Reviewing a piece of hardware like the PSVR is pretty difficult. First, the device will have a different effect on everyone. Each game can have a different effect on people too, and as such it is hard to know what you are getting into. Another facet is describing VR to someone. My current analogy for that is attempting to describe a rollercoaster to someone who has never been on one. Yes you can tell them about the experience of weightlessness as they freefall, the sudden awareness of gravity as you go through a tight bend and the exhilaration as you feel a limited version of the G-forces that fighter pilots endure. Words don’t fully capture that feeling of wearing a headset and suddenly your entire view is the viewscreen or television that you are playing the game on. I thought by spending enough time playing with VR headsets at events, I had an idea of what to expect. Was I wrong.
The first day
So my PSVR finally arrived and after setting it all up (which I will talk about in-depth later) and entering a pile of download codes, I got to work getting comfortable with the headset on. I have heard from podcasts and read about people talking about getting your VR legs or vregs before taking on bigger games. So, thinking events and a lifetime of gaming had prepared me for this, I played the first game that was ready to go on my console: Robinson: The Journey.
Not 20 minutes later I was in a cold sweat with a turning stomach, forced to turn off the console and go lie down. It was devastating, to say the least. Here I was, sitting on top of a mountain of review work (a new gadget and just over a dozen games) and after 20 minutes I was feeling like I wanted to faint or throw up. So I left it alone for the rest of the day, busy with other things. The next day I was told by several people that Robinson is well known for giving people motion sickness. It turns out that my brain was not handling this new found movement where my view of the world changed but my body didn’t move at all.
The next day (or time)
Dealing with anxiety after a bad bout of motion sickness is probably the worst sensation to get rid of. I am jumping ahead in my nice clean timeline-based story here, but I had a bad bought of motion sickness again that weekend and while I also got a pretty large game to play and review, there were moments I could have hopped into VR, and I didn’t because, well, I was too afraid. The anxiety about being ill again, the dread that maybe, just maybe, I am not cut out for VR and would have to pass on everything to someone else and admit defeat – that feeling stopped me dead in my tracks. It took a week before I tried again. (It is also probably worth noting that I have an anxiety disorder, which might have made the situation worse.)
Then I discovered Thumper
After my break from VR gaming, having worked through several of the games sent to me, I bought Thumper by Drool. I had always wanted to play it, and this felt like a good as time as any to try it. I fell in love. Thumper is a interesting mix of some cool ideas: if you have played a platformer and know the joy of finding the line in a runner type experience (Bit.Trip Runner / Rayman Origins come to mind) and have ever played Guitar Hero using a controller instead of a guitar, you will understand Thumper immediately. The game is a fast-paced race with a fixed camera view, so despite the fast pace of the action, there is no motion sickness and the game makes full use of turning your whole front 180 degrees into a massive screen for the game to occur in. Since playing it in VR, going back to my TV feels like such a loss of screen (in terms of both size and estate) makes it feel like the obstacles hurtling towards me appear far too suddenly before I need to react. In VR though you can see the level snaking ahead, climbing away into eventual darkness. The horror setting of the game, its general sense of unease as you battle to perfect your timing to beat a section, it made more oppressing by being set inside this black sphere of oblivion in VR. If there is one game that I have found so far that should be bundled with the PSVR unit, it is Thumper.
Hot and boxed-in
The biggest issue with VR, really, is one of comfort.
The biggest issue with VR, really, is one of comfort. Another one is having a quiet enough place. The strength of VR, its ability to immerse you and remove you from your immediate physical space can also be a hindrance. Suddenly becoming aware of someone nearby watching you playing, or tapping you on the shoulder mid-horror game, ranges from creepy to heart palpitations. Thanks to not being able to see your external surroundings, coupled with using a headset the like to enjoy positional 3D audio, you become completely cut off from what is happening around you. Add in someone coming in and tapping you on the shoulder as you sneak through the world of Here they Lie or Resident Evil 7 and you are in for a nasty fright. The sense of isolation is hard to fully describe without being in the seat yourself. I had my wife stand in front of me at one point to pick up something that had fallen nearby. I could feel her in front of me, but when looking where she should be, where I know she is, I instead see the game, or the screen of what I am playing. It is an odd sensation, when your eyes do not line up with what you hear and feel.
Even without the scares and the like, you will still want a fairly quiet place for using your PSVR because, well, the mess of cables has hazard written all over them. I don’t quite want to call the kit a Rube Goldberg machine, but the number of cables, devices, pass-through boxes and the like is pretty intimidating. The headset you wear has a fairly short cable, that connects to a passthrough box, this connects to the processor unit. (Despite its name, the processor unit does the work for 3D audio and several elements related to asymmetrical multiplayer, completely unrelated to giving more CPU or GPU processing.) This then has an HDMI in and one out, becoming a pass-through between your PS4 and TV, then add your headset too for good measure. None of these boxes look bad, they are all designed well and all connectors are cleverly marked with the face button symbols to help you get the right cables aligned the right way up and in the right slots, but the mess of cables has become a complete nightmare in my lounge. I have had to take over a portion of a coffee table just for the PSVR and try to keep the dogs away from this new haven for tripping over cables. Even once you get used to the two boxes and three cables snaking away from your TV towards your couch, I feel that the cable on the headset itself is just far too short. Any game played while standing means the pass-through box is no longer resting on the floor, adding a noticeable weight to the headset as the cable dangles down over your shoulder or to your side. If you enjoyed having a clean, wireless setup, say goodbye to that.
The headset itself is rather weighty, but the solid headband construction makes it distribute the weight evenly and it stays comfortably in place during movement. As someone that has had to catch another company’s headset falling off mid-gaming session, having something that feels comfortable on the top of your head while sitting there snugly is a must. The issue is you still have a large, fairly heavy device on your head and face, meaning things are about to get hot. A mid-day gaming session on a sweltering day becomes a sauna for your face and without buying an aircon to cool my lounge, I will stick to playing in the evening to avoid the clammy feeling. This might be different for other people as I run hot and need a fan in every room just to survive, so call that a disclaimer, if you will. Also there are times when you end up seeing the trees instead of the forest, and then you are very aware that there are a bunch of pixels right in front of your face and it takes a while to ignore them again.
Thanks to my anxiety to attempt new games, especially titles that don’t feature a fixed camera angle, and bumping into a 60 hour space opera you might have heard about, I am still slowly making my way through the various games I have that work on PSVR. While the games will get their own reviews in time, here are a few thoughts on the comfort I felt, and things to help you get your vregs, so to speak. This excludes games mentioned elsewhere.
VR Worlds: This game, or collection of games, feels a lot more like a demo disc that should be included with the PSVR headset. Several of the modes feature no controlled movement by the player, letting them get used to being in VR and how to control things. It is made up of five mini-games, and while I want to show my family Ocean Descent and The London Heist, Scavengers Odyssey made me feel very ill jumping around in a mech.
RIGS Mechanized Combat League: While at first I thought I would completely lose my head playing a first person game in a large mech that jumps around shooting things, RIGS has a lot of VR comfort options, all in a single menu for you to activate as you want. One such option darkens the periphery of your vision as you move around, which really helps with motion sickness. You can also make the screen go black when you eject on death, hiding the first-person view until you pick a respawn point and get back into the cockpit.
The PSVR is an interesting piece of technology, that showcases that consoles are definitely part of the VR race. There are moments of the experience that make me want to tell everyone to hop in and give it a good try, but there is also a mess of cables, the chance of serious motion sickness, getting used to seeing pixels right in front of your face and several other factors that make me hesitant. From a technology and immersion viewpoint, VR is exciting and could open up a whole new chapter in gaming experiences, but from the current fare available on the gaming menu a part of me is hesitant. This is all so new and as someone who can play games all day for a few days straight, the idea of something needing me to take frequent breaks to cool down, adjust to my surroundings and process everything, a part of me is very frustrated. Here is this thing I want to play with, but there are blocks in my way. Hopefully with time these blocks stop being so large and smooth down into small bumps. While I get used to that, I hope developers work out some killer games for the format, and I work out how to store, take off and put the headset on again without getting smudges on the lenses in the headset.