I’ve been stupidly excited about VR for pretty much my entire life, and I distinctly remember seeing (a reeeeeaaaally early) version of it on ‘Tomorrow’s World’ way back when my Master System was busy Gateway Drugging me as a young ‘un. More recently, since rumours/promises of a PlayStation version began to circulate, and especially since I tried a few VR demos last year, I’ve been whipped into something of frenzy by the thought of strapping on a big ol’ headset and VR-ing the shit out of stuff (or whatever the correct verb is).
That, right there, is a lot of expectation (it makes the wait/anticipation for even The Last Guardian seem minor in comparison) and it’d be perfectly understandable if (Virtual) Reality didn’t match up to that Expectation given VR’s long road to fruition. Moreover, because we’re spoilt by the general awesomeness of technology nowadays, and because we’re now used to superb gaming experiences, there was always going to be the possibility that anything short of the Star Trek: TNG holodeck might be considered decidedly underwhelming.
So, anyways, that was the situation as I giddily fastened my own VR set onto my abnormally over-sized head this weekend; a moment I’d waited three decades for, dreamt about often, and was expecting really, really big things from…….
And, initially at least, I was not disappointed. I’ll get to all the un-holodeckishness in a bit, but honestly, my first few hours immersed in VR worlds were characterised by me screaming stuff like ‘holy fucking SHITBALLS!’, laughing maniacally at an absurd volume and/or waving my arms around, trying to touch non-existent stuff with a huge, idiotic grin plastered across my big, stupid face. It really was a phenomenal experience – and one that was revelatory in a way that I’ve not encountered since the very first time I played the NES. I’ve been around Gaming for a long time (see again: The NES), but whilst I’ve been impressed with every generational leap so far, I don’t recall anything feeling as new, exciting or downright immersive as PlayStation VR felt in those first few hours.
Sure, I’d already tried VR a bit, but it was in short slots, and in big noisy environments, so there was something quite magical and surreal about my tiny TV room suddenly being transformed into an endless expanse of ocean, or opening up into a huge mountaintop vista. I’m old, and jaded, but there really was a genuine sense of wonder – a rush of euphoria, even – a feeling that I was experiencing something completely new for the very first time. At my age, that’s shit’s depressingly rare, and regardless of how quickly the novelty wears off, and irrespective of how much the technology is embraced, those first few hours with PlayStation VR will always stand out as something special.
Even my girlfriend, who’s (at best) ambivalent about my “little” games, was astounded by the whole thing, and for the first time in 10 + years, I had to negotiate to try and get control of my game back. And then, when that didn’t work, I had to make food and put it in a different room to get her to finally relinquish possession. Even more unusually, we were at a party this weekend, and I heard her yammering on about it more than once, with an enthusiasm and geekiness that even I’d struggle to match, and which continued long after everyone’s eyes had glazed over (in a way that hers usually do when I’m babbling on about Gaming)! Now, I appreciate Sony won’t be using that on their promotional material anytime soon, but it is a resounding and unexpected endorsement regardless.
That’s my attempt at conveying the emotional reaction to VR – the feelz, if you like – and in a way, that’s the easy part. As you’d possibly expect, it’s actually quite hard to describe the VR experience, the nuts and bolts of a particular game, for example. I mean, I can tell you that there’s loads of shit floating around in front of your face, that performing a barrel roll flips your stomach, but it doesn’t really do it justice. I’ma try my best, obviously, but you’ll have to work with me a bit, yeah!?
Anyhoo – I spent my first few hours just messing about with the demo disc that came with the headset – and there was enough variety there to both keep me interested, and to get a feel for the different kinds of VR experiences.
I started with Ocean Descent, a deep sea diving thingy, and whilst it wasn’t particularly exciting, or even great graphically, it turned out to be a good way to get accustomed to what is, essentially, an entirely new way of gaming. I was able to get to grips with what it felt like to be in the freakin’ middle of a gaming world, to be able to look everywhere just by turning my head, and – quite weirdly – to get used to having an actual body and arms in the game. Watching rays and fish swim around was thrilling in a way (see again; holy fucking SHITBALLS), but it was basically a simulator, and once I’d got comfortable with all the 3D VR shizzle, I went in search of something a bit more exhilarating.
That turned out to be RIGS – a kind of mechanised Sporty doodah – and whilst I was shockingly bad, I enjoyed it, and I also got a decent feel for how that particular genre might work with VR. Half sporty, half shooty, RIGS was a much faster, twitchier game, and was made all the more so because of it being VR. See, when you’re playing a regular Single Player Game, and with a few key exceptions, most of the action is taking place in the 180 degrees in front of you, and as gamers we’ve become accustomed to that. Sure, you’ll occasionally get flanked, and in Multiplayer games you’ll often get shot in yo’ damn ass, but from the get-go in VR everything’s happening every-fucking-where. Like you would in real-life sporty-shooty hybrids (I’d guess, having not actually played one per se) you have to be constantly aware of what’s behind, above, and below you – and that takes a bit of getting used to. RIGS is a much more polished game, graphically (as you’d expect from a full release at 40 quid), and even just playing a few rounds was enough to get me quite excited about the possibilities of some Triple-A, FPS type shenanigans in VR’s future.
The rest of my time with the Demo was something of a mixed bag, with some highlights, but also plenty of meh. I mean, meh was still VR meh – so pretty cool and that – but the kind of games where you build towers, or race around a Tron-like world were immersive and fun, but not necessarily worth buying the whole set-up for. A little game called Headmaster (about soccer, not running an educational establishment) was quite addictive, and actually showcased how simple, casual type games might work with VR. Essentially, it was a game where you have to head a soccer ball in increasingly challenging situations – the kind of thing that exists in a millionty-twelve mobile/tablet games – but it was great precisely because it was 3D VR, and because the whole camera/headset thing was surprisingly well-tuned and responsive. Much like you would in a real soccer game (which I actually do have considerable experience of) you have to really watch the flight of the ball, meet it perfectly, and the subtlest of differences in your movement and positioning have a huge, yet realistic impact on the resulting shot. For example, I started the game using the kind of physics I’d expect in a mobile game, but only when I went back to all the football training I’d had as a wee lad did I actually start to get good at it. That’s a small thing, but it’s actually quite important if VR is to be a more realistic, immersive form of gaming.
On that note, I also had a quick go on the Drive Club VR demo. I’m not a huge fan of racing games, and if I’m being honest, a big part of that’s because I’m proper shite at them, but actually, in the VR version, considerably less so. Just being able to look around at the other cars, getting a better sense of depth and perspective, all made a big difference – and again, that was encouraging. The Demo wasn’t great graphically – looking like an early generation racer in the distance – but it was a better driving experience.
Finally, to really turn things up to 11, I loaded up a couple of the actual games I’d bought for PlayStation VR. They’re not what you’d call “full” games, being $20 and quite short, but they’re more substantial than demos, and they both require the full VR set-up to get the most out of (i.e. dicking around with the move wand whatsits too). They were Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, and Batman Arkham VR. I hope to do a full review of both, but for now I’ma focus on them in the context of my initial VR experience.
And that context is basically that they were freakin’ awesome VR experiences. In the former, you’re sat in a roller-coaster, whizzing around, and shooting shit that be all up in your grille. It works really well for a number of reasons, and for an early VR game, it’s pretty well executed too. Graphically, it was a big step up from some of the demos I played, and whilst it’s not photorealistic, it was polished enough to feel reasonably real. Even cooler, the actual shooting is done using your wands, and you can see “your” hands and guns right there in front of you. I was a big fan of old-school peripherals, and I was really hoping VR would bring that shit back, and it was well worth the wait. Actually pointing and shooting at stuff that’s all around you, in a fully-realised VR environment, is shit-kickingly awesome, massively engrossing and deeply fucking satisfying. Honestly, I loved it – and not least because I’m a fuck-load better at that than I am using a crosshairs/controller set-up. Aiming and executing a headshot with what feels like a real gun in “your” hand is, quite frankly, spectacular and I couldn’t get enough of it.
The game’s also pretty atmospheric, and though perhaps not “scary”, having stuff literally jump at you in VR is a phenomenal experience too, and you’ll almost certainly find yourself physically moving away from it. You’ll also have to physically move to avoid obstacles and such, which also increases the sense of immersion (at one point, I tweaked a neck muscle dodging a big-ass circular saw – and whilst it hurt like a motherfucker, it was totally worth it). Elsewhere, thanks to the whole roller-coaster thing, you’ll genuinely get that belly-jumping thing happening, and again, I’m not afraid to admit that had me squealing like a kid on an actual, proper roller-coaster. All-in-all, as an Arcade-y, hint-at-what’s-to-come VR experience, it was a lot of fun, and really made me excited to be on board.
And following on from that, I was even more excited when I loaded up Batman Arkham VR, because that really was a great hint at VR’s potential. To start with, it’s as close to actually being the fucking Batman as I’ve ever been, and whipping out a batarang and throwing it for the first time had me back in holy fucking SHITBALLS mode pretty quickly. Graphically, it was genuinely superb, and there’s this one bit where you have to do the whole forensic analysis of a scene thing that’s a hallmark of the Batman series – and it was positively breathtaking.
You’re actually stood there, in the middle of the action, with beautifully rendered 3D characters around you, Fast-forwarding and rewinding the action, scanning stuff, and it. Was. Immense. I’m reliably informed that my jaw was suitably dropped, and throughout the game, I was constantly wowed by pretty much everything. Picking up the Riddlers puzzles, and actually physically putting them together was akin to all the shit we’ve seen in Sci-Fi films, and just being stood in the middle of a 3D Gotham City was one of the most impressive things I’ve yet experienced.
There was yet another bit where I had to open a freezer thing in a morgue (using my/Batman’s hand), and as I did so, an actual fucking ice-cloud engulfed me and, I swear to God, it was real.
At other times, you’ll be stood next to the Batmobile, and it is as if you are genuinely stood next to a real Batmobile. The textures, reflections, the almost palpable weight of it are visually superlative, and if it doesn’t impress you, you’re probably dead inside. In fact, from start to finish Batman Arkham VR was an excellent advert for VR, and my one complaint is that it’s super, super short – and, even though there’s a degree of re-playability, your time as Batman in the main story will be over in a couple of hours, which is made worse precisely because being the Batman is so fucking great.
Sooooo, as you can probably tell, I’m rapidly becoming a bona fide VR fanboy, and you may be wondering if there’s anything that’s not great about it; indeed, whether you should board the VR train. Objectively, the answer’s likely complicated.
To start with, it don’t come cheap – particularly if you don’t already have a camera and the wands – and had I not been due a birthday present, I’d have been less enthusiastic about picking one up. As it stands, the library of games is relatively sparse (and most of those are pretty short) so there’s definitely a gimmicky, novelty aspect to the VR ecosystem right now. That will hopefully improve, but it’s also an argument for waiting a bit, especially as you’d expect the headset to drop in price with time.
As I’ve already mentioned in relation to the games, and with the possible exception of Batman, we’re not in holodeck territory yet either. Because of all the extra oomph needed for even basic VR experiences, Graphics have taken a hit, and visually it can all be a bit last-gen. That said though, I think that’s offset by the increased feeling of immersion, but I’d be lying if I said VR games were truly Next-Gen in size, scope and visuals. It’s also worth mentioning that I was running my VR through a PlayStation Pro, which by all accounts helps a lot – what with the extra power and suchlike. I don’t know if it’s true or not – or if it makes a massive difference if it is – but, like, in the interests of full disclosure, that was my testing set-up.
Following on from that, I felt no nausea or dizziness using the Pro, and that’s great for me, obviously, but – much like motion sickness in general – it might not be the same for you, whether you use a regular PS4 or Pro. I also used the headset for a good five hours in total yesterday, and I didn’t feel too bad afterwards. Towards the end though, everything seemed to be getting progressively blurrier – even in the sharp, well-rendered Batman game – so you’ll likely need to limit your sessions if that’s a general thing (and not just me being old, for example). It also gets pretty hot and sweaty in there too, so don’t, like, use it before you’re off out in public and shit.
Finally – and this might not be a big deal for you – the whole set-up is somewhere between a mission and a ballache. It’s not complicated per se (PlayStation have stuck numbers and symbols on everything to ensure they’re connected correctly), but if you’ve got a well organised entertainment system/cabinet, make your peace with that getting fucked up immediately, what with the camera, VR box, and all the bajillion wires that join everything.
With a bit of messing about you might be able to make everything fit in permanently, BUT because the VR box is a pass-through, you’ll need it plugged in constantly to use your PlayStation normally. That’s not an option for me however, because passing-through the VR box actually negates some of the benefits of the Pro, so I basically have to set the whole thing up every damn time – which is a proper pain in the arse. Is it a dealbreaker? Not really, especially because I’ll definitely be using the VR less frequently than I use the PlayStation, but it is something to consider anyways. On the plus side, it makes everything more special if you have to unbox and set up every time, so, like, every cloud….
In conclusion though, I love PlayStation VR: like properly fucking love it, and if you get the chance to try it – seriously, do so (and certainly try it before you buy if you can). Obviously, it’s a technology still in its infancy, and there are going to be ups and downs in terms of games, but it really was as gamechanging as I hoped it would be – literally and metaphorically. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I can never go back to regular gaming – far from it – but VR offers a substantially different Gaming experience, and that’s only likely to improve as we move forward. Like I said, there’s a sense of wonder inherent in VR that I haven’t felt for a long, long time, and it’s a spectacular feeling jumping into it, seeing a 2D flatscreen experience transformed into a fully realised, all-encompassing one.
Sure, the novelty will wear off a bit, as it does with most things, but I honestly think it is the future, or at least a big part of it, and from what I’ve seen so far, I’m genuinely, hopelessly excited to be a part of it.
Also, I mentioned actually being the Batman, right!?