I had a definite VR moment when playing Job Simulator at yesterday's PlayStation VR event. I was standing in a cubical with my fake cup of coffee in my cartoon hands; and without thinking about it, I went to lean on the desk. I was actually surprised for a moment when instead of hitting a solid surface I almost fell into the TV. I knew it wasn't real, but my brain thought it was.
Moments like these speak to the power of VR to totally deprive you of your nomal senses and put you in a different world. Inside that headset, the rest of the world disappears as you fly around shooting down starfighters or interact with psychopathic office robots. After each demo, I would emerge blinking and totally disoriented, surprised that I was back in the "real" world.
I'm not going to mince words - it's tremendously cool in short bursts. The sensory deprivation aspect of PlayStation VR has a way of sharpening one's focus on the game at hand to the point that you get totally lost in it. In Rez Infinite, for example, the visuals don't matter so much as the feeling that you're literally inside the game's soundtrack - the beat pulsing all around you.
I wound up playing four games at the event - Rez Infinite, EVE Valkyrie, Driveclub, and Job Simulator - each of which offered a different flavor of VR. EVE Valkyrie and Driveclub are the cockpit games for which VR is best-suited - totally immersive experiences that benefit hugely from the ability to look around freely within the world. Rez Infinite is a total sensory experience in which you're meant to just sort of lose yourself in the music. And Job Simulator... well, it's hard to describe Job Simulator. Despite its cartoony graphics, it felt the most "real" to me. I've stood in one of those non-descript office areas with a cup of coffee a hundred times. It's just that Job Simulator's office happened to have sentient computers telling me to fire people.
Of them all, though, EVE Valkyrie is the only game I could see myself spending a significant of time playing. That's less of a knock on the other games and more the fact that I'm a sucker for starfighter games, and that I love EVE Valkyrie's Battlestar Galactica-like setpieces. It's a shame that its focus on multiplayer mostly precludes a full-on single-player campaign - my understanding is that the finished game will include a handful of standalone missions and that's about it - because it's the kind of videogame experience I've wanted since I was a little kid. With all due respect to Elite Dangerous, EVE Valkyrie is the starfighter game I've wanted all along - one where I can zip between massive capital ships chasing enemy fighters while pretending that I'm a female Wedge Antilles.
(Incidentally, there will be a VR version of Star Wars Battlefront. That should make the already great starfighter combat - already the highlight of the base game - even better).
Experiences like mine are the best case for Sony, which will shortly be making a grand push to sell people on a peripheral that costs more than the console it supports (and that's without the camera). They're hoping the sheer novelty of the experience will convince people to plunk down the cash for an admittedly pretty cool headset.
The real test will be whether VR will actually be fun to use for long periods of time. Sony has mostly solved the comfort issue - even with glasses, the padded interior comformed to my face to the degree that I barely felt it - but when the goggles came off, I found that my equilibrium was completely out of whack. In addition, speaking as someone who suffers from some pretty intense motion sickness, I'm kind of worried that playing for more than a half hour will inevitably send me running for the bathroom.
But in short doses? Yeah, I won't deny that I thought to myself more than once, "This is pretty amazing." Of course, just saying it won't be enough to sell people on a $399 system - they'll have to try it for themselves. And that will be the real trick.
So am I a VR believer now?
In the past, I've been on record as a VR skeptic. I won't deny its commercial applications, but I've long had a hard time believing that Sony can sell the millions of people who bought a PS4 for FIFA on a VR headeset. It's just too intense, too nerdy, too isolating, and above all, too expensive.
When Sony confirmed that the base version of the PlayStation VR would $399, Mike wrote that it was the best hope for mainstream VR. I agree... up to a point. Desktop computers are already something of an anchronism in the age of indie and mobile gaming, and Oculus's $600 price point all but ensures that its appeal will remain limited to hobbyists, at least for the time being. By comparison, the PlayStation 4's accessibility and relatively low price point is a major advantage.
That said... it's still $399. That's a hell of a lot of money even for someone who has a decent amount of disposable income. Sony is basically asking people to buy a second console.
Then there's the fact that it's still comparatively early days for the technology. In a somewhat amusing slip, a rep at the event told me that it would also be possible to play their game as a standalone PS4 game, and that it would "look even better." Novel as PlayStation VR might be, the resolution is still kind of jarring. It took me a while to get used to the comparatively fuzzy EVE Valkyrie after spending so much time with 1080p graphics.
In that regard, the PlayStation VR's accessibility is a double-edge sword. In the years to come, Oculus and HTC headsets will outpace PlayStation VR, and its status as a budget alternative will start to lose its appeal. The best Sony will be able to do is introduce a new SKU alongside the PlayStation 5; but after spending some $450 on a VR headset, it'll be a tough ask for mainstream consumers to upgrade after just a couple years.
With all that said, who would have thought that Sony would continue to find uses for the PlayStation Move long after the demise of the Kinect?
Anyway, there's no denying that VR is a new and novel way to experience games; and that stripped of issues like its price point, the PlayStation VR is a great device. It is undoubtedly the most comfortable I've felt playing with a VR device. We'll see whether VR is truly the second coming that everyone seems to think it is, and whether it can stand up to extended play; but in the short-term, Sony has a winner.
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