Listen to this post:
Look, this is where I’d normally write a fluffy introductory paragraph to try and ease you, the reader, into my review. That’s not going to happen here, because the PlayStation VR is a $400-ish-probably-more peripheral for the PlayStation 4 (a $300-ish machine) that offers games ranging from $20ish to $60ish. There’s a lot of money that might be changing hands here and I’m going to humor myself by imagining that my opinion might affect such transactions in any way whatsoever. In other words, there’s no room for fluff.
Instead, let’s get down to brass tacks: the PlayStation VR is a virtual reality headset designed for use with the PlayStation 4. Speaking for myself, this is the first VR solution to really catch my interest, and I think this interest will extend to others who aren’t gung-ho about virtual reality; while the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are both widely available at this point, they’re pricey and require high-end PCs so I’d call those enthusiast pieces at best.
Meanwhile, my impressions regarding the Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard was that they were gimmicks. “Put your phone in a holder and stick it in your face” isn’t really what I had in mind when I thought about virtual reality as the future of entertainment.
With the PlayStation VR, you’re paying your money and getting a full-fledged VR headset that will run on the PlayStation 4 you already own. In theory, at least, you don’t have to worry about compatibility or reliability since this thing’s backed by Sony and running on a console with known specs. I’d argue this sort of peace of mind even extends to the potential software lineup for the device; I can name at least one full-fledged AAA game for the PlayStation VR that’s worth checking out, for instance, while the morass of subpar, overpriced indie games for the PC VR solutions has become a bit of an albatross around the concept’s neck.
That doesn’t guarantee a hit, of course. Sony is notorious for coming up with new peripherals and then only offering moderate support; we’ve seen this time and time again. You might remember the PlayStation 2’s EyeToy camera, for instance, or the goofy-looking Move controllers from the me-too era of motion controls; on the other hand, you might not, since those devices got little to no post-launch support and Sony was largely content to let them fade into obscurity. If we assume the worst – and 2016 has shown us that we should do just that when it comes to the modern games industry – then that leaves us with the PlayStation VR as it is on launch, and that’s what we’re talking about today.
Entering the Virtual (Reality) World
So you drop your Benjamins and you get your giant box. Time to enter the magical world of VR. I found the PlayStation VR setup process to be surprisingly painless; the device comes with a quick start guide and easily numbered cords, so it’s just a matter of connecting the leg bone to the thigh bone and so on. Essentially you’ve got a new processing unit with its own power supply that connects to the PS4 via USB and HDMI, then runs the result to your television via another HDMI cable. The headset is then connected directly to this processing unit via a long and awkward set of cables that are bound to trip up unsuspecting bystanders. As long as you can find a way to move those cables out of the way when the system’s not in use, there’s no need to disconnect anything when you just want to use the PS4 without the headset on.
Along with that, you’ll also need to use a PlayStation 4 camera to track your head movements while you’ve got the headset on; the technology appears to be similar to the aforementioned Move controllers, using bright lights to make the headset recognizable to the camera. The PS3’s PlayStation Eye webcam doesn’t work, by the way, so a PS4 camera is required. Speaking of the fairy princess wands, you’ll also want a pair of Move controllers for the best possible VR experience. If you’re dumb, you already bought some back when they launched for the PS3, which is what I did; otherwise your retailer of choice will be happy to sell you some, since they sure as hell didn’t sell any back when they came out.
Let’s add one quick caveat to the setup issue: my opinion at the moment is that the headset to beat is the HTC Vive, thanks to its unique multi-camera setup that allows for full room-scale virtual reality involving movement around a given space. This is very cool, but every indication I’ve seen is that the multi-camera thing can be difficult to arrange and requires a fair amount of free space to really shine; it certainly doesn’t help the Vive’s near-$1000 purchase price, either. Ease of setup and use is certainly a point in the PSVR’s favor, particularly for gamers who aren’t sure they want to go all-in on this new technology just yet.
The Hardware: Snug ‘n Comfy
So plug all that junk in, find room for the camera so it gets a good view of you from the television’s perspective, move anything blocking the path of the camera, put any cord-chewing pets away, and you’re finally ready to enter the virtual world! The PSVR headset is surprisingly light and comfortable once you’ve managed to get the damn thing on, which is a skill that takes a little practice. If you properly adjust the headset once you’re wearing it, there should be minimal outside light interfering with your view. You’ll run through a quick calibration ensuring that the camera can see the headset, then you’re good to go; further calibration options are available, but I haven’t needed to use those so far.
You’ve got a few options now. Naturally there are quite a few launch games to choose from, ranging from great to middling to awful, so you could find something from that selection to try out; the “ideal” VR experience at the moment is the VR Worlds minigame collection that launched with the PSVR, and that’s the game I’d recommend to new users who only get one. The device comes with a demo disc that offers samples of a few games if you want to try before you buy. You can also play around with the PSVR’s cinematic mode, which essentially simulates a dark room with a giant screen displaying your content; this is a neat trick and it works with pretty much anything that supports HDMI.
Either way, you’ll probably be pleased with the PSVR’s head tracking – in other words, the primary benefit of VR, allowing the headset to follow your view as you look around. I had no issues whatsoever with the tracking on the PSVR. I’ve seen reports from numerous sources complaining of view drifting over extended use, causing the device’s “center” point to fade in one direction or another, but this wasn’t the case in my experience. In the few situations where I wasn’t comfortable with the PSVR’s centering, I was able to recenter the device using a one-button shortcut available on both the DualShock 4 and the PS Move controllers. It was a piece of cake, and overall I had no issues getting nice and immersed in whatever I was playing, even over long sessions.
As for the aforementioned controllers, your weapon of choice is going to change based on what you’re playing. I was fond of both; my two favorite PSVR experiences so far have been RIGS: Mechanized Combat League, which uses the DualShock 4, and The London Heist portion of the VR Worlds collection, which plays best with a pair of Move controllers. The DualShock 4 remains the old standby we know and love, while the Move controllers weren’t ever really that impressive to begin with, existing largely as an attempt to nibble from the lunch of the then-unstoppable Wii. As a result, they can be kind of finicky and twitchy if you aren’t in a properly-lit room with the best possible view of the camera. When conditions were right, though, I was surprised with the Move controllers’ accuracy, and that helped mitigate the annoyance of having to clear out the living room whenever I wanted to use them.
We’ll talk about the actual games elsewhere, but all in all I was pleasantly surprised with the build quality and performance of the PlayStation VR headset. That’s kind of a shame, since I was really eager to bash this thing for being, like the initial launch of the Move controller, an expensive gimmick serving only to secure Sony’s place on a bandwagon…but after playing a few of the better games available for it, I’m starting to open my mind a little when it comes to VR. On the other hand, after playing a few of the less impressive games for the device, I can once again see the cliff that the bandwagon’s blindly driving toward. I think it’s too early to say that VR is the future of gaming…but after spending some time with a headset, I also think it’s too early to say that it’s all hype.
In Conclusion: A Reality
The bottom line is that there are several visually impressive and highly enjoyable games available for the PlayStation VR at launch, which, in my experience, were easy to play and largely free of issues. I was also enjoying a game with no problems within twenty minutes of bringing the headset home. I’m not sure if that merits the $400+ initial outlay for the device, but you will immediately have options for something cool to play if you take the plunge. If you’re considering going the early adopter route with this device, then that’s really all you need to know. Consider that a solid recommendation.