Sunday 26 February 2017

PlayStation VR review: Everything you need to know about Sony's new virtual-reality baby

What it costs, what it's like, what to play and where to try it

Ronan Price

Ronan Price

PlayStation VR is smartly designed and comfortable to wear for long periods
PlayStation VR is smartly designed and comfortable to wear for long periods

SORCERY. There’s no more appropriate word to describe the impact of your initial encounter with virtual reality.

You may be sitting in a darkened bedroom or a brightly lit lounge, yet pull on a VR headset and you can be transported to anywhere in the universe or the imagination.

Batman Arkkham VR for PSVR
Batman Arkkham VR for PSVR

Some would say the same is true of immersing yourself in a good book, movie or conventional videogame. But nothing compares to VR’s much-vaunted sense of presence, the magical feeling of being there, inside a Matrix-esque world. The sense of scale can be enormous.

Few people have yet sampled VR in its full splendour, though. You may have experimented with a cheap Google Cardboard viewer and your smartphone only to come away intrigued but disappointed by its low resolution. Even Samsung’s Gear VR headset –the most common platform, according to industry analysts IHS Markit – feels foggy despite its more advanced tech.

The clouds – and your eyebrows – lift when you get a taste of the full-fat experience, something until now possible only if you were prepared to pony up €1,500 or more for the likes of the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.

But here comes Sony with the PlayStation VR headset and suddenly the point of entry has been lowered dramatically.

Most games on PlayStation VR can be played with the DualShock controller but many work better with the Move wands
Most games on PlayStation VR can be played with the DualShock controller but many work better with the Move wands

Let’s not kid ourselves that it’s cheap, however. If you’re not one of the 40 million PS4 owners out there globally, then PSVR leaves you with no change from €840 before you buy a single game.

The headset itself goes for a seemingly reasonable €400 but it also requires the PlayStation Camera (€60) and two PS Move controllers (€80 for the pair). Strictly, you don’t absolutely need PS Move wands – the PS4’s DualShock controller can sort of do the job – but it’s a much better experience with them.

Sony has yet to announce a bundle but it would be a surprise if one isn’t forthcoming for somewhere in the region of €550, with a free game. Don’t forget the €300 for the PS4 if you’re starting from scratch. So PSVR ‘s price of admission ranges from €400 to €840 depending on your set-up.

But enough about the economics, feel the quality here.

Headmaster for PSVR
Headmaster for PSVR

The PSVR cannot match Rift and Vive purely in terms of power and resolution – they demand a beast of a PC to run, remember. But Sony makes up for the gap with superb craftsmanship of its headset and some clever refinement in its display technology.

With VR, you’re essentially strapping two tiny TV screens to your head, placing them centimetres from your retinas. Any shortcomings in the design quickly becomes apparent after wearing a headset for short periods.

Oculus and HTC won’t win any aesthetic awards for their chunky goggles, with both feeling like a scuba mask, squashed to your face and weighted to the front.

The sleekly futuristic PSVR may still appear unavoidably daft to onlookers but, more importantly, comfort and flexibility have been prioritised. The balance of its weight sits on your forehead, rather than your nose, and the lenses can shift in and out to accommodate anyone wearing glasses.

The result is less fatigue and more enjoyable hours in VR.

The less good news stems from the rat’s nest of cables necessary to drive the PSVR from the PS4. A small processing unit the size of a fat paperback sits in the middle of about six cables trailing hither and thither.

What's in the box: the many parts of PlayStation VR
What's in the box: the many parts of PlayStation VR

Get ready for a lot of USB cable swapping when you need to charge up your (many) controllers.

The processing unit exists partly to feed a picture to your TV screen, which enables non-VR players to simply watch or, in some cases, take part in a game. VR is largely a solo pursuit for now – not counting online multiplayer – so it matters less that the resolution sent to TV screen is noticeably rougher.

In fact, focusing on the overall resolution of PSVR misses the point. Sony’s OLED screen inside the headset performs well but cannot conceal the pixelisation if you go looking for it. However, the sensory bonanza of PSVR is such that you all but forget its faintly grainy image. Running at a smooth 120fps and accurately tracking your head and hand movements, PSVR delivers an utterly convincing illusion of another world.

Until-Dawn: Rush of Blood for PSVR
Until-Dawn: Rush of Blood for PSVR

Yes, the illusion is easily shattered – if you physically stray out of the camera’s view, or your virtual hands pass through another object on-screen. And some people will find motion sickness a real problem. Sony’s hardware is no better or worse than others and some games made me a little queasy due to the disconnect between movement on-screen and my brain’s perception of sitting still.

But the best software, such as the bleak noir of Batman Arkham VR or the gorgeous fairytale animation Allumette, plant you believably in so-real-you-can-touch-them places. Equally, the outlandish neon fantasies of Rez Infinite and Thumper showcase VR’s power to enhance the visual overload of, for instance, music rhythm games.

The horror genre proves an instant fit for the medium. You’re effectively blindfolded by the headset anyway, so the feeling of vulnerability multiplies the panic in games such as Here They Lie and Until Dawn: Rush of Blood. Jump scares have never been so terrifying as when a drooling ghoul materialises centimetres from your face.

Sony has pulled together an impressive launch line-up of 30 games, with up to 50 promised by year-end. Several, such as the splendid space dogfighting sim EVE: Valkyrie, already exist on other platforms. But a number of PSVR exclusives make it a very attractive platform for anyone wavering over Rift or Vive.

Surprisingly given Sony’s pedigree, non-game content remains thus far thin on the ground. A modest catalogue of short 360-degree videos is headed up by the aforementioned Allumette and Invasion, neither of which is exclusive. Sony promises more but don’t buy PSVR expecting access to the riches of the wider web, such as YouTube VR, etc.

Neither is there a bundled killer app in the vein of Wii Sports, which became one of the best-selling games of all time by driving huge ownership of the Wii. Sony includes a free download of Playroom VR, a collection of utterly charming but ultimately disposable mini-games featuring a bunch of chirpy robots.

The PSVR virtual reality headset
The PSVR virtual reality headset

In fact, that may be PSVR’s one real frailty – the lack of a catch-all must-have title, the equivalent of a Halo or Uncharted or Wii Sports.

Sure, there are some great ideas in launch games. Gamers will love Batman but it’s too short. Hipsters will adore Rez but it’s too esoteric. Sports fans will dig Headmaster, a football heading simulator, but it’s one-dimensional.

Perhaps the best clue as to whether you buy into PSVR will be to try it for yourself. Several stores around the country such as Gamestop will have demo pods over the coming weeks.

Now if you’ll just excuse me, I need to jack back into the Matrix.


Read more: PSVR reviews: Batman Arkham VR, Until Dawn Rush of Blood, Battlezone

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