For VR enthusiasts, 2016 feels like a long time ago. That was the year that virtual reality hype hit its peak with the launch of three major headsets and accompanying platforms — Facebook’s Oculus Rift, HTC and Valve’s Vive, and Sony’s PlayStation VR. All three systems had their pros and cons, and it turned out that none of them would change the world.
But while Oculus’ future is unclear and HTC has turned to China, enterprise markets, and the ultra high-end, PlayStation VR has quietly established itself as the strongest platform for most people. VR gaming still has the same drawbacks it did two years ago, and Sony hasn’t done much to solve any of them. What it has done, is provide a reasonably convenient home for what has turned into an increasingly impressive stream of games.
On the top of that list is Astro Bot: Rescue Mission, the endlessly clever and inventive 3D platform game from Sony’s own storied Japan Studio. The game doesn’t have a ton of visual personality, and its status as a spin-off from a minigame in Sony’s Playroom app meant it somewhat flew under the radar at launch. But it’s the best thing Japan Studio has done in years, and one of the best VR games ever made.
Astro Bot is endlessly clever and inventive
Astro Bot is extremely self-referential, and tells us almost nothing about the future of VR. Instead, it is quite literally a game about PlayStation hardware itself, and how to make the most of it. A Dual Shock 4 controller is constantly floating in the air in accordance with your hand movements, which you have to master at the same time as controlling the Astro Bot character and looking in the right direction. An early example sees you flick the touchpad to shoot out a tightrope from the rear of your controller; you can then jump on the rope with Astro Bot, and move it in 3D space to help the little robot get around the level.
Astro Bot is packed with wondrous ideas and level design that’ll have you marveling at the developers’ ingenuity. I’ve heard it compared to Super Mario 64 in the sense that Nintendo’s classic introduced the world to the possibilities of the analog stick. That doesn’t quite sound right to me — Astro Bot is too limited and tied to its own possibilities. But it does remind me a lot of the Wii’s Super Mario Galaxy, as both games are remarkably generous in their willingness to find and then discard countless new ways to use their unusual new hardware. It’s the kind of game where describing a basic mechanic would often be a spoiler. Everyone should experience the delight of where Astro Bot’s madcap creativity goes for themselves.
PSVR has gotten pretty good at replicating complex PC experiences
Moss is another PSVR game from this year that makes clever use of first- and third-person perspectives, giving you the ability to change the environment to aid the protagonist. It’s an action-platformer that sees you take control of a cute little mouse called Quill, and while it doesn’t quite go as far as Astro Bot in terms of mind-bending design, its charming fantasy storytelling and detailed dioramas make for an experience with more personality.
Moss launched on PC a few months after PSVR, but it was the perfect fit for Sony’s less technically capable platform. It doesn’t benefit from a large playing space or advanced motion tracking — just a comfortable place to sit and a regular controller. It’s the kind of relaxing experience that plays to PSVR’s strengths. Déraciné, the slow-paced, haunting adventure from From Software, is another example.
PSVR has also gotten pretty good at replicating more complex PC experiences. The Move controllers remain the platform’s weak spot, with far less accurate and reliable motion tracking than you’d get on a Vive or Rift. PSVR isn’t the place to go for full-on room-scale games. But I’ve been surprised by how solid some recent PC ports have been.
Beat Saber, for example, is easily the most buzzed-about VR game of the year. I wasn’t sure how well its fast-paced blend of rhythm action and lightsaber combat would translate to the Move controllers, but the new PSVR version actually does an admirable job keeping up. Its biggest problem is the loss of the dubiously legal ability to import your own tracks, which might be a deal-breaker for some. But if you don’t have a PC VR rig this version absolutely holds up as an excellent rhythm game in its own right.
Space Pirate Trainer, meanwhile, was my favorite Vive game back when I owned one, and something that I thought would lose a lot of its appeal when downscaled to the sofa. It’s basically Galaga: The FPS, and works best with a lot of space to dodge bullets and contort your arms into John Woo-esque shooting positions. Remarkably, the Move controllers do a great job for things like holding a shield in place to deflect fire while peeping out to make shots of your own from different angles, and playing from a seated position actually makes me more likely to perform wild dives to save myself. I don’t think PC players on the leaderboards have much to worry about, but the game is just as fun on PSVR.
Sony doesn’t seem to have lost interest yet
Finally, Sony has also done a good job of securing games with optional VR modes where it makes sense. This was the case around the headset’s launch with games like Rez Infinite, Thumper, and Resident Evil 7, and has continued throughout 2018. Wipeout Omega Collection’s phenomenal update that allows you to play through the entire game in VR is probably the best example of this, and as a big Wipeout fan myself almost entirely justifies PSVR’s existence. Gran Turismo Sport also significantly expanded its VR mode this year. And while Tetris Effect is one of the best PS4 games of 2018 even when played on a TV, it becomes a truly transcendent experience in VR.
Many people go through a honeymoon period when they first get into VR. During those early days it feels like you won’t want to play anything on a flat screen ever again. That can lead to disillusionment when the reality sinks in that the technology just isn’t appropriate for the majority of games right now. Once you accept that reality, though, it’s hard to imagine PSVR having turned out much better than it has. Two years on from launch, there’s a ton of original and hugely entertaining content to play, and Sony doesn’t seem to have lost interest yet.
VR may not be the future of all gaming. I’m not holding my breath for Sony to switch God of War or Uncharted away from TV screens any time soon. But PSVR has had a quietly awesome 2018, and I’ve been very happy with it as a platform and a purchase.