Mike Diver and Austin Walker discuss the pros and cons of Sony's imminently available virtual reality headset for the PS4.
MD: We've both had PlayStation VR for a few days, and I see from Twitter that you're not so sure of it, just yet – that the kit's given you the jitters, that it's made you nauseous. That's bummed me out a bit, as I've got along pretty well with Sony's kit. Well, I've got along with all the VR headsets that I've had the pleasure of slipping over my face, so far, and this is no different.
I've felt a whoosh and a wheeze, a chill and a heave, depending on what's been on the screen so close to my eyeballs – but while I've walked away wobbly from some experiences, like Capcom's Kitchen and Until Dawn's Rush of Blood spin-off, which combines a rollercoaster sim with a bloody rail-shooter, that's mainly because of the content, rather than the method of delivery. In other words: I'm a massive wuss when this horror stuff is playing out before me, with nowhere else to look. Even Batman: Arkham VR made me jump out of my skin at one point – I really wasn't anticipating that game's dark turns, which are all the more extreme in VR.
But I've enjoyed it. I've liked having VR in my home for the first time. I've laughed a lot, with my wife beside me – and me her as she's played, too. She's not a gamer in any respect, but she's got a kick out of the VR she's tried these past few nights. The PS VR headset is clearly the least well built of what's out there, in tech specs terms, the feel of its assembly and the simple fact that I am always fiddling with it while it's on, yet to find that sweet spot of comfort. It also leaks a lot of light, as it doesn't "seal" at the bottom, which can break the atmosphere of scarier games. But as an entry point for the curious, which it's clearly positioned as, I'm definitely an advocate.
But on that note, while it's comparatively inexpensive versus its competitors, at £200 less than the Oculus Rift, the price point for PS VR remains high for most consumers, at £350 in the UK (save a penny). And that's before you buy a camera, or some Move controllers (the UK really needs a bundle, like the US has, which packs all of this in). Given your experience with it so far, do you think it's something you simply have to be able to preview, somehow, before bringing it into the home?
AW: It's funny that you mention laughing, because as it stands, nearly every one of my favourite PS VR moments have been the comedic ones – both the games that have been explicitly designed to be funny and those which stumble into unintentional laughs. In the latter case, nothing has been funnier to me than "The London Heist", a brief, Guy Ritchie-style British Crime caper that's packed in to Sony's VR Worlds. Imagine a huge hulk of muscle stomping around and intimidating you. Now imagine reaching out and scratching him under his chin as he glowers at you. Hilarious.
In the "intentionally funny" camp, I can't say enough nice things about Job Simulator. It's been out for a while on the Vive, but this was my first chance to put extended time into it. Job Simulator casts you as a person living in a bright and boxy future that has been taken over by artificial intelligences (in the form of talking, floating desktop computers yanked from the mid '90s.) There aren't any human jobs in the future, but there are horribly misunderstood simulations of old human jobs. So you work as an "office worker" where you eat mandatory donuts and use huge rubber stamps to hire and fire contractors and you sabotage cars as a mechanic by replacing their most important parts with flowerpots. All of relies on sharp, surprising dialogue – and, of course, motion controls.
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The problem, though, is that I'm having a hell of a time getting those motion controls to stay steady. Like you said, I've been facing a lot of strange jittering both with my PlayStation Move controllers and with the headset itself. No matter what I do with the lighting, no matter where I move the camera, eventually my view and my virtual hands start shaking unpredictably. Not only does it make it hard to play, it's also the first time I've ever found myself getting nauseous while in VR. So to answer your question: yeah, I have a hard time recommending this to anyone before they try it. Your personal experience is going to be, well, personal – and that's a difficult variable for VR developers to account for.
That said, I'm glad to hear you're having a good time with it. If you had to hand me PS VR right now, with one game to play (or "experience" to "experience") what would it be?
MD: As you're someone who knows his way around a controller or two, I think Arkham VR is "the one" in this launch window. I'm not sure any other VR game has so convincingly put me in the shoes of someone else. Dancing around in front of a mirror as Batman, and maybe a little later on someone else: it can't be beat. That said, I don't have the Move controllers, which does make the (sub-60-minutes) experience of Arkham VR more fiddly than it should be – when I played it at E3, with Move, it was a lot more intuitive, and your hands are always on screen then, too. And for that same reason I am yet to play Job Simulator, as I didn't see an option to use the DualShock on its menu screen. From what you're describing, that makes sense. Problem is, over here in the UK, all the second-hand Moves that were £15 last week are £30 this week – the retailers know what they're doing, but that's not a dent my wallet's ready to take.
I'd also recommend Battlezone for those who're intimately familiar with a pad – I've written about it at length before, and it featured in our recent VR film too, but it really is a great arcade game (or, I guess, an update of one). It features online multiplayer, which I imagine – as I've not yet had the pleasure – is going to be a riot of exploding polygons and heated, yet hopefully friendly, trash talking. As you're seated, in a cockpit, throughout, its lightly undulating terrains shouldn't turn your stomach too much.
For anyone who doesn't immediately connect with a couple of analogue sticks, though, the games that rely on the headset itself for control are evidently – based on my wife's time with it – the most immediately accessible. So from VR Worlds that's "Danger Ball" – a surprisingly addictive little Tron-aesthetics heading affair – and its "VR Luge" runs. Of the other software, Headmaster is great fun. It's literally a head-the-ball simulator, and those balls come thick and fast, but it's shot through with very British silliness. It's a bit like if Monty Python made football games, maybe.
I was thinking about your nausea, and the controller tracking – at home, I have only been playing sitting down, so far, even for Batman. I wonder if that's a factor. I don't have the space to really stand in my place, at least not with the intention to properly move about, to swing an arm – it's all been relatively small movements. I'll have to try it the other way by moving some furniture.
I'm not sure that, if I were looking at buying this tech, I'd be putting my money down right away. A lot of the first wave of software, as fine as a lot of it is in short doses, does fall into that gimmicky box. Arkham VR is terrific, but very much an "extra" to Arkham Knight in how if feels, and I could imagine it appearing on a future anniversary, or super-special extra-deluxe edition of that game. I guess Job Simulator is different, but what so far do you see as being a "proper" game for PS VR? I suppose Sony is banking on RIGS: Mechanized Combat League being a significant first-party title, not to mention an eSports contender, but I'm actually yet to play it. You?
AW: I've said it before, I really like mechs, so I'm hopeful that RIGS – a sort of "what if basketball was played by giant armed robots" – will be cool. And yeah, the fact that I'll be playing it seated will likely help a great deal.
What has surprised me when it comes to "proper" games is that the ones I can see myself playing at length – partially because of sea-sickness and partially because of surprising novelty – are the ones with third-person views instead of a first-person perspective. Playing Rez Infinite, a VR-capable remake of the cult classic on-rails shooter, is the first time I've found myself reaching for celebratory words about VR and its great potential.
A big part of that was the third-person perspective that both gave me increased environmental awareness and also grounded my view on a single focal point – my character at the centre of the screen. Wayward Sky, on the other hand, is an incredibly charming 3D puzzle-adventure that swings between fixed-camera views of a giant mechanical city in the sky and first-person views of puzzles (and cutscenes). The result is a game that moves between dollhouse style micro-scenery and one of the more impressive uses of scale that I've seen in VR so far – the city can feel like a board game or a like a massive, interconnected clockwork world.
The problem, though, is that I find myself needing to adjust the headset and camera with regularity right now, and the idea of playing a game that goes for more than an hour or so seems daunting. Many of the devs I've spoken to talk about that as the current normal, too, suggesting that they're building experiences explicitly for the suggested short play times. Maybe that will change as we get used to the tech, or as the tech changes, or as developers learn how to work with it in new ways. Or... well, we'll see.
I think it's too early to make any final calls about VR's future – or even about only PS VR's future. I'm not what you would call optimistic, but PS VR – with all of its bumps and bruises – finally has me genuinely interested in what all this could become.
MD: I'm definitely optimistic – although I'm not sure that, even with PS VR, the greatest potential for this technology lies in games. They're an easy way into this next stage of how we interact with electronic entertainment, sure; but I hope the applications for this go far wider, and that's what carries the tech. I'm looking forward to visiting amazing places I could never go for real through this headset, or another like it – I've already done Everest, so is the Moon so unreasonable, or the bottom of the sea? (I guess there is "Ocean Descent" in VR Worlds, right now, which is actually a very immersive, albeit entirely passive, diving sim. If you've a shark phobia, maybe give it a miss.) Being able to walk around an amazing museum from home, paying a small entry fee, would be amazing – and streaming movies on it, "in" a cinema, would surely revolutionise how we watch blockbuster productions. It'd be like having an IMAX in your house, but one that can be put away in a cupboard.
That's what I'm eager for – a broader selection of products, of experiences, for this peripheral, as if the PS VR's emphasis is entirely on video games, I don't think it'll have the longevity it needs. Of course, it's super early days, but as great as Headmaster is (which is: very), that's not as appealing to, say, my dad as having a seat at a famous football ground, watching a simulation of a classic match, would be. And VR can't be limited of demographic: for this to really become the phenomenon that its many investors need it to be, VR has to connect with everybody – any age, any ability, any interest. I'll make my parents try it the next time they visit – I think that'll be a more telling litmus test than any length of time I, as a seasoned "gamer", spend with it. If they like it, in their 60s, then we're really onto something.
PlayStation VR kits and software supplied by Sony. PS VR is available worldwide from October the 13th.