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PlayStation VR review: When good enough is great

This was supposed to be the year virtual reality broke out. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, the first two high-end consumer devices on the market, arrived this spring to critical praise and preorders that sold out within minutes. Then… they plateaued. Despite some great experiences, months of near-total unavailability dulled the post-release buzz for both headsets, particularly the Rift. Neither the Rift or the Vive ecosystems produced a killer app that was big enough to push VR out of the margins, especially given the high cost of a headset and gaming PC. While 360-degree video has at least gotten a toehold in popular culture, the dream of sophisticated VR gaming — which arguably resurrected virtual reality in the first place — remains far away for most people.

But there are three months left in the year, and one thing that could change that: PlayStation VR.

PlayStation VR is Sony’s attempt at bringing virtual reality to its PlayStation 4 console, starting next week. Arriving right in time for the holidays, it’s being positioned as a (relatively) cheap, unintimidating gaming headset, designed for a device that might already be sitting in your living room. The Rift and Vive had to be judged on a sort of abstract scale of quality — on whether they were good ambassadors for the medium of VR, and good harbingers of things to come. The question for PlayStation VR is simpler: if you’re one of the millions of people who own a PlayStation 4, should you get one?

PlayStation VR was initially announced as something called "Project Morpheus" in 2014, and despite some visual tweaks, the core design hasn’t changed. Where Oculus goes for an understated, late-Gibsonian cyberpunk aesthetic and the Vive is aggressively industrial, Sony’s design has the clean white curves of a ‘60s science fiction spaceship interior, setting off a black front panel and rubber face mask. The external PlayStation Camera tracks it with a matrix of glowing blue lights: six lining the headset’s edges, two on the back, and one right in the middle of the front panel. The shape echoes Sony’s old HMZ personal viewer, but without the futile effort at making a headset seem small and sleek. PlayStation VR is unapologetically eye-catching, and whether that’s a good or bad thing is a matter of personal taste.

PlayStation VR is unapologetically eye-catching

Looks aside, PlayStation VR is ridiculously comfortable. Your average virtual reality headset is strapped on like a ski mask, which ensures a snug fit but can also squeeze your face unpleasantly. PSVR, by contrast, has a padded plastic ring that rests on your head a bit like a hard hat. To put it on, you’ll push a button to loosen the sides, stretch it over your upper skull, and fine-tune the tightness with a dial on the back. The screen is anchored to the front of the ring, where it almost floats in front of your face. Another button lets you adjust the focus by sliding the screen in and out, which also means it fits easily over glasses.

PSVR still asks you to clamp something around your head, and it’s certainly possible to give yourself a headache by putting it on wrong. But its weight is distributed much more evenly than other headsets, so it’s not constantly pushing down on your forehead and cheekbones. At 610 grams, it’s the heaviest of the VR headsets, but it feels like the lightest. The design also neatly solves a few of VR’s subtler problems. I didn’t come out of sessions with telltale mask lines around my eyes, just a small dent at my hairline. I’d still worry about smudging makeup, but far less than with any other headset. And since the face mask is made of rubber sheets instead of foam, it’s not going to be soaking up dirt or sweat. That rubber also blocks out light incredibly well, neatly closing the gaps between your face and the screen. The only major downside is that it starts slipping out of place if you look straight up or rapidly shake your head, something that becomes an issue with gaze-controlled arcade games like PlayStation VR Worlds’ "Danger Ball."

PSVR Profile

The thing that’s going to draw a lot of people to PlayStation VR, though, is the price: $399. Well, that’s technically the price, although it’s also a bit of a sneaky move on Sony’s part. This base system doesn’t contain the PlayStation’s tracking camera, which is mandatory for PSVR, or the two Move controllers, which are highly encouraged. The reasoning is that since both these products were already on the market, some users will already have them. But unless you were a really big fan of Johann Sebastian Joust or some other game that used one of Sony’s niche peripherals, you should consider the $499 PSVR bundle — which comes with two Move controllers and a camera — your default choice.

Even at nearly $500, PSVR is still cheaper than the Rift and Vive

To make things more complicated, you’ll also have to decide whether to buy the more powerful PlayStation 4 Pro console when it comes out in November. The Pro is supposed to improve the frame rate and image quality of PSVR, but we haven’t been able to test the performance for ourselves — and Sony is still promising that PSVR will work fine with the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 4 Slim.

Even at nearly $500, PSVR is still cheaper than the Rift and Vive, which respectively cost $599 and $799 plus the cost of a PC. That’s partly because Sony isn’t pushing for the highest specs on the market. Where the Rift and Vive incorporate two separate screens with a resolution of 1080 x 1200 pixels per eye, PlayStation VR has a single screen that offers 1080 x 960 pixels per eye, comparable to the second Oculus Rift development kit. On paper, this is the system’s biggest technical limitation. It’s grainier than its two big competitors, which still look a little fuzzy in their own right, and dark colors can appear muddy. But screen resolution isn’t the only factor in how good something looks. Sony likes to tout the PSVR’s high screen refresh rate as a way to compensate for its lower resolution. And games are in fact quite smooth, with very little juddering or latency — which, far more than pixel density, was the big problem with the Rift DK2. The field of view feels comparable to the current Rift and Vive, and bright, cartoonish games like Job Simulator look very similar on any high-end headset.

Compared to the awkward dangling headset jack on the HTC Vive, this feels convenient and natural

PlayStation VR isn’t just competing against tethered headsets. With Samsung’s Gear VR on its third generation and Google’s first Daydream headset launching in November, mobile VR is an increasingly viable option — and a cheaper one, if you already own a phone that supports it. But it’s not in the same class as PSVR. Mobile headsets don’t have things like positional tracking, which can help cut down on motion sickness and open up new gameplay options, and they can’t touch PSVR’s comfort levels or graphical performance. They’re not necessarily a worse category of virtual reality, but they’re a very different one.

PSVR also includes some interesting touches that aren’t present on any major headset, tethered or untethered. Midway down the cable, for example, there’s an inline remote with buttons for power, volume, and toggling a built-in microphone. Headphones aren’t built directly into the hardware, but the remote has a jack for either Sony’s included earbuds or your own wired set. Compared to the awkward dangling headset jack on the HTC Vive, this feels convenient and natural, although I accidentally yanked my earbuds out a couple of times by kneeling in VR and catching the cord on my leg. You can pair wireless headphones with the PlayStation 4 for stereo sound, but Sony says you can only get 3D audio directly through the jack.

PSVR controller
PSVR Wands

For every thoughtful design decision, though, there’s a reminder that PlayStation VR isn’t a totally novel gaming system, but a patchwork of various weird Sony experiments that may have finally found their purpose. It’s a new headset inspired by a personal 3D theater from 2012, paired with a set of motion controllers that were released in 2010, plus a camera peripheral that’s been around in some form since 2003.

For now, the motion controllers are the system’s biggest shortcoming

On one hand, Sony deserves credit for seeing the potential in all these things. On the other, it’s saddled PlayStation VR with the worst motion controls of any major headset. The PlayStation Move controllers are painfully limited compared to either Oculus Touch or the HTC Vive remotes, simply because their interface is a bad fit for VR. They’re pimpled with four miniscule face buttons that are almost pointless for anything but menu selections, with inlaid, difficult-to-find options buttons along the sides. The only useful elements are a single trigger and one large, awkwardly positioned button at the top. The Move was originally paired with a second, smaller peripheral bearing an analog stick and directional pads; without it, navigating menus (including the main PS4 interface) involves dragging your controller like the world’s clumsiest mouse.

They can also be frustratingly inconsistent. In the leisurely Job Simulator, I had almost no problems using them. But during the frantic rail shooter Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, where precision was a matter of virtual life or death, I had to repeatedly reorient them after they drifted out of place. Since I haven’t had a chance to fully review the Oculus Touch motion controllers, I can’t make a final call on how much of this is a weakness of the Move specifically or of camera-based tracking in general, but Move has enough shortcomings to put it on the bottom of the pile no matter what. If the first generation of PSVR does well, Sony will almost certainly have to follow up with something better, but for now, the motion controllers are the system’s biggest shortcoming.

Even setting PSVR up in the first place is a bit more complicated than its unintimidating heritage suggests. Instead of plugging directly into the PlayStation 4, the headset uses a separate processor box that helps mix 3D audio and supply video to both PSVR and TV. You connect the box to a power outlet and your TV’s HDMI port, then connect it to your PS4 via a Micro USB and HDMI cable. The camera goes into a dedicated port on the console, and finally, the headset connects to the other side of the box. This can create a bit of a rat’s nest around your console, and it leaves precious little space for juicing up your Move and DualShock controllers, unless you buy a separate charging dock. It’s not quite as involved as the HTC Vive’s room-scale setup, but it’s several more steps than the Oculus Rift requires.

PlayStation VR fits into a popular, user-friendly system

Unlike with the Rift or Vive, though, the setup is nearly impossible to screw up. There’s no third-party PC software to install or drivers to track down, just a few screens that guide you through setup and make any necessary updates. Once you’re in, you’ll see the ordinary PlayStation VR interface, as though viewed on a big-screen TV in front of you. In some ways, this feels like a letdown — you have to launch a game to experience PSVR’s full impact. But it’s immediately easy to understand, and after a while, any decent electronic interface tends to fade into the background, even in VR.

Overall, what’s great about PlayStation VR is that it fits into a popular, user-friendly system. But that also sets certain expectations that other headsets don’t have. Oculus and HTC can ask people to set up precisely calibrated personal holodecks without a second thought, because PC gaming is already a somewhat solitary activity that goes hand-in-hand with ridiculous hardware setups. PlayStation VR’s natural habitat is an all-purpose entertainment space that you might share with any number of people, including ones who couldn’t care less about VR. Like the PlayStation itself, PSVR feels best as something you can kick back and enjoy without rearranging your living room into a VR cave.

PSVR Camera

PSVR’s camera is supposed to track a headset up to 10 feet away, over an area about 6 feet wide. In my New York apartment, that’s more than enough, especially because the system’s standing experiences rarely require moving more than a couple of feet. But if you’ve got a particularly big living room, you might need to move your couch or camera for seated games. The camera stand that my review unit came with was also a little too easy to knock out of place. To its credit, though, the PlayStation VR’s cable is long enough to easily accommodate a good-sized space between seat and TV, and when it’s working, the camera seems to track head motion about as well as the Oculus Rift.

For some people, PSVR’s main use case may not be "true" virtual reality, but playing traditional games in relative privacy. Opening a non-VR game in PSVR will launch it normally on your TV or monitor, and on a floating screen inside the headset. To be clear, PSVR doesn’t let you use the PlayStation 4 for two things at once — one person can’t watch Netflix while another plays games, for example. But after the first-time setup, I was able to play without a second screen turned on or plugged in at all. Besides the allure of having a big personal theater, this opens the door to things like playing a violent game without your kids watching, or letting a housemate use your shared TV with another console or set-top box.

Conversely, if you like gaming around other people — even if that just means sitting down to play while your partner reads beside you — then shutting out the world with a VR game isn’t necessarily a welcome change. Even if someone can see what you’re doing via the mirrored screen, you can’t tell if they’re in the room, which is an uncomfortable and alienating experience. There are a couple of local multiplayer games like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, in which one player wears a headset and the other coaches them through a bomb defusal from outside VR. But there’s no getting around the fact that headsets can be isolating, and it’s more jarring than usual here because of how social the regular console gaming experience usually is.

PSVR Quarter profile

Sony is promising around 30 launch titles for PlayStation VR, with a couple of dozen more coming by the end of the year. It’s a relatively even mix of gamepad-based games and ones that can use either the Move or DualShock, plus a few that are Move-only. For all the Move’s problems, there’s something inherently cool about motion controls that work even moderately well, and some titles use them to great effect. The adventure game Wayward Sky takes place mostly in the third person, as you point at different parts of the world to direct your character. At key moments, it slips into a first-person view and lets you mime simple but satisfying tasks, like putting together a machine or aiming a fire hose.

Sony’s struck gold with a little clutch of trance-y abstract games

Rock Band and Guitar Hero studio Harmonix, meanwhile, has put together a psychedelic painting program where your art pulses to the beat of a playlist — the closest thing PSVR has to a pure creative tool. Sony’s minigame "The London Heist" is a Guy Ritchie-influenced shooter that would probably be better on the Rift or Vive, but is fun enough to transcend its clumsy controls. You can technically play these with a gamepad, and the DualShock has limited motion tracking capabilities of its own thanks to a light bar on the back. But unless you’re determined to avoid buying the Move, there’s no reason to do so.

By and large, though, the most exciting PlayStation VR titles I’ve seen are gamepad-focused — and sometimes not even exclusive to VR. At launch, the system is short on the big narrative games you’ll find in PlayStation 4’s non-VR catalog, although Resident Evil 7 is coming to PSVR next year. But Sony’s struck gold with a little clutch of trance-y abstract games that are simultaneously relaxing and challenging. That includes a VR-enabled remake of musical shooter Rez, a Tetris-style puzzler called SuperHyperCube, and Thumper, a hypnotic rhythm game with sinister undertones. These aren’t enough to anchor PSVR in the long term, but they help establish a unique aesthetic for the system, while appealing to a broader audience than a stereotypical AAA action game.

PSVR Review Lead

All this adds up to a system that is, more than anything else, good enough. There’s no one game that justifies buying PlayStation VR, and no technical breakthrough that will revolutionize how you experience the medium. But it offers a balanced, interesting launch catalog and a headset that’s a joy to wear, with weak points that hurt the system but don’t cripple it. It effectively costs more than an actual PlayStation 4 console, but for many people, it’s still within the range of a holiday splurge or a generous gift. And it’s got the backing of a company that, even if it’s being cautious with VR, seems in it for the long haul.

In the long run, would a PSVR-dominated landscape be a win for VR? For now, it’s the lowest common denominator of tethered headsets, and a world in which all games had to work on it could discourage risky creative experiments on more capable and interesting hardware. PlayStation VR is just ambitious enough for Sony to test the waters for a larger foray into VR — its limited camera setup doesn’t lend itself to the impressive physical worldbuilding that I’ve seen in HTC Vive games, and Sony isn’t as visibly committed as Oculus to pushing bold, difficult VR-only projects. Things that could have been great as full-length games, like "The London Heist" or Batman: Arkham VR, peter out just as things get exciting. Until VR proves itself an economically viable medium, we’ll probably get a lot more of them.

At the same time, holding out for total perfection is the wrong move. I don’t want PlayStation VR to become the only headset that people build for; it’s just not ambitious enough. But even this early in the game, Sony is providing a home for interesting, low-key experiences that highlight some of the medium’s strengths. More than any single piece of cutting-edge technology, the key to making VR succeed is just getting more people to use VR. And with PlayStation VR, Sony has just made that a lot easier.

Good Stuff:

• Ridiculously comfortable

• Accessible and (relatively) affordable

• Some good, low-key launch titles

Bad Stuff:

• Substandard motion controls

• Piecemeal system can be confusing

• Needs more risky, ambitious VR experiments

Editor: Nilay Patel


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