I sat and watched as the small white dots circled each other endlessly on the loading screen in front of me. I kept watching. They kept circling. “Come on, already!” I growled irritably.
They continued to follow each other in their ceaseless pattern and I considered resetting the console. Suddenly, a glitchy screenshot of the game flashed up, then a blank grey screen followed – finally – by the game itself.
While the loading time gave me flashbacks of loading program tapes into an Amstrad in the early 1990s, upon getting into the games themselves the PlayStation VR performed impressively despite the under-powered PS4 console we were using. Considering the technical horsepower usually required for high-end virtual reality experiences, the fact that Sony could make a headset that works (relatively) seamlessly on a three-year-old engine was a pleasant surprise. The image resolution doesn’t quite compete with its higher-powered rivals, but once immersed in a game I would have been hard pressed to really notice much of a difference, in all honesty.
Sony have done their homework on the overall package, and it shows. The headset is perhaps the most comfortable on the market, sitting nicely on the crown of the head so that it feels substantially lighter than it actually is, despite being among the heaviest of the tethered VR models currently being sold. Extending the headset forwards to put it on makes it easy to fit to any size of head (and accommodates those that wear glasses), although it lacks the advanced lens adjustment facilities of the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift.
Like the Oculus Rift, light leakage is a problem, although with Sony’s effort this is more prominent on the sides rather than around the nose area. The cable solution is also less than perfect and requires headphones to be patched in rather than including them in the headset, which just adds to the sensation that you’re plugging into the Matrix. The PSVR’s cabling woes extend to the VR processing unit, which sits between the console and the headset and requires a mass of trailing wires to operate.
Using the PSVR with a standard PS controller (you will need to buy the PS4 Camera and Move controllers separately) felt more natural than using an Xbox controller with the Rift, although was probably due to my familiarity with the Playstation handset. That said, many games included a floating representation of the controller with live visual feedback for button presses, a nice touch that gives you the opportunity to see what you’re doing while in play.
While the PS Camera seemed to track the handset just fine, the PSVR regularly prompted the user to reconfigure and determine where they were in relation to the camera – an experience that, although completed quickly, soon became a tiresome and repetitive ordeal.
A dedicated gaming platform
It’s hardly surprising that the Playstation VR platform is very strong on the content front. It comes out of the gates with an impressive array of game developers backing it: 30 titles were announced as of launch, with around 20 titles to follow before the end of the year. Sony’s long gaming history and established relationships with major game development studios is likely to give it a competitive advantage in this regard, particularly if it initially performs well against the backdrop of plateauing sales for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
Interestingly, there are signs that developers are starting to look outside the box when it comes to VR gaming and are exploring beyond the point-and-shoot simplicity of early games. A particular favourite of mine was Headmaster, where you use the headset to practice heading footballs in a Portal-style ‘remedial training camp’ for professional footballers, while Wayward Skies’ shifting point of view during gameplay was a novel way of telling a story.
One genre of games I’ve always felt to be lacking a little bit is the driving simulator. Screen-based efforts such as Forza or Gran Turismo, despite their beautiful graphics, never quite delivered on the immersive racing experience I’d hoped for. In Driveclub, however, I felt for the first time like I could actually be inside the car itself. The clunky controls and reduced resolution graphics of virtual reality barely mattered, as they were more than offset by the immersive sound and a more realistic sensation of actually being in the driving seat.
While some games worked perfectly in virtual reality, a few left me a little worse for wear. My second encounter with Eve: Valkyrie was slightly better than before, but the multi-directional controls remain a little nausea-inducing at first play through. The hectic, fast-paced RIGS: Mechanized Combat League proved a step too far for me, particularly after having already spent half an hour immersed in VR, and I was forced to remove the headset and take a break mid-game to recover.
One of the great selling points of virtual reality is the ability to physically move around, albeit in a relatively confined space. Unfortunately, Sony isn’t following HTC and Steam’s lead in allowing gamers to move around during play: the sole positional tracker requires the user to stay in a standing or sedentary position while using the PSVR. That most experiences created for the headset will be designed for seated play is a shame, and perhaps a missed opportunity for Sony.
Like most VR platforms, there is a time limit for how long the PSVR remains comfortable to use. Although this tolerance varies according to the individual player, PlayStation recommends that users take a break every quarter of an hour. Perhaps it makes sense then that the better experiences on the PSVR tended to be short, sweet arcade-style experiences that didn’t require too much head-spinning motion to enjoy.
The fundamental problem with virtual reality as a gaming platform is still the limited comfortable gaming time that it offers: it is simply not suited to the marathon playing sessions that many PC and console gamers are used to. Currently, too much content is being developed without consideration for how the user will react to the mode of navigation and using it for an extended period still leaves all but the hardiest users feeling slightly off-colour.
Affordable virtual reality
The clear advantage of the PlayStation VR is its price, which at £349.99 comes in significantly lower than both the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. Granted, for most users that will rise to around £464, as the required accessories are sold separately, but that is still a very competitive price when compared to its rivals. This brings virtual reality down to a more realistic price for many potential buyers, which could open the floodgates for wider proliferation of these devices in peoples’ homes.
While there are many professional uses for the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, the PSVR is designed first and foremost for gaming and will appeal primarily to those who already own a PlayStation console. While there are plenty of those around, it will be interesting to see if current PS4 owners are willing to shell out more than double what they paid for their consoles on a headset that will only offer a limited of comfortable playing time per day.
As a virtual reality gaming platform, PlayStation VR makes a solid case for being the pre-eminent platform on the market. As a stand-alone headset, it’s far from the best out there, but that isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker.
While the road is littered with disastrous, long-abandoned legacy gaming console peripherals such as the Sega Activator, Nintendo Power Glove and Konami LaserScope, the PSVR has a lot going for it. With a solid arsenal of games behind it, a competitive price and the fundamental processing hardware required – a PS4 console – already in millions of homes, there is a strong chance that this headset will be the one that finally makes virtual reality a fixture in the home.