Today marks the release of PlayStation VR, the final major release for this new generation of virtual reality. Kyle Hilliard and I have been playing games on that device in the past few weeks, as well as on the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Samsung Gear VR. There are a lot of competing formats, which makes the idea of spending hundreds of dollars to get into VR a little scary. With that in mind, we thought it would be useful to share our experiences and opinions on the current state of virtual reality, now that the major options are now on shelves.
Jeff: Kyle, do you know what today is?
Kyle: Sammy Hagar and Sacha Baron Cohen’s birthday?
Jeff: Sure? I know I kind of unwrapped the present in that opener, but it’s the release of the PlayStation 4’s VR kit. Now console players can see what those PC guys have been raving about (or railing against) for the past few months. You reviewed the PS4’s VR, so I won’t make you rehash all of that again. But for the sake of discussion, what are your ultimate thoughts about it? I’m particularly interested to hear how you think it compares with other units on the market.
Kyle: You can find my full review here, but the core takeaway for me is that PlayStation VR is a legitimate virtual reality experience – with a few caveats. It doesn’t look as sharp as the competition, and I was more prone to motion sickness while using it. That won’t be the case for everyone, but I did get sicker in PlayStation VR than I did with Vive or Oculus. It ranks third for me after Vive and Oculus, but I would still place it before Samsung Gear VR, which I admit is the one I’ve spent the least amount of time with. You however, hold Samsung Gear in fairly high regard.
Jeff: I do, with a qualifier: It’s cheap, if you already own a supported mobile device. I got it with my phone when I last upgraded, which was a nice price of admission. And while it doesn’t offer the same experience as some of the full-fledged VR units, it does provide a good-enough alternative. That’s not to say I haven’t had a lot of fun playing with the office VR setups. Not everyone can just borrow one from work, however, or run down to a dedicated VR room and check it out. We’re lucky. People who want to experience the tech at home are going to have to pony up a significant chunk of change, and personally I don’t think there are enough games to justify that kind of investment. You?
Kyle: The sheer number of games is certainly high, but you’re right – the number of games that justify the investment is low, maybe even non-existent. I have had some very engaging VR experiences, like Rec Room and The Lab for Vive or Until Dawn on PlayStation VR, but there really hasn’t been anything that I eagerly wanted to return to after taking off the headset, Those experiences all felt very disposable. They were cool, but I felt satisfied with my one short experience. Oddly, one game that I have felt myself wanting to keep playing is Thumper on PlayStation VR, but that game is playable without VR. RIGS has the potential to be a game I return to, but that one makes me sick if I play it too long, which, unsurprisingly, is a big turn off. Which raises another question: Does VR make you sick?
Jeff: I haven’t thrown up yet, if that’s what you’re asking. Developers are in a tough spot, which I sympathize with. On one hand, they have access to technology that can make people feel like they’re “present” in a game in ways that haven’t previously been possible. And they want to have fun with that. It’s like designing a roller coaster; it needs to be thrilling and make you feel a little something in your stomach, or else what’s the point? VR games’ focus on action can touch on that same territory, and it’s been fun to see developers poking around with it. They’re not always successful, as with the stomach churning I felt with one of the VR control schemes in the Rise of the Tomb Raider.
Fortunately, most developers seem to be playing it pretty safe, sometimes to the detriment of what they’re offering. Take the Batman VR game. You choose from the Batwing and Batmobile, and I was excited to see how my choice played out. Would I get to streak across the sky, or tear down Gotham’s streets? The reality was, neither. Instead, the screen went black and I was teleported away while accompanied by the sound of the vehicle’s engine. Lame. I can only assume here that Rockstead was playing it safe – great for keeping carpets clean, but not great for those of us who don’t mind pushing it a little bit, as long as there are ways to tell the system, “Enough!” Can we talk about VR in general for a bit? Do you think it’s viable in the long term? I have my doubts, and I’m curious what you think.
Kyle: I’ve always been tepid about VR. I want to see it as a brave new frontier in the world of interactive media, because we’re about due for the next big thing, but I think the whole experience is just too isolating. Gaming doesn’t have to be social. I’m a weirdo who generally doesn’t like playing games online with other people, but virtual reality just closes me off too much. I don’t want to wear the headset for long stretches of time, which means I am usually eager to take it off, even if I am in the middle of an engaging experience. I think developers are accounting for this right now, by making its experiences short and sweet, but it’s not enough to build a huge fully invested, long-term audience. There’s a disconnect there that really makes me wonder if virtual reality will find a foothold.
All of that being said, I do think that if any of the platforms are going to create a groundswell, it’s going to be PlayStation VR, despite its technical inferiority. I think Oculus and Vive work better, but the lower price and PlayStation 4 install base make it a much tastier pill to swallow, even if it makes you feel a little ill.
Jeff: I do think that PlayStation VR is going to be the proving ground for the technology, thanks to its comparatively cheaper price and the fact that it’ll be available in most big-box stores. “Comparatively cheaper” is, of course, relative. At about $400 for the base-bones bundle, it’s not exactly an impulse buy. I gave my parents a demo of it, and it highlighted just about all of the technical issues that come with either PSVR or VR in general. The headset cord is annoying. The motion-sensing controllers range from “pretty good” with the Vive – the most expensive and time-intensive to set up – to frustratingly inaccurate at times on PSVR. And, most importantly, there aren’t any games that I’d consider must-plays on any of the platforms.
The best of the bunch are also available on traditional screens, which is probably because nobody is ready to develop a fully formed AAA game on a platform that only a tiny subset of the gaming population can access. It’s a chicken and egg situation that, frankly, I don’t know that will ever sort itself out. Are there interesting, fun experiences in VR? Absolutely. Are there enough of them to justify the purchase? Nope. People on event stages are certainly jazzed about its potential, but that’s because they’ll make money if people buy their products. And, for me at least, there haven’t been nearly enough reasons to do so. Novelty is great, but I think I’d rather save the four large in case they end up building Westworld in real life.
Kyle: I haven’t watched or read Westworld yet, but I assume it’s all fun and games without any danger or anything going awry, so that seems like a solid investment.
I’m not really sure what would put me over the edge and make me invest in virtual reality. I think it would be a price drop before the sudden appearance of a must-play experience. As it stands right now, having had at least some experience with all the major headsets, nothing is screaming “This is the future!” at me. It’s more of a dejected shoulder shrug that whispers with wavering confidence, “This is pretty cool, right?” I’m willing to agree with that voice that it is pretty cool, but it’s simply not the revelation I had when I first played Super Mario 64 on a demo unit at a store or saw how physics worked in Half-Life 2, which were mind-blowing experiences for me. Seeing those games in action demanded I seek out the full experiences, but my virtual-reality experiences have mostly just made me happy to have played them before moving back to traditional gaming experiences.
Jeff: You really should watch Westworld.
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