Amid all the confusion and excitement that surrounds virtual reality, PlayStation VR's distinguishing feature is convenience. It sits on the couch where I play most video games, next to my controllers and my headphones. Unlike my HTC Vive and my Oculus Rift – which are devices I adore – PlayStation VR feels like a natural addition to my home video game ecosystem, rather than an invasive species.
Reviewing hardware is a video game critic's most challenging task, because it feels like a distraction from the real job. Movie critics don't spend their days weighing the merits of stadium seating and built-in cupholders. Music critics don't tell you which speakers to buy. TV critics managed to review Westworld without opining on which TV set best displays it, or which cable provider has the best DVR.
Partly, though, that's because you don't have to buy a second television just to watch HBO. For historical, cultural, and (especially) business reasons, video game hardware determines more than how you play. It controls what you play. And when it comes to the new hotness of virtual reality, we're in the earliest stages of a full-scale console war.
PlayStation VR, which goes on sale next week for $400, is the third major VR headset to be released this year, after the Rift and Vive. I've been playing with it for a week now. It's actually my fourth virtual-reality headset, after the Gear VR, Vive, and Rift. Or is it my fifth, given that I've owned two different Gear VR units, one for a Samsung Galaxy Note 5 phone, and one for a Galaxy S6? Wait a minute, it's my sixth, if I'm counting the Google Cardboard viewer the New York Times delivered on my driveway last fall, inside the blue bag that contains its Sunday print edition. And I just got a seventh VR headset in the mail that I haven't had a chance to try, from a company that makes a kind of comfier foam version of Cardboard.
Almost all of these – some I bought for myself, others were given to me as review units – arrived within the past 12 months. More are on the way. Google announced its $79 Daydream View headset for Android phones on Tuesday. At trade shows like E3 and the Game Developers Conference, I've used VR headsets that track the movement of your eyeballs, that provide wider fields of view, even one that professes to measure your neural feedback.
It would be foolhardy to speculate about who's going to "win." I can't tell you whether VR is a fad, and without access to your bank account, I can't tell you whether you should buy a $400 unit (more if you don't already own a PlayStation camera, the optional Move controllers, and a lot more if you don't own a PlayStation 4 to plug it into). But I'm confident that the worst-case scenario for VR is that it's going to be a really awesome fad.
The PlayStation VR headset is niftily designed. Against your eyes, the screen feels less like a set of goggles than its competitors do, because it descends from a headband that puts pressure on your forehead and skull instead of the entire front half of your face. The headband also reduces the embarrassing "VR face" imprint that can occur after a couple hours of wearing a Vive or a Rift, indentations that can make your neighbors think you've just returned from an offseason ski trip. The PlayStation VR screen itself can be pulled away, slightly, from your cheeks with the press of a button, which lets you glimpse your physical environment to grab a controller, or take a drink, without removing the entire apparatus.
The Vive and the Rift are superior in some ways. Sony's Move controllers – which aren't required, as most games play with a gamepad – aren't nearly as precise as the Vive's motion controllers or the Rift's forthcoming Touch controllers. The Rift's built-in headphones reduce the number of wires that hang down your back and make that system the simplest to put on and take off. The "screen-door" effect – a slight but visible latticework inside VR – is more apparent on the PSVR than it is on the Rift or the Vive. Fast-paced games like Driveclub and the futuristic tank warfare game Battlezone have noticeable motion blur.
Even so, playing with my Vive or my Rift always feels like an event that I have to prepare for – the video game equivalent of planning for a night at the theater. Even mobile VR systems like the Gear VR feel like special occasions. It's not natural – yet – while playing a mobile-phone game to think, “You know what I should do instead? Go fish that plastic headset out of my office and play some VR!”
PlayStation VR fits into a video game routine that I already have. If I'm sitting down in front of my TV to play video games, beginning a quick round of Superhypercube or Thumper isn't markedly more complicated than starting a conventional game.
The hardest part of setup was finding my moldy Move controllers and then waiting for them to charge. PSVR comes with a small processing unit that you plug into your TV and your PlayStation 4, and the VR unit itself takes up one of the two USB ports on the front of the PS4. (If you play games with a pair of wireless headphones, you'll need to find a wired pair, or use the crummy earbuds that come with the unit.) There's a brief firmware upgrade (of course). Then you turn on your PlayStation, press the power button on the PSVR headset, and you're ready to go.
But to go where? To do what?
That's still the central mystery of virtual reality. PlayStation VR comes with a demo disc with a surprisingly deep list of titles, including a few VR films, but after a couple days, you're going to need to buy some games. (And if you think loading screens on your TV are dull, just wait until you watch a spinning wheel while you're isolated in a VR headset.) My favorites on the demo disc tend to be abstractions and surreal noisescapes like Gnog, Harmonix Music VR, Rez Infinite, Superhypercube, and Thumper. Looking up and down from the inside of kaleidoscopic worlds has yet to grow old. If games are “cathedrals of fire,” in the British journalist Steven Poole's phrase, then VR may be the first time the medium can genuinely capture the wonder and awe you feel when you're standing inside a place like Notre Dame.
VR is the first video-game phenomenon since the Nintendo Wii that has me thrusting it upon nongaming relatives and friends.
There are more conventional video game pleasures. The demo for the on-rails shooter Until Dawn: Rush of Blood felt fantastically creepy when played with Move controllers, a cart ride past giant squealing pigs on meat hooks and vacant doll-people who wield video cameras. The comedic Headmaster looks great. The demo for Sony's London Heist gangster vignette in VR Worlds (a sort of VR variety pack) is dull, but one of my favorite experiences in VR so far was just pretending to embody a mobster who did nothing but smoke a cigar in the full game's second scene.
I've spent close to $3,000 this year on VR hardware and software. I threw a couple hundred dollars on a set of contact lenses this summer, just so my glasses stopped obscuring my peripheral vision in gogglesville. VR is the first video-game phenomenon since the Nintendo Wii that has me thrusting it upon nongaming relatives and friends.
That said, it's a lot more expensive than a $200 Wii, and there's nothing as easy and satisfying to play as Wii Sports. I've heard VR evangelists say that's because this year's headsets are like the first iPhone, and we need to be patient. I say that's overstating matters by a few decades. The current slate of VR rigs are closer to those phone-book size car phones from the 1980s.
Still, the iPhone metaphor is instructive when it comes to game design. It took a while for the big studios to stop trying to cram twin thumbsticks onto our touchscreens, and the first couple years of VR development look to be similarly bumpy and experimental.
VR games with thumbstick navigation are also the likeliest to make you queasy. I rarely get sick while playing inside VR, but then I don't get sick on theme park rides like roller coasters, or the barrel that spins around and sticks you to the wall as the floor drops out from beneath you. With one or two exceptions, however, every first-person VR game that has used conventional gamepad controls for navigation – controlling the camera and player movement with my thumbs, instead of my gaze – has made me start to sweat and feel ill.
That's why VR games usually put you on rails, or place you in a vehicle (the tanks in Battlezone, the spaceships in Eve: Valkyrie), or give you a third-person perspective. First-person VR games tend to allow you to explore a limited space (even at room-scale, in the Vive) and then require you to teleport (think “blink,” if you played Dishonored) to move beyond it.
There are no VR games yet that allow you to explore a vast world and fall into it for dozens of hours, the way you do while playing Metal Gear Solid V, or Fallout 4, or The Witcher 3. It's hard to know whether similarly huge games are a bad fit for VR, or whether the market is just too small to justify the kinds of budgets those games command.
An advertisement for PSVR bills it as "the future of video games," which reminds me of the fantasizing, almost exactly 10 years ago, about what the Wii would mean for the future of big-budget, narrative video games. The answer turned out to be basically nothing. It's an open question, as the Xbox head Phil Spencer once told me, whether virtual reality becomes the best way to play all video games, or whether it's useful only in a limited set of genres.
Virtual reality, as a medium, is still toddling. And in these early days, its joys are a toddler's, too. Approach it like a child, and you'll gaze open-mouthed at figures that tower above you, you'll giggle after reaching out and toppling a tower of blocks, and you'll laugh as you finger-paint the walls and even the air.
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