After over a month of playing around with VR titles on the PS4, it’s time to make up our minds about how we feel about Sony’s Playstation VR. We’ll do that in a three part feature, the first of which will focus on the hardware itself. If you’re more interested in the games, please read our other two parts: VR games under 20 dollars/euros and VR games over 20 dollars/euros.
The Playstation VR headset, as most VR enthusiasts no doubt already know, does not match the horsepower that has been put into the Vive and Oculus Rift headsets. While the PSVR has a maximum resolution of 1920×1080, its PC counterparts go up to 2160×1200. However, the difference hasn’t been noticeable. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the hardware demands for VR are higher (each frame has to rendered twice – once for each eye), limiting the amount of visual detail developers can put into their games. Or perhaps it’s because the quality of the programming and the games is so diverse – most Vive/Oculus applications don’t even come close to the visuals that Crytek delivers with Robinson: The Journey.
There are other differences as well, but they’re minor and won’t mean much to most people. The Oculus and Vive headsets have two screens inside them, the PSVR has one – and thus works kind of like how your smartphone works with Google cardboard or another smartphone VR viewer. Each eye sees half the screen, and the image is divided in the middle – it’s not something you really notice while using the device.
So while on paper it looked like PC headsets were superior, we’ve already seen some impressive examples of what Sony’s alternative can do – and the difference is negligible in reality. It’s a win for the Vive and Oculus Rift, but so far only on paper. The recent release of Sony’s upgrades Playstation 4 Pro has reduced the difference even further, as it gives (future) VR applications more horsepower to work with.
Design and comfort
Some might argue that Sony’s headset looks a bit more ‘plasticy’ and less robust than the Vive and Rift, but we think it looks sleek and futuristic. It’s too early to tell how durable everything is though, and how easy it would be to self-repair something like a headband. What really stood out, however, is how comfortable the Playstation VR headset is. It’s easily the heaviest of the three major headsets out there, but we found it to be the most comfortable one. This is mainly due to an excellent design choice by Sony which distributes the weight of the headset in such a way that it mainly rests on your skull – instead of hanging from the front of your face.
Unless there are practical objections to this, we could see future iterations of the Vive and Rift implement a similar design, as it really helps with the long term comfort of VR gaming. This is especially true for story-driven games that are best enjoyed in longer bursts, as feelings of discomfort take you out of the experience and immersion. While visual design is matter of taste, comfort-wise we’d give big plus to the Playstation VR.
Ease of use
While PC headsets have always been considered a product for the real ‘enthusiast’, Playstation VR promised to bring the experience into the living room. Part of that is the cost element (which we will address later), but there is also the aspect of setting up your VR solution.
You may have set up your Playstation 4 in a cable-free environment, but that will end when you start using Playstation VR. Setting up is easy enough, though a bit time consuming the first time you do it. When you’re done, you’ve got a maze of cables on your floor but you’re ready to go. Part of the work is connecting your Playstation Camera and digging out those Move controllers as well, which adds to the clutter. However, nothing new for VR gamers.
The real benefit doesn’t come from connecting all the hardware though, it comes from the ease with which you set up the box that powers it. Running a decent VR experience on a PC might mean upgrading hardware, drivers and perhaps tinkering with a few settings. On a PS4, it’s a lot harder to mess up the experience, making it far less daunting – and not just from a financial perspective.
Cost of use
We’ve already hinted at this, but the Playstation VR experience is a far cheaper one than the PC alternative. Aside from the higher cost of the headsets themselves (nearly double the price, depending on where you look), you also have to consider the additional costs. Running a Vive or Rift might mean a serious PC upgrade, with capable graphics cards alone costing about what a PS4 costs.
Then there’s the additional hardware, such as cameras, room sensors and controllers – which will set you back even more. Playstation VR does pretty much the same though, unless you had already invested in a Playstation Camera for the PS4 and had held on to your PS3 Move controllers. If not, then get ready to spend about 100 extra dollars/euros to get your experience working properly. All in all, it’s still a costly upgrade, and not for everyone.
Looking at all the VR games we’ve played so far – across all three platforms – we can definitely conclude that VR is a lot of fun. We totally understand the lines at every consumer show we visit, and the full press agendas that Oculus, HTC and Sony have when demonstrating their latest and greatest.
However, our overall feeling about VR is that most games are ‘experiences’ rather than ‘games’. Strip them of their VR perspective, and not too much is left in terms of gameplay. Robinson: The Journey is a great example of this. It’s an absolute must-see experience, but rather thin as a game. Two types of games seem to exist: games where VR feels tacked on like a gimmick (and doesn’t add anything) and games where VR is essential to the experience. The latter is true for Robinson, but even more so for upcoming games like Wilson’s Heart, which is an Oculus exclusive that makes very clever use of immersion and the upcoming Rift controllers.
As the market for VR gaming matures, so will the games that come out. Ultimately, this is what will determine the long term success of every one of these headsets.
Here is where our biggest worries lie. The past two months have seen a large amount of Playstation VR games being unleashed upon a new audience – and there has been a lot of hype and excitement surrounding the product. However, looking forward to 2017 there aren’t too many AAA experiences on the horizon. Ubisoft’s Star Trek Bridge Crew is certainly one of them, and Capcom’s Resident Evil 7 is another, but major publishers aren’t fully embracing VR just yet. When VR support is announced for big titles, too often it’s just a gimmick tacked on to a regular game – like a VR character viewer for Tekken 7.
What VR needs are things you’ll try more than just once, and that’s what smaller developers are trying to create right now. We’re seeing the first wave of these games emerge now, and hopefully they’ll resonate with the PSVR audience. It would be a shame to see the same thing happen here that we saw happen with the Nintendo Wii – everyone was playing motion games for a while and loving them, but the genre never outgrew the casual sphere and eventually has faded away. The same thing, of course, happened with Kinect… and with the Move. For Playstation VR to succeed, it needs a catalogue of games that really embraces it as an integral part of game design. We’ll know more a year from now.
Of course one solution to a limited supply of content lies in a more open platform for VR. Right now the Rift, Vive and Playstation VR all try very hard to have their system-selling exclusives – keeping these games away from competing headsets. If Playstation VR becomes compatible with PC-based VR games then that could be a real game-changer for Sony’s headset, as PC gamers would have a very viable alternative at half the price. Again, we’ll see. It might sound far-fetched, but early software solutions that support this idea are already available online.
Even at its milder price tag (compared to the Vive and Rift), Playstation VR is still quite the investment. Is it worth it? If you have the money to spend on it, definitely – especially as a short term investment. There is already a large (post) launch library of games available that will provide months of enjoyment, and our other articles will highlight some of these.
Looking at the long term, then it remains to be seen how much of a success Playstation VR will be a year from now. The Wii, the Kinect and the Move all received plenty of games and support initially, but pretty soon most games were all copies of the same ideas. Let’s hope the people embracing VR have learned from this, so that VR gaming truly becomes a new and mature way of playing games. Otherwise, those 400 dollars/euros are better spent on a Playstation Pro – and that’s not nearly as big of a game changer as VR could be.