PlayStation VR Review
Sony has entered the virtual reality space with a product built for gamers, but accessible to all. Does it find a foothold in the real world?
The biggest problem with PlayStation VR is that it’s expensive. More expensive than the actual PS4 console you need in order to play it. But if you’re not scared off by the $549 price tag, then the experience it provides isn’t embarrassed by its more illustrious competition and offers a robust and enjoyable run of launch gaming content that is frequently exhilarating. What PSVR lacks in power and precision in comparison to the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive (both in excess of $1000), it makes up for in accessibility. It’s available in Australian retailers – which means no overseas shipping and greater consumer security - and it does not require any upgrades to your existing hardware (assuming you already own a PS4). Plus, tied as it is to the incredibly successful PS4 and its huge catalogue of developers, it has a bright future ahead. Let’s take a closer look.
Is PlayStation VR easy to setup?
I’m very impressed with the way Sony has bundled up its PlayStation VR package. As well as its nicely presented box, which neatly stows everything away without cramming it in to the point of busting, it has one of the best setup instruction manuals I’ve ever seen. The process of unpacking and assembling the PSVR kit is a cinch, and once powered on a small update and a couple of minutes of on-screen calibration is all that is required to get you going. Even those with minimal technology nous will have no problems setting it up. Space requirements aren’t as bad as I had first feared. The device asks you to be two metres back from the camera, which can feel like too large a gap in smaller flats and rentals. But remember that when seated on a couch, your head is 60cm back from the edge of the seat and that makes all the difference. The headset itself is a little ungainly and I’m disappointed that some kind of stand wasn’t included in the box given the price. Resting it on a couch arm or your entertainment unit feels dangerous, and it won’t easily slide into a draw or cupboard. There is a processor unit that comes with the PSVR, which is like a miniature version of the console not much larger than an adult male’s hand. It handles some of the load with the processing VR requires. Given the already quite slim design of the PS4, I had no problems fitting it next to its big brother on the same shelf in my TV stand. There are a couple of points where Sony does let itself down. With only two USB ports, and both of them on the front of the device, the excessive cabling required by VR can get annoying. Since you need to keep two motion controllers and one DualShock fully charged, as well as permanently taking up a USB port for the PSVR processing unit, it doesn’t leave you with many charging options. It means a lot of hot-swapping battery management, or looking for other power outlets and spare USB chargers. Not much forethought there with the PS4’s design. The new PS4 Pro console does add a third USB, which helps, but four is the required number. In addition, I came across an issue when trying to pair my Turtle Beach Elite 800 PS4 headset – which is top-of-the-range. When plugged into the PS4 at the same time as PSVR, an error comes up to notify you that wireless audio cannot be used with PSVR. This goes for all headsets that use wireless, including Sony’s own Pulse headset. This was an established issue and is flagged in the FAQs, but I’m not sure if consumers are that aware of it. Fans who have invested hundreds of dollars in a top-of-the-range headset would expect the device to work; but alas, they only work in wired mode – adding yet another cable - and with surround sound features turned off.
Is PlayStation VR comfortable to wear?
In tune with PlayStation’s push for accessibility – and no doubt benefiting from years of refinement in Sony’s grander electronic catalogue – PSVR is quite comfortable to wear. The design is such that there is little-to-no pressure on your eyes or brow and you don’t feel the weight of the device at all. Adjustments to the front glasses section, and to the headband strap, are well thought out and simple to execute. Large and obvious lights help you keep track of when the device is on, and the PS4 recognises when you remove the device, auto-pausing the game if you haven’t already. The lack of in-built sound – requiring a separate device (and cable) - and the need to have a large cable constantly dangling down your side are two clear areas in which future versions of the rig should improve. But for this initial offering it’s no big deal and on par with other devices in the space. One thing for sure is that the PSVR will test out your eyesight. I’m 37 and I ate my carrots growing up – I’m no hawk but my eyesight is fine. I have a slight issue with one of my eyes at close distances, and have some glasses that I use very occasionally need if I am writing articles for long periods of time in confined, dark spaces – like an airplane seat, for example. I’ve never felt compelled to use them while gaming. However, after just 15 minutes with PSVR, I was reaching for them after getting nauseous as my eyes did double-time trying to focus. Perhaps it’s a case of the lower resolution of the visuals comparative to the screen experiences I have playing the PS4, or using my iPhone. And certainly this is a person-by-person issue. But if you do have any underlying sight issues – perhaps undiagnosed – VR will find you out quickly. The good news is that glasses do fit inside the VR headset. I wore mine without any additional discomfort – not even any pressing of the glasses into the ridge of my nose or temples.
Are the included earphones any good or should you upgrade?
As mentioned before, one of PlayStation VR’s biggest failures is its inability to coexist with existing wireless headsets. Mostly because those headsets aren’t cheap, and if you’ve invested in a pair of great headphones you most certainly want to wear them. But also because that means one more cable to add to the mix when you are moving about your couch and room in virtual reality. The device does come packaged with a pair of earphones, which plug into the line that feeds the video feed from your PSVR processing unit to the headset. Through this it taps into 3D sound. Sony claims this kind of audio is a better fit for virtual reality than the 7.1 channel Dolby used by the PS4 proper, but I am not sold. Admittedly, the earphones do a surprisingly solid job with the sound – let’s not forget Sony has a whole wing of its company focused on audio devices. But they are still earphones. They’re not luxurious soft leather, full cup headphones. So they do get on your ears’ nerves after a while and can get uncomfortable. I’d be tempted to hold off buying any new gaming headphones until we see what typical players in the space like Turtle Beach, Plantronics and Razer do with their products to adapt to PSVR. The earphones, while not ideal, are more than just functional and will get you through to then. Plus you might have some standard audio headphones you can use in their stead.
What’s gaming in PlayStation VR like?
Virtual reality is a trick. It renders what you are looking at, and can do so faster than the human brain can understand and compute what it is seeing. Therefore, as you look from one location to the next, the game redraws what you are seeing so fast that it tricks your brain, fooling it into believing it is in a 3D world. No matter where you look, you are in the game. When you combine this with the stereoscopic 3D and 3D audio, the sensation is complete. You are in a virtual reality.
Such technology requires a lot of processing power and while PCs can be upgraded continually as technology advances, a PS4 cannot. In fact, it is already “old” in its power capabilities compared to PC and it shows when playing. Because frame rate is so vital to ensuring the illusion of virtual reality isn’t broken, everything else is sacrificed in order to maintain it. Some developers are better than others at maximising the power efficiency of their software, and some styles – like cel-shaded – are a lot less taxing on the CPU than others – like photorealistic. Either way, the visual quality of games in PSVR is far below what you experience in standard PS4 play. This is the one significant downgrade of gaming on PSVR. Elsewhere, it’s all progressive and invigorating. The sense of immersion it provides, the way it dramatically accentuates the scale of the environment and, more importantly, how it impacts your ability to react to situations is impossible to describe. Virtual reality provokes reactions, both physical and emotional, you will have never experienced in gaming before. From a pure gameplay perspective, the motion controls are functional, but not as accurate as other devices we have used like the HTC Vive’s controllers. For many genres this isn’t too much of an issue, but for some that require faster reflexes or precise combat - like first-person shooters and adventures – you begin to remember that the PlayStation Move is now six years old. Again, an area for improvement, but not a fundamental flaw that breaks the VR experience. We are currently reviewing all the launch titles for the PSVR; look for a list at the end of this article to get better insights into each individual game.
Should you buy PlayStation VR now or wait?
The accessibility of PlayStation VR is its biggest selling point. You can go and get it from a local retailer, plug it straight into your PS4, and off you go. The experience is a fair way behind the quality you get from an HTC Vive linked with a super-powered PC, but that’s not like comparing a Ferrari to a Daihatsu. It’s more like comparing a Ferrari to a Lexus – it’s still pretty damn good. If you have been hanging out for the arrival of VR and saved up all your lunch money, you won’t be let down. There’s plenty of enjoyable games at launch and hundreds more in development. But with noticeable room for improvement in the visual quality and motion controls, those that are only halfway convinced (or less) may want to hold out for inevitable PSVR 2.0 we expect by late 2017.