris Effect was already one of my favorite games of 2018 in flat screen mode, but in VR it’s even better. The Tetris grid itself is still mostly flat, but you can control how close you are to it. Either watch the blocks fall from a distance or get up close and personal, having to look up a bit to get a complete look. Either way, the real treat comes from the backdrop that envelops you. This game is loaded with particle effects, and to see them all around and even blast at your face when you finish a level is nifty. What I really appreciate is that they didn’t turn this into the Virtual Boy’s 3D-Tetris, which turned the flat, rectangular grid into a cube. Keeping the core ‘fit the blocks’ gameplay was a wise decision, and I can’t wait to see what a sequel could bring to the table.

I still have to try Borderlands 2 VR, Astro Bot Rescue Mission, Moss, and that VR mission that came with Star Wars Battlefront… but all in all, I’m satisfied with my purchase.

Overall

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There’s no denying that PSVR very much feels like a ‘best bang for your buck’ entry level VR headset. The growing pains are apparent. It does not deliver the clarity or fine detail that we’ve grown accustomed to in gaming, and it’s clear that developers are still trying to find ways to keep people from feeling dizzy during normal play. It doesn’t help that control solutions are still rather archaic. The Dualshock 4 works well enough when it’s an option, but it’s painfully obvious that the Move controllers were never designed for VR. It was existing tech that Sony felt they could utilize, so they did.

But all in all, PSVR is good enough. As an introductory device to virtual reality, it’s mind blowing. I’m already wishing for future iterations to refine the experience with higher resolution and better solutions for curbing motion sickness, but stepping into virtual worlds is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before, and I mean that in the best way possible. Yeah, PC VR headsets undoubtedly does better, but they’re also pricier and you need a good enough rig to run games optimally in the first place. For the asking price, PSVR is absolutely worth the money.

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