All images: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo

I was slotting my grappling gun back into place on my belt when it became clear to me that Playstation VR isn’t just really good VR. Playstation VR is the first virtual reality system any regular person should bother with. More than the fantastic gaming experience you get with Sony’s new system, I was floored by how easy it was for me to go from watching a TV show to popping on the headset and turning on Batman Arkham: VR. Playstation VR is VR for people who don’t care about having the best system in the world—they just want to have a good damn experience. It’s actually fun, which despite the lofty ideas spouted by technologists is what playing games is all about.

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Virtual reality wants to be tech’s next big thing. Hospitals and rehabilitation centers use it as immersive therapy for patients, drone racers use it for better control of their vehicles, and every pretentious arcade has at least one VR game you can blow a wad of quarters on. Thanks to the hype of Oculus Rift, which was purchased by Facebook for the bananas price of two billion dollars in 2014, virtual reality in the home is experiencing a bit of a renaissance, too.

For its ambition, VR’s appeal remains elusive. With Playstation VR, Sony has built the device and platform that has the power to bring VR to the forefront. Playstation VR is simple to use, and relatively affordable for millions of people. It’s technically impressive enough to be convincing, and most importantly, it already has really fun games you can play.

In part, Sony has the winning formula on numbers. Released earlier this year, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive both cost well over $500 and require at least $1000 worth of computer and video card to work. Meanwhile 50 million people already have PS4s sitting in front of their TVs, and for $400 more they can strap on a faceputer to blast their way through enemy lines in a tank, ride a nightmarish rollercoaster, or walk a mile in Batman’s shoes. (The Playstation Camera and controllers will cost you another $120.)

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It’s not cheap, but gamers will pay, provided Playstation VR doesn’t suck. It doesn’t. PS VR isn’t the most refined virtual reality gaming that’s come out yet, but it’s the first one anyone should bother plunking their cash down for.

The Setup

Compared to the Vive and the Rift, Playstation VR is very easy to setup. It took me less then five minutes to get it running, and I never needed to consult the included instruction guide. HDMI cords, power cord, and a USB cord all go into the back of a external processor unit, while the cables from the headset go into the front.

To activate the system you just hit a power button on the dongle halfway down the headset cord. There’s no shutting everything down and hoping the software doesn’t bug out, as it occasionally does with the Rift and Vive. The dongle also includes an outlet for headphones, volume buttons, and a mute button—though you can get audio from the TV, and the headset has a mic built in.

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It’s a big clumsy thing. Though PS VR is simple to set up and turn on, it does leave you with a lot of cables. If you’ve got a sleek, minimalist home theater set up, then PS VR will infuriate you. The garish white of the headset might tweak you, too. This thing sits somewhere between looking like the cool tech of the future, and baby’s first VR. Sony chose to use the same plastic it uses on its controllers, and it put it everywhere, encasing the giant forehead rest and enormous headband in it. So the headset can’t be folded and shoved away when not in use, or tossed in a bag if you’re headed to a friend’s place. If you want to embrace the future of gaming, you need to be willing to make room for it.

The Experience

You’ll also need a space to play in. Most of the games I played, like Battlezone (the tank game) and Until Dawn: Rush of Blood (the horror roller coaster) are just fine being played from your couch. Yet some, like Batman: Arkham VR, require a lot of room to maneuver. More than once I found myself striking a pillow when I went to reach for something on Batman’s toolbelt or thumping my dog when I reached down to toggle a switch in the game.

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Whenever you play a game that requires moving around, the system helpfully reminds you with a prompt before you start. That’s similar to when you initially set up the Vive and Rift—both of which have much larger playing areas. Those systems also have smoother visuals. The HTC Vive is still the best overall VR experience, with the Rift coming in a close second. Visuals on the PS VR sometimes get jittery thanks to the method of head and hand tracking it uses. You sometimes end up with that feeling you get after too many rides on a roller coaster.

Motion controllers are required for a lot of games...and sold separately.

The HTC Vive uses a complex array of infrared pulses from its two base stations and infrared lasers spewing from the headset and controllers to track movement. The Oculus Rift only has one base station—the Constellation—and instead of infrared lasers, it uses infrared LEDs for tracking.

Meanwhile, PS VR uses giant dayglo lights on the headset and Motion Controllers (sold separately). The Playstation Camera sees all the lights and sends the signal to the external processor unit, which does the complicated math of determining where exactly everything is in relation to everything else, and allows you to use something as low powered as a PS4 to pull off VR gaming.

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In the end, giant balls of light just aren’t as precise as dozens of infrared lasers, and so the motion tracking on the PS VR just isn’t quite as smooth as what the competition offers.

At 1.35 pounds the headset is fairly light for something strapped to your face, but it’s heavier than the Rift and Vive, which weigh 1 pound and 1.2 pounds respectively. To keep the weight manageable there’s the giant forehead rest and a thick layer of plastic framing the goggles themselves. On warm days, or while playing particularly intense games, you will sweat. A lot. The headset is easy to clean, but if you’ve got friends coming over be sure to have a rag on hand.

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The visuals come through dual 960 x 1080 displays that are lower resolution than the 1080 x 1200 screens found in the Vive and Rift, and it frequently makes you aware of being in VR and looking at screens—which is nice when you’re interacting with the traditional PS4 menus, but less nice when a game fades to black and there’s a stark difference between the black of the screens and the black of the surrounding darkness.

The Games

But here’s the deal. Despite the fact that the headset’s hardware and tracking are less impressive than what’s offered by competitors, Playstation VR still wins because it has the best line up of games on any VR system. Ever.

This was the only screenshot I had that wasn’t a spoiler.

The highlight, for a lot of people, is going to be Batman: Arkham VR, a PS4 exclusive from Rocksteady Studios, the people behind the mostly excellent Batman: Arkham series. It’s one of the briefest titles you can play, which makes its $20 price tag painful. Cranking through the story takes a little over an hour. Fortunately it’s a great hour, which reflects one of the best examples of what you can do with VR in a game. It’s claustrophobic, terrifying, and exhilarating.

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Until Dawn: Rush of Blood is another scary game from a AAA publisher. It’s not quite as daring in the design department as Batman. In fact it’s very simple. You’re on a roller coaster going through a genuinely haunted murder park, and you have to shoot ghosts or die trying. I found it hard to play—I got scared just sitting through the relatively harmless intro. But with some persistence (and the help of my brother and roommate) I got through maybe a third of the game.

My brother does good ghost kills.

Other big name developers have also promised games, with variations on Star Wars Battlefront and Resident Evil both expected in the coming months. And Sony has promised to transform the first-person shooter with the sci-fi adventure Farpoint, though there’s no word on when it will be available.

For now you’ll have to contend with entertaining driving games like Driveclub and Battlezone, and puzzle games like Tumble VR and Super Hyper Cube, and rhythm racing games like Thumper. The latter was so fast paced and immersive that I found myself about to throw up when I hopped into it.

While the games Sony has developed are really entertaining, people seeking more thoughtful content will be initially disappointed. As far as long-form narratives go the pickings are slim. Wayward Sky was the only game besides Batman in which I found myself remotely invested in the characters. It’s a very cutesy point-and-click adventure game with whiffs of Miyazaki films like Porco Rossi and Laputa, and it’s the only game I’ve actually thought about after the fact.

The Future

Selling VR tech with actual games people want to play is a big problem for not just Playstation VR, but VR as a whole. There’s a distinct feeling of impermanence to the concept. Games are all brief and feel more like technical showcases than experiences meant to consistently entertain. Outside of Battlezone, which has a major online competitive mode, and the puzzle titles, which are replayable by nature, none of the games I played had much lasting value. Spending $20-$50 for a very short game feels excessive.

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Not a single VR system has a game I’m thirsting to return to again and again like I might to Witcher 3 or Overwatch, and support for games from major game developers is still relatively sparse. They seem to be playing the same game consumers have played up until now—waiting to see how the tech will pan out before jumping in with both feet and investing their dollars.

Yet if anyone can get the game developers motivated it’s Sony. The company is historically very good at getting devs to invest in new platforms. If Sony can convince them that the Playstation VR is more than a cash grab banking on virtual reality’s rising popularity, and if it can convince consumers that $400 for a headset, $60 for two Move controllers, and another $60 for the Playstation 4 Camera isn’t a bad investment for a gaming setup, then the Playstation VR could be the system that changes virtual reality.

If you want to experience a VR world beyond what mobile offerings like Google Cardboard and Gear VR provide, then save up your pennies. This is the VR system for people looking to take the next step into a virtual world.

README

  • I was Batman
  • It was scary
  • Headset is huge, but comfortable and relatively light.
  • System is easy to set up
  • $400 is a lot less than the other guys
  • This is the VR system to invest in right now, especially if you have a Playstation