PlayStation VR hits store shelves in Ireland tomorrow. We got some hands-on time with the device and played some of the launch titles and first impressions have managed to change our opinion of VR, if only slightly.
To be honest, we have always been somewhat skeptical of the current renaissance of Virtual Reality as an entertainment medium. How will it hit the mainstream and will it really take off? Until now the VR experience for home users have been really high-end with Oculus Rift or HTC Vive headsets and a powerhouse PC or low-end using your smartphone and a headset such as the Gear VR or a Google Daydream-type device such as the Xiaomi Mi VR.
Sony are taking a different tack and attacking the middle ground and is bringing Virtual Reality to the masses and building on the successful install base of almost 50 million PS4 owners around the world with the PlayStation VR, for €399 (£349)
The Playstation VR works together with the PlayStation Camera, Move Controllers (some experiences support the standard DualShock 4 controller) and a separate processor unit. If you do not already have the PlayStation Camera and Move Controller, then there is a separate Launch Bundle available for an extra €100 that contains all that you need to get started assuming you already have a PS4 (any model will do).
Virtual Reality needs to immerse you in the game world, or the feeling of being part of the experience is lost. The PlayStation VR handles this by using several points of light on the headset and the controllers that are tracked by the Camera. This system works well, but is not flawless in its implementation and perhaps let down by the PlayStation Camera itself and the Move controllers being unchanged since the original launch on the PlayStation 3.
The device itself is a head mounted unit with adjustable band and focus to allow for almost all size and shape of heads out there. Preventing light bleeding in from the side are a number of rubber blinkers and it the focal length can be adjusted. Wearing the headset is a comfortable experience, even while wearing glasses and when content is displayed on screen you can easily drift out of the real world into the virtual experience.
The display is technically Full HD display (1920 x 1080 or 1080p), but it is divided between both eyes so each eye gets 960x1080 pixels and at this is noticeable during gameplay - Crispness of text is one noticeable area, another being that you can often see the individual pixels on screen, as if you stood too close to an old CRT Telly when you were growing up. Thanks to the processing unit it is possible to display what the person is experiencing on an external Display sees the full 1080p display and it often looks better than the items seen when wearing the headset.
Let's put aside those grumbles for a moment and talk about what the experience is like while playing the games, or experiences as they are at the moment really, how does that measure up. You see, when you are wearing the headset and your brain adjusts for the graphics, it quickly accepts that you are in this other world and you can dive right in. Looking around you in almost all directions gives a good view of sense of freedom - you can observe parts of the world that you might not have before, a waterfall in the distance or a flock of birds flying overhead.
While you may likely free roam with the use of a controller in the virtual worlds, you are somewhat more limited in movement in the real world as it is harder for the PlayStation Camera to track you walking around. For this reason, the majority of PlayStation VR Experiences are enjoyed while sitting down or standing up, but not moving too far around the play space.
Animation is smooth and handled at either 90 or 120 frames per second, or a developers can leverage a hybrid mode of 90 fps that interpolates additional frames to appear as 120 fps. This refresh rate makes for a generally smooth animation and helps minimise the risks of motion sickness.
Overall the PlayStation VR lends itself well to bite-sized experiences or bursts of gameplay, but it is not yet clear whether a marathon play session for anything longer than 20-30 minutes. That being said, there is a lot of fun that can be had in bite-sized entertainment experience, as the multi-million dollar mobile gaming industry can attest.
Let's take a look at some of the examples of games and experiences that were available to play, many of which will be available as part of the PlayStation VR Worlds disc that comes with the Launch Bundle. These show an example of the ways VR can be used with a mixture of controllers and even without controller.
The London Heist
Driving off from a successful heist in your getaway van, you are home and clear on the motorway and can take in the sights around you. Using the Move controllers, it is possible to interact with many objects in the environment, change the radio station, open the glove compartment.
Things quickly go pear-shaped and other
bad guys start to chase you down the motorway in vans and motorbikes. Your driver hands you a gun and a load of ammo, you have to try and shoot all the enemies while keeping an eye on your ammo. If you run out, you need to dig into your bag of ammo with your free hand to pick up a magazine and snap it into your gun before you can start shooting again. It all feels like something from a Jason Statham action movie, complete with thick London accent.
Gameplay was fluid feeling similar to the old Time Crisis arcade games, you are taken on rails through the level and could look around you for enemies attacking from all angles.
Although you could interact with everything. I could never time it just right to catch a passing enemy motorcyclist by opening the van door as we sped past.
A clever use of the PlayStation VR headset and shows the great head tracking abilities of the device. No other controllers are required for this game, it uses your head only.
Over a series of rounds a football will be lobbed or crossed and you can use only your head to get the ball into the goal. As you progress, bonus boards will pop up and if you head the ball onto the board you'll pick up bonus points for your score. Later rounds increase the difficulty by adding various obstacles, such as cardboard boxes, goalkeepers and the like.
The animation is very smooth and the ball physics realistic and although you begin playing thinking that you will be subtle in your movements because you don't want to look silly to your friends, after one or two crosses you are quickly trying to do subtle and fancy flicks and nods to get a three star score for your round.
Humour made up a good part of the experience and this type of party game will likely be very popular in the early lifecycle of the PlayStation VR.
Batman: Arkham VR
More of an experience than a game, we had access to the demo of this experience used from E3 earlier in the year. Developed by Rocksteady, the studio behind the critically acclaimed Arkham trilogy and even though the experience was unfinished, it proved to have an extreme level of polish and showed off the type of entertainment experience in which players could lose themselves in the immersive virtual worlds possible.
Before you start the experience you need to pick up your Move controllers. If you have the headset on already, you can actually see the Move controllers (if they are in sight of the Camera) while you are in the virtual world, you can move to them and pick them up in the real world. A nice little touch to show off the interaction possible between a real world object and a virtual world.
Waking up at the grand piano in Wayne Manor, your loyal butler Alfred, advises you that you may be needed downstairs and hand you a small piano key. Opening the piano and playing a few notes will open the secret entrance to the Bat Cave, as you travel down in the lift you put on the Batsuit and arm your various gadgets and hang them on your utility belt, and test your targeting using the Batarangs.
Here, I threw a Batarang pathetically and felt the urge to move forwards to pick this up from the ground, as if it was actually there in the real world.
Once everything is tested, you continue the descent into the bat cave proper, an impressive vista of underground waterfalls and bats flying overhead and log on to the Bat computer.
A second part of the experience has you as Batman in a dark alley discovering the body of a close colleague and trying to solve what happened. Using detective techniques similar to those used in Arkham Knight, you must scan the body of Nightwing to determine his injuries and then with that information try to reconstruct the fight that brought about his demise and identify his unknown assailant.
Using the move controllers you can play, pause and rewind the playback of the action and then scan at various points to determine the blow that caused each injury. There are a number of preset viewpoints that you can switch between to get a better look at the fight.
The PlayStation VR puts you in the middle of the action and at times you feel the urge to step back to get out of the way of Nightwing and his attacker, because they are full size humans and they are in your personal space.
At the end of this experience, it came with the strongest sense of coming back from a different world into the real world. This great potential with this type of experience to provide entertainment experiences, The investigation of a crime scene in the rainy streets of Gotham was handled with style and plenty of atmosphere we are used to from the Arkham series of games.
Time will tell how things will play out for the PlayStation VR, but for one I can admit that I have been converted from a complete cynic when it comes to Virtual Reality to be somewhat more accepting of the technology.
We see the great potential of PlayStation VR, the technology is easy to install and get up and running, if you have enough space and keep the cables tidy, and it is comfortable to use. There are great experiences to be had, offering amusing and entertaining moments.
However, it is not clear if these experiences will offer enough replay value to bring players back over and over again.
PlayStation VR will live or die by the breadth of its library of games and titles. At launch there are about 40-50 games or experiences available, these will need to offer deeper experiences and gameplay than in the initial experiences in order to avoid the PlayStation VR from becoming the next Kinect - a great idea for device with oodles of potential, but potential alone does not make an entertaining experience.
What we can say, though, is that PlayStation VR has passed the first test, we wanted to go back and play some more.