It’s clear 2016 is going to prove the pivotal year in the history of virtual reality: it’s been this year that headsets went mainstream with Oculus Rift and HTC Vive going on sale. But it might become best known as the year PlayStation VR launched.
Because while the Rift and to a greater extent Vive offer arguably more high-quality virtual reality, they both come with a hefty price.
At £349 PSVR is significantly cheaper than both its rivals, while also not requiring a high-powered and expensive gaming PC in order to run. Instead, it is plugged into your PlayStation 4 (a simple process we will touch on more) and then you’re ready to go.
PlayStation VR is the system that wanted to bring premium VR to the masses. That’s what has been said all the way through its creation process. But now it’s here, and crucially, it lives up to that billing.
Accessibility is the biggest and most powerful weapon in PlayStation VR’s arsenal, at least on the surface, but put it in your home and it doesn’t take long to prove itself as a lot more than just a gateway to other systems. It can hold its own alongside them.
One of the most important parts of living day-to-day with any virtual reality system is the process of setting it up, and using it on a regular basis.
It’s still inescapable that VR brings a lot of extra wires to your home entertainment, so an element of unpacking and packing away again between gaming sessions is fairly normal.
PlayStation VR sits at the “easy” end of the set-up spectrum. Open the box and Sony has wisely and very visibly numbered every cable, of which there are just over half a dozen.
The process itself is relatively simple compared to others we have tried. This is mainly down to the familiarity of doing it through the PS4 interface, which anchors the whole thing and has you up and running very quickly once all cables are in place.
Pairing controllers too is smooth to do, though tracking issues in the midst of excessive movements are almost inevitable when tracking is relying on a camera in a single location in your play space.
Games and experiences too are easy to find, download and play, as again it happens through a PS4 interface that most will be very comfortable working with. Should you be playing among a group of friends, with the headset being passed around and used in different places on the sofa, a quick press and hold of the Options button on the PS4 controller also realigns the view within the headset to the person using it.
It’s smart, simple and very easy to grasp. The basics are under your belt swiftly, which is exactly what you need when your face is covered – placing you in an alien environment – and you’re using a platform fairly new to you.
Like all VR headsets, PlayStation VR’s most striking feature is the eye piece on the front of the hardware. When in use LED lights around the main panel light up to add to the effect, though they’re also serving a practical purpose as tracking points for the PS Camera being used to track your head movements and replicate them within your VR experience.
In general, the tracking is good, even in smaller spaces – sat on a sofa in front of a coffer table for example, like our set up. Not only that, we were at a slight angle to the TV and yet the camera had no issues keeping track of us.
As for the headset itself, unlike Vive and Oculus, which rely on fabric straps away from the main eye piece, the PSVR headset has plastic housing which expands into a top head band and around to the back of the head. The buttons on the side and back of the device for adjusting the tightness of the band and position of the eyepiece also give added flexibility, while the more robust head band means PSVR feels much more balanced on your head, and doesn’t weigh down on your face after a while as some systems can.
However, all this flexibility does have a drawback in the shape of light bleeding. Nothing can disrupt or in some cases kill the immersive sensation of a virtual reality experience like becoming aware that in your peripheral vision you can see a glimpse of living room carpet. That can happen with PSVR. The eye mask, while flexible, doesn’t have minute adjustment options – the space between each sitting point is relatively large, so you are almost left with the option of having the mask too tight or too loose. It’s not a constant issue as some experiences suck you in more than others, but it’s still there nonetheless.
The Move controllers too, which essentially give players two hands to use in-game as opposed to the single PS4 controller, were temperamental when being tracked sometimes. Depending on what you’re doing and how you move, if the camera loses sight of a Move controller as it disappears above its field of view or behind your back for example, it can become jumpy, glitching on-screen for a moment.
Again, it’s not something you will find yourself regularly combating, but it happens often enough to stick in the mind. And as touched upon earlier, PSVR actually tracks better than expected given it’s being done by just one camera.
Where PSVR really shines though is the experiences and gaming opportunities it offers. Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise given that it can call upon the Sony PlayStation contacts book, but its the quality of the experiences that is truly the best thing about this system.
Things do feel more “gamey” than the Vive for example, but yet no less real. Both Ocean Descent and The London Heist, which are part of the VR Worlds game pack, are brilliant experiences as introductions to the power of VR.
Ocean Descent requires no controllers and is just a yardstick for how immersion into VR should be done. London Heist is a London gangster game in homage to PS2 classic The Getaway – it’s made by the same studio. The PS Move controllers are at their best here, seamlessly recreating the method of having to load a new ammo clip into a hand gun before you use it.
Battlezone is another launch title highlight. Few other VR titles use the virtual space so well and so colourfully, as you jump into a neon pixel art tank and enter a Tron-esque world to do battle. The cockpit alone is fascinating, but the multiplayer too is some of the best fun you will have using PSVR.
Batman Arkham VR however steals the show in many ways, predominately because it quite literally lets you “Be the Batman” like nothing ever before, tugging at a sense of nostalgia buried deep inside where your childhood dreams lie.
The game, though relatively short in game-time, is a great example of how titles can be reshaped and re-imagined for the virtual reality platform. This is the same world that we saw in the Arkham series of games – it looks just as good. In fact it looks better because you’re no longer just looking at it on a screen, you’re in it.
But, Arkham VR is not perfect. It is the most sensitive when it comes to headset and controller tracking – asking you to stand and using a seemingly tighter field of vision, which restricts movement a little more. A short readjustment though and you’re ready to go, and like a lot of the games currently on offer, you won’t need a second invitation to dive back in.
Virtual reality is still far from perfect, of that there is no doubt. However PlayStation VR stands out because as an overall package of price, opportunities and ease of set-up it may just be the best we’ve seen so far.
The headset still needs work and the bleeding of the outside world into the line of sight does detract from your fun and immersion at times, but not anywhere near enough to stop you playing.
Based on what is available now game-wise – Battlezone, EVE: Valkyrie, Batman Arkham VR and so on – and what we know is coming, a full Resident Evil and Star Wars Battlefront to name two – this is a platform that will keep you constantly entertained.
PlayStation VR then is the moment virtual reality shifted from its position as a premium toy for those only with big disposable income or as a one-off experience, to a genuine part of your home entertainment system; one that you’ll find easy to come back to on a whim, whenever you like.
It’s high-end virtual reality for the masses, and that is something to be excited about.