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PlayStation VR: The Frustrating Potential of Sony’s VR Headset

In the past few weeks, various stories have emerged about a next generation of PlayStation VR (PSVR) featuring eye-tracking and other tempting but, no doubt, pricey tech. Added to previous talk of full wireless capability, better resolution and some next generation controllers, it sounds like a huge step forward will be coming for Sony’s virtual reality headset. But while an upgraded PSVR is surely in PlayStation’s future, for now it got me reflecting on my time with the current model

Since it passed its second birthday in October 2018, the PSVR feels like it’s had a pretty major second wind. That month saw the release of Astro Bot, the platform’s highest-rated title so far and arguably the first proof that VR can do more than just support full-blown, “proper” games – it can be a central part of them. The brilliant Tetris Effect and hugely popular Beat Saber soon followed, along with more and more reasons to get on board and building a new sense of momentum for a platform that seemed to very much need it.

Then, in March, the first State of Play broadcast spent about half of its running time covering PSVR titles – announcing major new games like Iron Man VR and showcasing more of London Studio’s Blood and Truth, a fully-fledged action game that the London Heist had teased back on launch day. While it could have gone the way of the PSVita, it is now clear that Sony is fully behind the PSVR – and with Mark Cerny confirming that the current unit will be compatible with PS5, it looks like it has plenty of life ahead of it. Back in 2016, I was not so confident.

 

 

After whetting my VR appetite with a store demo of the HTC Vive, my first taste of PSVR was in October 2016 at Bristol’s Cabot Circus. Organised to promote the new headset and as part of Sony’s “The Future of Play” tour, I joined hundreds of other gamers as we gawped, queued (virtually, of course) and got to play a selection of the PSVR launch titles. It was quite the production, with a disused shop unit transformed into something close to an exclusive nightclub and with a gaggle of attractive hosts all with that just-the-right-side-of-creepy perkiness which probably means they were plucked from Holister.

It was … just fine. Ok, that’s not quite fair – it was absolutely incredible in a number of ways that it’s easy to dismiss in a snarky moment, or forget a few years on. The grin-inducing moment when I first got saw and heard each magical world all around me, not just on the screen in front of me – as I’d been conditioned to expect since those early Sega Megadrive days. Or the feeling of “presence” I had while playing something like The London Heist for the very first time – recoiling from close contact and ducking each bullet as if my life really did depend on it. It felt truly different and special.

But the drawbacks were also pretty clear to me almost immediately – the sense of novelty and lack of depth that many of the early games would go on to prove, the “screen door” effect which hugely limits the immersion for video and more photorealistic experiences, and the utterly terrible PlayStation Move controllers for starters. And, believe me, I’ll come back to those little monstrosities.

Even the knowledge of having all those wires around me felt strangely limiting – however good a job my lovely hosts did of keeping them out of my way on the day. Not constantly, and not with much factual foundation, but I had a distracting sense that, particularly once I would be playing at home, I’d always be one misstep away from tripping over into the TV. Or garrotting myself violently and being eaten by my grateful and characteristically unsentimental cat. I came away thrilled but smug in the knowledge that I’d be able to resist buying yet another piece of plasticky tech – this time I’d be smart, this time I’d wait for the inevitable version 2.

Yes, of course I ended up buying one. I am, after all, a fool – easily parted from my money even when I think I’ve finally gained some self-control. Though I don’t expect you to agree, because I waited about 18 months and got a really good deal, I consider that a moral victory if not exactly a demonstration of willpower. I also, technically, did buy the “version 2” model, although even I won’t claim that an HDR passthrough and some earphone rests constitute the radical improvements that I’d imagined would be needed in order to get me to put my money down.

 

 

I hadn’t, and haven’t really changed my opinion though. In the more stylised gaming worlds that I have tended to choose, the resolution isn’t so much of a problem (for reference, I’ve been playing using PlayStation Pro so that’s not a solution I’m afraid). The wires, again, are just an annoyance in most cases – I am probably more careful that I would be without them but only once have I really come close to doing myself or my surroundings any damage. But I wonder if I would act and choose differently without these restrictions – and it does make me covet some true next-generation freedom or even jumping over to the Oculus Quest.

Those controllers, however, feel like even more of an abomination as time passes. They are the only thing in my house still powered by mini-USB which is a total, though admittedly very “first world problem” type of, pain in the ass. Inaccurate, janky and (somehow still!) ludicrously expensive, they act exactly like the repurposed, last-generation tech that they are and I wish them a quick and painful death every time that I have the misfortune to look at them.

Crucially, by lacking any directional input they are also simply not fit for purpose, leaving it much harder to navigate a world or even a menu system than it should be. In some use-cases this means switching from the Move Controllers to the Dual Shock and back again in one sitting with is a pretty appalling user experience for a technology that wants to be mainstream. I’m pretty sure I’ve had to do this even within the same game, although I’ll admit to have struggled to repeat the experience for this article so I can name and shame the title directly. It may have been a rage-based cheese dream after all but, if so, it was those crappy controllers that inspired it. Luckily, however, I can maintain some perspective.

Because, despite those satanic shit sticks (ok, I’m still working on that perspective), I’ve had a lot of fun with PSVR, even if my interest definitely goes in fits and starts. Games like Tetris Effect, and Rez have been particular highlights – abstract marriages of sound and vision that play to the strengths of the platform and skirt past all of the short-comings. Moments in Rush of Blood and the Stranger Things demo have been genuinely terrifying and leave me wondering if I’ll ever be brave enough to play something like Resident Evil 7 with the headset on.

 

 

And when the World Cup took place last year, it was extraordinary and thrilling to watch a few minutes of a game via the headset – letting my mind wander to the potential of the experience before the low resolution pulled me back to reality and the limitations of the current display. That I quickly went back to my 4K HDR iPlayer feed is rather the story of my PSVR experience – fascinating, flawed, and often rather fleeting.

And that’s where I might have left it – but then, a few weeks ago, a friend of mine visited who’d been eager to try out PSVR for himself. In preparation, I dug out the headset and went about planning a carefully curated taster of what it had to offer. My girlfriend, close to as reluctant a test subject as there can be, finally went on her first virtual scuba dive. She let out her first gaming-related “wow” since she traded in her Sega Game Gear somewhere in her teens and left the hobby behind her. My friend then arrived and our demo began, from scuba dives to gunfights and a little Tetris-based transcendence in between – I saw him go from (fairly) sensible grown-up to a joyful, leaping loony, and was reminded just how cool the PSVR can be.

So, would I advocate buying one in 2019? No. If money is no object, the sensible thing is still to wait for the next generation and the major improvements that will surely come with it. For most other people, I’d suggest keeping your fingers crossed for the ability to pair this generation’s headset with some next generation controllers – a simple and tidy way for Sony to breathe new life into the current headset and offer a cheap entry point into these brave new virtual worlds.

And, if you really can’t wait, just make friends with someone who owns one and get that occasional VR fix without the clutter and buyer’s regret. It might seem mercenary but, based on my experience, they will probably have as much fun seeing your first reactions as you do having them. This generation’s headset teases VR’s incredible potential. With a few upgrades, the next model might just deliver on it.

 

 

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