While it has been beaten to market by the Oculus "#NeverHillary" Rift and the floor space hungry HTC Vive, the PlayStation VR can fairly be heralded as the device that brings VR into the living room. Six years in the making, it's the cheapest of the current crop of high-end VR solutions, and it's aiming to appeal to the gaming masses with its accessibility and relative affordability.
'Relative' being the operative word there, as the PS VR ain't cheap. The headset will set you back NZ$629.99 at Mighty Ape, and it requires a PlayStation Camera that's another NZ$85 or NZ$99 depending on if you want a stand or not (you probably do).
On top of that, it's clear that some of the system's games – all rail shooters, basically – are miles better with a pair of PS Move controllers. And while these sell for about NZ$130 a pair, they are out of stock everywhere in NZ at the moment, which seems a colossal balls-up on the part of Sony. New Zealand isn't getting the PS VR bundle that includes the PS Camera, Move controllers, and a copy of PlayStation VR Worlds either – at least not right now.
Then there are the games, which range from about NZ$11 all the way up to NZ$110. In short, fulfilling your Lawnmower Man fantasies with even the most budget high-end VR solution will set you back a stack of decidedly non-virtual cash. So, is it worth it?
LIKE A STOCKING
Setup time for PS VR is about 15 minutes, and it's very straightforward. The headset is tethered to a small, fan-cooled, but fairly quiet processing unit that helps the PS4 push out low-latency images and generate 3D binaural audio. That in turn is connected to your PS4 and TV.
The processing unit supports video pass through for signals up to 4K at up to 60Hz, but it doesn't allow High Dynamic Range pass through, so you need to disconnect it for the times in the future when you'll own a crazy expensive TV that supports that feature. (Make room on your couch for this guy when you do have it, please.) The cables that connect the headset to the processing unit are a generous four or so metres long, and you have another metre or so of play between the unit and your TV, so you can sit a fairly long way away if you wish.
However, there is an HDMI splitter on the cable about a metre from your headset that weighs it down a little when you are standing. Although that's not the end of the world, a belt clip would have been a good idea here to take what weight there is off the cable. There aren't any PS VR games that require walking, so being tethered isn't an issue in that regard.
The headset itself is simple to put on and take off, easy to adjust, and comfortable to wear with and without glasses. The screen fogs up for me unless I leave a small gap between the surrounding rubber and my face, but despite this, it is clear even when in a fully lit room. Bright light sources behind the player can interfere with the PS Camera, but I'm yet to have any trouble, and I've been playing in a room with curtains open on windows that face the camera.
The headset's built-in mic is nice and clear, but there isn't built-in audio – you either listen through your TV or use your own headphones or earbuds. The earbuds the PS VR ships with are pretty cheap, but they are comfortable at least. I'm very finicky about earbuds so I use my own most of the time, and you can do the same as the jack is of the standard 3.5mm variety.
Whatever you use, it's worth having some form of head-mounted audio, as the 3D audio is impressive and really situates you within the virtual world. Finding and attaching your earbuds is the hardest part of putting PS VR on, and it's a very minor hassle. Attached to the cable close to the headset is a remote with four handy buttons: power on/off, microphone mute, and volume up and down.
In short, the headset is very comfortable, nicely adjustable, and well-balanced and light enough (610g) that I haven't experienced any neck pain or issues related to having it strapped to my face for extended periods. The most annoying part of the initial setup was using Blu-Tac to fasten my PlayStation Camera to the top of my TV (I'm tall enough that sitting it on the TV table isn't really an option).
IS THIS REAL LIFE?
The PlayStation Camera can detect the PS VR headset across an area approximately three metres by 1.88m. The headset tracking is excellent thanks to nine LEDs across its surface: it's impressively precise and adds no noticeable latency (its latency is rated at 0.18ms, just inside the limit of 0.20ms recommended for VR headsets before lag kicks in). The built-in accelerometer and gyroscope are similarly well-tuned.
The same cannot be said for the PS Move controller, which tracks unreliably and is thus often misrepresented in-game. The DualShock 4 fares better, but neither come close to matching the headset, which I had zero problems with.
Sony recommends that you sit about 1.5m from the PS Camera, but you can get very close and much further away with no tracking issues whatsoever. The focal distance of the images presented by PS VR is about 2.5m, and adjusting how the headset sits on your face can sharpen blurry images, although "crisp" is not a word I'd ascribe to the PS VR's visuals on PS4. You can also adjust the depth of images by measuring your eye-to-eye distance using the PS Camera and adjusting the system to compensate. The default is 63mm, and I ended up changing it to mine 65mm.
The headset's resolution is 960x1080 per eye for a total of 1920x1080 across a 5.7" OLED screen that has a field of view of 100 degrees. As with all current VR, a 'screen door' effect is present as your eyeballs are close enough to see the gaps between the pixels, and this effect is markedly more pronounced on visually complicated games like Driveclub. However, the screen itself is capable, with a refresh rate or 90 or 120 Hz natively or thanks to reprojection depending on the application running. I am yet to notice any frame rate drops – everything has been rock solid so far.
Should you wish to centre the screen wherever you're looking, it's a simple matter of holding the Options button on the DualShock 4. There are also options in the PS menu that adjust screen brightness and the tracking lights, but I haven't needed to tinker with either.
IT'S MORE CINEMATIC
You can play non-VR games and watch non-VR content in the PS VR headset using cinematic mode, which gives you an experience similar to that of sitting in a darkened movie theatre. The virtual screen can be three sizes. With the smallest (which appears as a 3m screen about 1-2m away from you), the centre of the virtual screen remains in the centre of your field of view at all times, which is incredibly disorienting and rather unpleasant.
The largest setting is so large (a screen of about 6m sitting 1-2m away from you) that you have to constantly turn your head to take in the whole image, making it hard to know what it will actually be useful for (*cough* porn *cough*). That leaves the medium setting (about 4m), which gives the impression of sitting in a 30-40 seat theatre. You don't have to turn your head to see the whole image, just to focus on peripheral stuff should you need to. There is no support for 3D, 360 degree YouTube videos, or non-VR games which use the PS Camera (like Tearaway Unfolded) in PS VR Cinematic Mode.
I found watching and playing content in Cinematic Mode a mixed experience. Third-person games like Rise of the Tomb Raider are alright, but playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered immediately made me feel ill. Likewise, I could watch Russell Peters' latest stand-up special just fine, but the action of City of God made me feel woozy. Basically, Cinematic Mode became overwhelming for me when there was a lot of shaky cam or movement on screen, and things don't look as good as they do on my TV. It's useful to be able to play or watch something and not tie up the telly, and it is a more immersive experience, but I personally wouldn't play or watch anything in PS VR Cinematic Mode if a TV screen was available. It's just not particularly pleasant or comfortable when compared with watching a regular TV.
PUT ON THE BLINDFOLD
Along with providing content to its headset, the PS VR sends an image to your "social screen", Sony's fancy phrase for "TV". The image displayed on the TV is either a cropped, flattened 2D version of the right eye image from the headset, or something entirely different for games like Playroom VR that allow for asymmetrical local multiplayer. This is a great feature, as it allows you to see people fumbling around in-game and real life simultaneously – something which is yet to get old for me. And of course, you can just change the channel on your telly if you get bored of watching friends haplessly flail.
IT'S SICK, BRO
Sony recommends breaks of 15 minutes every hour when using PS VR, and that's about right for me – much longer than that and I start to feel queasy regardless of what I'm playing. And that has actually been an impediment to reviewing games on PS VR, as I've found sometimes it takes hours for a background level of nausea to disperse. Over the past two week I've gotten headaches, eye strain, dizziness, and something that feels like good old-fashioned seasickness from using the headset. I've also felt a little woozy for hours after using it with no problem on a couple of occasions, as if my body is trying to readjust to real life. As I've discovered by trialling the headset on many others, your mileage will vary, and some lucky souls seem completely immune to VR sickness. I seem to be slightly more susceptible to it than average.
The physiology behind VR sickness is not currently clearly understood, but current general theories revolve around refresh rates, blurry images, poor animations, latency, mismatched motion, and something called sensory conflict theory. As mentioned earlier, I haven't noticed any frame rate drops, but I have noticed that some games are much more likely to make me feel nauseated: those with smooth turning and a first-person perspective (like Rigs and Driveclub), and those with low-res textures that are hard on the eyes.
It's no surprise, then, that games that affected me the most were Driveclub, Here They Lie, and Rigs, all of which made me feel quite ill. (You can read my thoughts on the games I've tried so far here.) I wasn't alone in that regard: very few people who tried Rigs at my place could get through the tutorial without going pale and pulling the headset off, but fortunately the majority of the games we all played were fine, or manageable at the very least. It's probably worth noting again here that I do get both car sick and sea sick sometimes, and obviously this stuff is going to vary wildly person to person. Just keep your flatmate's favourite hat close by just in case.
TRIPLE A? NO WAY
There are a couple of dozen games and "experiences" available right now for PS VR, and they range in price from NZ$11 all the way up to NZ$110. Naturally, quality is all over the shop, but one thing is for sure: the PlayStation 4 is not grunty enough to run visually demanding games like Driveclub without mess of jaggies and low-res textures ruining the experience. That's not to say games can't look good enough in the headset, but the ones that do are the more abstract or cartoony titles like Headmaster and Batman where the player character is stationary.
Even games that have simple but effective art direction like Battlezone feature assets that become smushy and indistinct at mid-to-long in-game distances. Eve: Valkyrie looks pretty good, but it's still something of a shimmering, jaggy beast.
Then there are the prices: at around a hundred bucks each, Rigs and Eve are just too expensive for what they are. Same goes for Superhypercube and Rez Infinite at NZ$49. 100 Foot Robot Golf, Batman, Thumper are all around NZ$32 which feels fair, and there are cheaper games that are great value: Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is NZ$21.55, for example.
Sony says there will be about 50 games available by the end of 2016, and in that list are some tantalising titles like Paranormal Activity, Robinson The Journey, Star Trek: Bridge Crew, Rogue One: X-Wing VR, Kiwi racer Vector 36, and War Thunder.
There are about 230 developers working on content for PS VR in total, and next year we should see Ace Combat 7, Ark: Survival Evolved, Farpoint, Resident Evil 7, Serious Sam VR: The Last Hope, and Snow make it on to the platform, alongside a long list of games I've never heard of. The PS VR Aim Controller will also appear.
What are these games likely to have in common? They'll all be substantially better on PS4 Pro (and in the case of Ark, Driveclub, and others, likely unplayable on anything but).
The PS VR headset is an impressive piece of tech that has its more expensive competitors beat when it comes to comfort and ease of use. The tracking is terrific as well, and it will likely impress anyone you put inside it, from jaded PC-only elitists to non-gamers. It's being marketed as a quantum leap forward for gaming, and initially at least, it feels like one. Then it feels "good enough".
However, having spent two weeks in Sony's virtual world, I can't say that I'd recommend anyone outside the rich or gadget-crazy rush out and buy one (not that you can until next month anyway). There are fun games available already, but none are essential, and all must be weighed against the system's price tag.
"How many excellent small-to-mid-scale VR titles does it take to justify NZ$629 plus a PS Camera?" I hear you cry. Well, that obviously varies from person to person, but a fair answer is surely in the "a couple of dozen" range, and it might be a while before the PS VR library contains that many stellar titles. Maybe it never will. And while it's hard to know where developers will take VR, it's pretty fair to say that the games that will get a wider selection of the gaming population excited for VR will need better production values than the PS4 is capable of producing.
So really, unless you absolutely must try VR this minute, it feels like it's only worth getting PS VR in the short term if you're also planning to get a PS4 Pro. That's not something I thought I'd be writing when I'd only sunk a few hours into PS VR on PS4 and was loving it, but now I can see the headset largely gathering dust until the Pro arrives. It's obvious why Sony released the headset before that – it wants to leverage its 40 million PS4 userbase – but to recommend it to all but the most toy or gadget crazy at this stage feels premature, even though it's a great headset. Check back next month though – on Sony's new hardware, things could well be very different.