Thursday, June 30, 2016

PlayStation VR Impressions

Virtual reality has been a dream for technology gurus and consumers for over 20 years. Magazines of the early '90s were inundated with articles about how “VR is coming!” and entire movies were made on the concept. It made the mind wonder about the possibilities, and one of the first industries to really see its potential was gaming. Sega was incredibly forward-thinking in that regard and their entire Virtua line of games came about due to VR and trying to make games more immersive.

Fast forward 20 years and VR is in the mainstream. Oculus made headlines around the world with Rift, while Samsung and its Samsung VR put VR headsets onto the face of many with a more affordable option – albeit one that lacked the power for gaming. Sony's long-rumored Morpheus became PlayStation VR and will seemingly bring VR into the homes of many gamers seeking a VR experience at an affordable price point.

“Affordable” is a relative term, as the lowest cost for the device is $400 – which gets you just the device. Spending $50 gets you the device, the PlayStation VR Worlds game/series of tech demos, a PlayStation Camera, and a pair of PlayStation Move controllers. Best Buy and other retailers have recently launched demo kiosks that will be set up every so often depending on the store and offer everyone a chance to try VR out.

As someone with one eye, the 3D side of gaming has never appealed to me and I was left out in the cold for things like immersive 3D on the 3DS and 3D games on the PlayStation 3 using a 3D TV. The latter didn't really bother me, but the former does make me feel like I'm not getting the most out of my device – but not so much that I feel I'm being ripped off owning one. Going into the PlayStation VR demo, I honestly had no idea what to expect from it. I've seen videos of the games and they look solid – but video only tells one part of the story.

What someone sees on the screen is in theory what the person experiences – but not entirely. Upon sitting in the demo kiosk area, you're outfitted with the headset and can tailor it a bit to your needs. If you need it to be tighter, you can adjust a strap and the headset itself fits easily over glasses. My glasses are quite a bit wider than they are tall, so they fit perfectly and didn't put undue pressure on the lenses. This part actually amazed me because my frames are about five years old and the right lens in particular is prone to falling out if too much pressure is on it – but there were no issues here.

Adjusting the headset's position either up or down should result in a far better experience. Much like going to an eye doctor, you'll see a “good, better, best” setup when you move it around and just tinker with the positioning until you get it to where things aren't blurry. You may not think it will affect anything because there isn't much text, but if you play with a ton of blur, you will definitely get a poor experience and probably open yourself to headaches and definitely get some needless eye strain as well.
The actual VR experience is outstanding – but not worth damaging your vision over. With the Best Buy demo only allowing for so much time to be spent with it, my time with the device has been limited to just EVE Valkyrie and Ocean Descent demos. The $500 version is set to come with both demos and PlayStation VR Worlds, with EVE Valkyrie being its own separate thing and Ocean Descent being on PlayStation VR Worlds.

My first experience with VR was with EVE Valkyrie, which was easily the most-played game at my Best Buy store while Ocean Descent was what I chose to play the next week. In talking to the PlayStation representative, it seems like most people were playing EVE Valkyrie, and others had issues with Ocean Descent being a bit too immersive for them. After playing it, I can kind of understand why.
It's a very passive experience and in theory, should be the most relaxing. You're put into a shark cage and plunged into the depths of the ocean – fitting since the game's original title was The Deep. This area is a bit claustrophobic, but allows you to really get immersed in the world. You can look around and see gauges on the cage and also see wear and tear. This becomes important later as a gigantic shark comes and tears your cage up! It's a bit terrifying, but even as someone who isn't much of a jump scare horror movie fan, it didn't really get to me at all. It was surprising, sure, but you can see the shark roaming around – so you have a pretty good idea that you're going to interact with it. The stereo headphones that come with the device world really nicely too – they fit comfortably over the ears and bring you all the sounds of the ocean and let you know which direction things are coming from.

It's an outstanding experience overall, and one that is reasonably accessible for those with disabilities. Being able to look around the world with the glasses actually helped me get around not having much in the way of peripheral vision since I could just tilt my head and compensate for it. The bold colors on the 1080p eyepieces made things easy to see, and with one eye, I didn't appear to be missing any of the action. Based on what I saw others playing, each screen displays the same image – so having one eye won't affect immersion levels at all. There are no subtitles or descriptions of the in-game actions though, so those with auditory problems will definitely miss out on some of the sound design.
EVE Valkyrie was the showcase game for the device and the one that fills the headphones with loud noises from just about every angle. It starts with sirens and instructions – and like with Ocean Descent, there aren't any on-screen prompts or subtitles. This is definitely going to impede playing the full game if it isn't remedied since a lot of instructions are given via your in-game allies. This is a more involved experience and unlike Ocean Descent, does require a controller. Those with hand/eye coordination issues may have trouble with the game since you can't see the controller while you're playing. However, anyone used to touch typing should be able to get acclimated fairly quickly.
The core game is basically a space dogfighting game with airship battles. You move around with the sticks and shoot with R2, while L1 and R1 do barrel rolls. Looking around gives you a better idea of where you are in relation to your allies and enemies too.  It's easy to imagine the upcoming Star Wars Battlefront PlayStation VR game working perfectly with this setup after playing EVE Valkyrie, and the sound design is incredible – with directional cues being given via enemy location and making it a much easier game to navigate in a VR setting as a result. It's also quite gorgeous and something that would stand out as a top-tier title on the PS4 on its own even without VR – something that is important to catch the eyes of people either in a room with someone playing on a PSVR or in a store with one on display.

BattleZone is a riot - but really text-heavy. This is one where you definitely want to have the headset strapped as closely as possible to you to ensure that the text is clear. If not, all of the reading from around your cockpit will be hard to see. The left stick moves you around while the stick aims and R2 fires a basic shot, with L1 launching your super-powerful EMP. It's a lot of fun to target folks in VR and this setup should work nicely for an FPS at some point.

SuperHyperCube is definitely an interesting concept for VR. The idea of a puzzle game in virtual reality has potential - but it doesn't feel used very well here. Beyond looking around your pieces to see the shape of the entry you need to fill with your block, it doesn't do much and is a bit disorienting. HeadMaster was something I was initially hesitant about, but wound up loving.

It's a soccer-themed game where you bop the ball into the net or various other targets using just your head. The concept is simple, but the execution is addicting. There's ongoing commentary and an amusing premise of your just engaging in a free training session for the demo - so even though this is an expansive ten minute-long demo, the full game should have even more to offer up. Your aim does need to be on-point and those with vision issues may have trouble here. There's no auditory cue as to which direction things are coming from, so you have to keep your head on a swivel to hit all the balls that come flying at you. This means if your peripheral vision is poor, you will have a much harder time with it. However, if your mobility is limited, you can still have fun with the game since you only need to be able to move your head around to get the full experience.

Finally, you've got London Heist. The playable demo doesn't show off a ton of action, but what's here is intense and surprisingly immersive. It starts out with you and your driver in a car and you have some time to explore the car. It may seem odd, but you can open up the glovebox to reveal a can of soda, which you can then pick up. You can also grab ammo from there, or adjust the radio knobs and play with the air vents. It very much reminds me of Shenmue where by adding layers to the reality in the game, you wind up caring more about what happens.

When the core action begins, you move your Move controller and shoot with the left hand and reload with the right. Initially, this took some getting used to - but within a minute, I was already no-look reloading instantly. You can't just reload willy nilly either - so doing that is of no value, and it's a huge time-waster anyway. When your clip is exhausted, just grab a new one and resume shooting. Aiming for gas caps is your best bet - but headshots are never a bad way to handle your business either. I was initially iffy about the Move-based gunplay, but it works out well and should be even better with the Aim controller add-on.

PlayStation VR and its launch library are due out in October. Pre-ordering is nigh-impossible, so your best bet is to simply enjoy the hardware as much as you can via in-store demos and hope for a plentiful supply in October. If you already have PlayStation Move controllers and a PlayStation Camera, then you may want to go for the $400 variant – however, the inclusion of PlayStation Worlds does make the $500 version more appealing. You also do get two PS Move controllers with that bundle, which makes it a better overall deal. Nothing has been announced as far as a bundle with the PS4 and a PSVR headset, but one would expect something like that in late 2017 when they will no doubt have more PSVR headsets made and thus have plenty to bundle in with consoles.


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