PlayStation VR Review: Whoa-oh, We're Halfway There

PlayStation VR Review: Whoa-oh, We're Halfway There

Sony's take on virtual reality has resulted in an incredibly effective device, yet design concessions made for a mass-market price hold it back from achieving its true potential.

The biggest problem with analyzing a piece of emerging technology can be found in the unfortunate fact that none of us can see into the future. After all, the Internet is littered with archived articles that hilariously (in hindsight) poo-poo the fabric of our 21st century lives: e-mail, the Internet, cell phones, and so on.

Regardless of how well I try to future-proof this article, though, there's no denying it'll eventually be laughed at as a quaint relic of the past. So, let's get this out of the way: As a device designed to trick your brain into think you're somewhere you're not, the PlayStation VR is an incredibly effective little peripheral. Despite how much I try to intellectualize the VR effect after fitting the visor onto my head, my lizard brain takes over, and my cynicism melts away. But even with the ability to slip into dozens of virtual worlds at my fingertips, I still can't shake the feeling PSVR's physical construction amounts to a clumsy first step—but a necessary one, to be sure.

The Footprint and Design

For such a futuristic piece of technology, PSVR is remarkably easy to get up and running, even if it requires quite a bit of setup. That said, if you prefer a more elegant entertainment center setup, PSVR may drive you a little nuts. Simply put, connecting it successfully adds quite a few wires to your existing network of too many wires. In fact, the necessary Processor Unit almost feels like the beating heart of PSVR with how many cables and wires end up running into and out of the thing. First, it has to be plugged into an included AC adapter, and attached to your PlayStation 4 via a USB cable (once again, included). Then, you need to send the video signal through the Unit by running one HDMI cable between it and the PS4, and another one between the Unit and the TV. Add in an additional wire from the headphones/earbuds you'll be plugging into the headset, and you're looking at one semi-clunky setup that belies the device's futuristic capabilities. (Oh, and if you don't have a PS4 camera yet—as I didn't—consider that one more wire added to your veritable spider web.)

The headset itself feels solidly built, though it does take a bit of fidgeting to fit it snugly onto your head: One button on the back allows you to pull out the headstrap, another on the portion that houses the viewscreen allows you to move it further or closer to the front of your face, and a dial on the headstrap provides some minute tightness adjustments. All in all, it takes a good 15-20 seconds to fully adjust the thing, less so if you're just briefly pulling it off of your eyes to sip some water or check your phone. There's no real way to have it rest comfortably on your forehead if you want to pull it up briefly to take a quick break, though that may only be a problem for those of us who are reviewing VR devices and have to occasionally pause to look over at a laptop and take notes. The headset also does a great job of blotting out the world around you, but since it's not an airtight seal, light will creep in from around the edges if you're playing in an especially bright room. It doesn't completely break the experience, but the immersion ends up being dampened a bit when you can easily peek into the real world that exists around you.

Say hello to your PS4's little friend.

Though the headset feels solid, it certainly isn't heavy. I've had to play PSVR in extended sessions for the sake of this review, and I never once walked away with a sore neck or shoulders (or face, for that matter). I wouldn't necessarily call it "comfortable," but the headset's relatively lightweight design does its best to help you forget that fairly large thing is strapped to your head. Even with its solid construction, I still have to wonder how it'll stand up after a year of use—but it definitely didn't show any signs of weakening after a weekend of overuse.

The Effect

I don't have a super-sciencey way to explain it, but PSVR works. Even after spending so much time with the device over the past four days, every time I think I'm going to be over it before strapping on that headset, I'm struck by the wow factor all over again. Granted, some specific types of VR experiences gradually lose their novelty value: Once I dug into the more interactive ones, the "sit around and stare at stuff" demos began to lose most of their appeal. Still, even browsing menus and playing non-VR games and apps in its "cinema mode"—which essentially makes it feel like you're sitting in your own private theater—feels incredibly cool. (In fact, to be as inappropriate as possible, the first game I played on my headset was Mega Man 2.)

Sometimes, though, the effect works a little too well—which speaks to the power of PSVR. Thankfully, I didn't get motion sickness, even if a game I played which featured a lot of long, high-powered jumps left me the tiniest bit queasy. Horror makes for the most convincing VR experience, which may be a tad unfortunate if you're jumpy over scary games (as I am). Even though I play and have played plenty of horror games, PSVR did an all-too effective job of muting the higher functions of my frontal lobe. I jumped into one of the intentionally scary demos on the included disc, and though I tried to rationalize things beforehand, my brain pulled a massive "NOPE!" as soon as the shit started hitting the fan. And that's not "NOPE!" in the "fun scarecam with laughs afterward" sense—it's "NOPE!" in the "I feel like I'm actually going to die and this isn't fun" sense. Your mileage may vary, though.

Though VR has its detractors, it really only takes a good five minutes to fully understand its potential. After just a short time with PSVR, the laughable degree of importance companies like Sony and Microsoft (especially Microsoft) placed behind motion controls seems even more laughable in retrospect. And this commentary isn't just apropos of nothing: PSVR reminds me a lot of the Nintendo Wii, but with much more potential and without the baggage attached. Of course, it's not quite as immediate as the Wii, what with all of the adjustments, calibrations, and playing within an extremely confined zone, but, for me, tinkering with Sony's VR device gave me a feeling of exhilaration I haven't felt since playing my first rounds of Wii Sports tennis nearly a decade ago. Obviously, the capabilities of VR aren't as limited as Nintendo's underpowered motion-control technology.

And, speaking of motion controls, it's heartening to know Sony finally found a worthwhile use for those Move controllers that've likely been sitting in your closet since 2011. (If you were unfortunate enough to have already purchased them.) Simply put, the best experiences I've had with PSVR involved games that allowed their use—it's oddly much more satisfying to see one of those wands floating around in the air than a normal old controller. And "allow" is the unfortunate word, here, since those Move controllers are considered an optional accessory for PSVR. Picking up two of them won't exactly break the bank, but part of me wishes Sony had made these controllers a necessary element of VR instead of one you'll only break out from time to time. While the standard controller works well, many of the games and demos that would seemingly work much better with Move support left me a little disappointed.

Sony's storage/charging unit is a must-have if you want to keep your VR setup in order. (Unfortunately, it's sold separately.)

The Side Effects

While I didn't experience any serious nausea or motion sickness, there's no denying VR can be a pretty fatiguing experience. Your own experience may vary, naturally, but there's a reason VR experiences tend to be short-form. My first day with PSVR had me sinking 3-4 hours into various games and demos, and I emerged from that a weary mess who felt like he'd spent the whole day swimming laps (but without the pain and muscle definition to show for it). Playing for such an extended time isn't recommended; even the games that try to be more than just a short burst of fun divide themselves up into neat little segments that only persist for 5 to 10 minutes. Developers are clearly playing it extremely safe until they realize what their audience can handle, which explains why so many of these early PSVR games and demos feature limited interactions or amount to Disneyland-style "dark rides."

Even if the PSVR's "wow" factor hasn't left my brain, it doesn't take very long to realize the device's limitations. Obviously, the first console-specific VR unit exists in part as a preview for what the future will hold, but I still can't help but think this sort of experience needs to be completely wireless for it to really take off. And while I agree it's an unrealistic demand for a $400 product made in 2016, some of my VR experiences were hampered a bit by the wire dangling from my headset, and the wire dangling from its wire. I'd either get tangled from moving my hands around—mostly when using my Move controllers—or have the headset shift unexpectedly after turning my head without realizing the cable had found its way behind my arm or under my leg. It's one of those cases where the tech is there, but the physical reality can only meet it halfway.

And, of course, there's the fact that VR remains an extremely solitary experience. Since I work from home, and get roughly 10 hours a day to myself, I'm a bit of an anomaly, but those of you with real jobs and even (gasp) families may feel a bit awkward when you're forced to shut your loved or tolerated ones out for the sake of a more immersive experience. PSVR could conceivably be a pass-around-and-play sorta thing, but the device requires such an intimate relationship with your face that jumping in immediately after someone just played may give you the same feeling as sitting down on a public toilet seat that's still warm. Also, shutting out the world around you does present some practical concerns: While reviewing the unit, my apartment needed some important repairs, and I had to tell our handyman to show up at a prescribed time (instead of whenever he was free) for fear he would come a-knockin' while I was trapped in VR world. (Of course, I didn't tell him the specifics about me reviewing what's essentially a toy while he did important, useful things with his skilled hands.)

A Worthy Diversion, But Still A Diversion

Admittedly, I entered my encounter with PSVR as a bit of a virtual reality skeptic, and emerged as a believer. In its current form, though, it's more of a "sometimes" gaming experience than an "all the time" gaming experience. Until the setup and physical presence of the unit isn't so cumbersome, VR won't be able to escape its existence as a worthwhile sideshow to traditional gaming's three-ring circus. Sony has made some big, important leaps with this powerful little VR device, but I honestly don't see the technology being more than just a fun diversion until it requires a much lesser degree of to-do.

Sony definitely deserves credit for their highly impressive and semi-affordable VR device, but it's hard to shake the feeling that this creation isn't quite ready for prime-time. PSVR should satisfy early adopters primed for a preview of the future, but anyone outside of this group may want to wait for the technology's inevitable improvements.

3.5/5

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