PlayStation VR Review: Something great for everyone
Sony has created something that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts, and in some cases will improve over time.
- The most comfortable headset yet
- Comparably inexpensive
- Healthy software ecosystem
- Mediocre controllers
- 180-degree rotation isn’t great
- Game setup is occasionally obnoxious
Thoroughly well executed
PlayStation VR Full Review
There’s a big gap between smartphone-based VR and desktop-based VR. The most you’ll pay for great smartphone-based VR is around $100, and desktop-based VR can get as high as $900. This is separate from the cost of the hardware that powers these headsets, too, which starts at around $600 for phones and can be more than twice that for a good gaming PC. While it’s true you can do a lot more with phones and computers, the point is the gap between these two categories of VR is significant. Sony saw this gap, and now owns it with a VR headset of their own.
Sony’s PlayStation 4 is the most popular game console on the planet right now, and its new VR headset needs little more than this console to function. This decision to go as populist as possible raised several concerns about how capable a relatively underpowered living room console would compare to high-end PCs with Vive Ready stickers on them. Those concerns became heightened with the PlayStation 4 Pro announcement, which isn’t available until well after the initial launch of this particular VR headset.
So here we are, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR, together. Sony has a game lineup including titles from all over the VR world as well as exclusive features from the world of Batman and eventual titles with names like Star Trek, Resident Evil, and Tomb Raider. In a world where VR is heavily criticized for lacking “AAA” games, it’s clear Sony wants to head into the holiday season with a comparably inexpensive offering that includes recognizable brands. All Sony needs to do is deliver something that works well enough to compete with those top industry names.
About this review
I have been using PlayStation VR with a slim PlayStation 4 connected to Verizon FiOS. The headset has been used by 15 people across seven days, with the reviewer totaling 45 hours of gameplay inside the headset.
Comfy, and not hideous
PlayStation VR Hardware
While VR headsets are not a new thing, this new generation of face gadgets features many companies that are quite new to designing things you wear over your eyeballs. Sony is not one of those companies. In fact, it has been building head-mounted displays for all kinds of things over the last 15 years. It’s entirely likely you’ve never seen or heard of these headsets, due to the combination of how expensive they have been and the purposes they served. That extensive lineage gives Sony a unique upper hand in designing a headset for gaming, resulting in the single most comfortable VR headset you can but today.
Your standard VR headset in 2016 hugs your face from front to back with elastic straps. This keeps the display firmly positioned over your eyes, and lets you move around in the real world quite a bit. Sony took a different approach, making it so the headset itself is never actually touching your face. Instead of thick straps or rigid side rails, Sony uses a halo design that wraps around the top of your head. That halo creates an anchor that allows the display to hang down in front of your eyes without being tightly pressed to your skin. The weight is nicely balanced across your head, and you can still move around quite a bit.
This headset isn’t just more comfortable, it takes noticeably less effort to put on and use. The lack of straps makes it so you just press a button on the back of the halo and pull. The two plastic sides stretch, allowing you to position it from the top of your forehead to the back of your head.
This headset isn’t just more comfortable than Oculus and Vive, it takes noticeably less effort to put on and use.
A simple turn of the knob under this button creates a firm grip on your head, and you’re ready to go. There’s no concern about prescription glasses fitting in the headset, no worry that your eyelid may smudge the lenses by being pressed too close, and the lightweight rubber shield on the outside of the headset keeps out nearly as much light as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
PlayStation VR tracks your position in the room through the PlayStation Camera. It’s a simple bar with two camera sensors, something Sony has been using and selling for years. Much like the old PlayStation Move controllers, the headset emits an electric blue light from all four corners of the headset and two spots on the halo. The camera reads that light and determines your position. This configuration is limited to a six-foot space from your television, and while it is possible to turn around without encountering any problems with tracking, most games prefer you be facing the television for most of the excitement. Easily the most impressive part of this setup is how well it works in any lighting condition.
The Move controllers are straight out of 2010. Literally.
The Launch Bundle includes a PlayStation Camera and a pair of PlayStation Move controllers, and only the camera has been recently updated. The Move controllers are straight out of 2010, complete with the old PS Move logo where your thumb rests and Mini-USB ports for charging.
The controllers are comfortable enough to hold, and the rubber tip means you’re less likely to hurt someone if you accidentally clip them while swinging at an enemy, but they’re undeniably less functional than their HTC Vive and Oculus Touch counterparts. If you turn around and have your back face the camera, there’s a decent chance your controllers will stop being tracked. The battery in these controllers is also pretty bad, often lasting only three hours before needing to be recharged.
Adding PlayStation VR to your PlayStation 4 means you’re gaining a number of new wires. You need to run an HDMI cable from the PS4 to the PSVR sync box, and then another HDMI cable from the sync box to the television. The sync box needs its own power outlet, and there are cables coming out of the front of this box to connect to your PlayStation VR. The headset itself has a jack for headphones since you can’t use wireless headphones, and the PlayStation Camera needs to be connected to the PlayStation 4. Finally, you have a USB cable connecting the PS4 to the sync box. This isn’t a huge deal once it is all set up, but your cable management skills will be tested if you want your entertainment center to look nice after this has all been set up.
Sony’s overall design deserves the praise it has received so far.
PlayStation VR isn’t just functional and comfortable, it’s the closest ting to stylish we’ve seen in a VR headset so far. The matte black plastic and rubber against the matte white plastic doesn’t look bad sitting on a side table, and when the bright blue lights fire up it looks straight out of the future. Sony’s overall design deserves the praise it has received so far, even if it leaves those of us who play in other forms of VR wishing the motion controllers had been updated to better match the headset.
Pushing the limits
PlayStation VR Software
From the moment you put the headset on, it’s clear Sony built PlayStation VR to be an extension of PlayStation 4. There’s no 360-degree library with a roaring fire or a shooting star against a night sky with floating game titles for you to interact with. You get the PlayStation 4 menu system, hovering in front of you courtesy of what Sony calls Cinematic Mode. A large, virtual screen floats in front of you, ready to do anything you want. Movies, non-VR PS4 games, web browsing, you name it. Anything passed through the HDMI port in the back of the sync box can be displayed in Cinematic Mode, which is basically a big curved window in a black void. It’s a little on the cold side, but you’re here to jump into games and not much else.
At the end of the day, PlayStation VR delivers what it was built to deliver. This is a VR gaming platform, plain and simple.
When you do decide to play a game, your first task is to confirm calibration with the camera by positioning yourself in the small box presented in the middle of your virtual display. This frequently means you have to move your body into position instead of remaining comfortably seated, but it’s the best way Sony has to make sure you’re going to have the best experience when the VR environment begins to fill the world around you. It’s a mildly frustrating when you’re already seated and comfortable, but worth it once the game starts.
Sony’s launch lineup is fantastic, and none of these games skip a beat. Batman: Arkham VR is exceptional, if a little brief. Eve: Valkyrie is just as beautiful and fun here as it is on the significantly more powerful Oculus Rift. The whole lineup is well formed and highly functional. No tracking issues, no lag, and the unique design of Sony’s display means you’re way less likely to notice any screen door effect while playing the games. There’s a healthy mix of indie titles too, including standing and moving games from HTC Vive like Job Simulator and The Brookhaven Experiment. Or, if you’d prefer not bother with a gamepad or move controllers, you can jam out to Headmaster with just your head and have some fun in a creepy soccer camp.
One thing you will notice once someone starts playing games in PlayStation VR is the resolution hit PlayStation 4 takes on your television. The image everyone outside the VR headset sees is very low resolution, and quite grainy as well. It’s reasonable to assume this will be less of an issue with the more capable PlayStation 4 Pro, and to be clear it doesn’t affect gameplay or visual quality inside the headset at all. Once you turn PlayStation VR off, the same crisp experience you’re used to returns to the television.
At the end of the day, PlayStation VR delivers what it was built to deliver. This is a VR gaming platform, plain and simple. There’s no grand effort to create unique social experiences in VR, no effort to perfect a full room VR environment, and no grand illusion about its purpose in medicine or science. This is a way to take your gaming experience further through immersion. Sometimes that means standing up and throwing paper airplanes at floating robots, and sometimes that means looking to your left and right to really feel like you’re sitting in the driver’s seat of a very fast car. Immersion through storytelling is something game developers have gotten very good at over the last 10 years, and with PlayStation VR there’s an opportunity to pull the user in even deeper.
Exactly what it needs to be
PlayStation VR Experience
My perspective when it comes to VR experiences is wildly different from most. I have access to every form of VR available today. I regularly host parties where friends come and play a few VR games over drinks. I’m always looking for the next great 360-degree video, and not because I write about VR all day. I love the immersion. I love the stories being told in this new format, and I love watching this community of VR users grow at such an exciting pace. It’s a real thrill for someone like me.
But I’ve never considered parking VR in my living room and keeping it there until PlayStation VR. I’m fortunate enough to have a separate space for VR, but I don’t feel compelled to move my PS4 to that space. There’s an inherently social aspect to playing these games in a room full of friends and family who can watch what is happening on the television as you play. While it could be argued that you can accomplish the same by connecting a gaming PC to your television, that quickly becomes a lot more complicated when something goes wrong. Plain and simple, Windows isn’t great when used from your couch with a gamepad. PlayStation 4 is. That helps make PlayStation VR a lot more living room friendly, which is a big deal.
Sony has created a VR system that is cheaper, more comfortable, and more stylish than anything else in its class.
None of the games I’ve played so far have blown me away, but they’ve all been great. Sony and its partners aren’t really pushing the envelope in any way when you’re in the games themselves, but it’s also not really necessary that they do so. PlayStation VR is being fuelled by familiar content, some thanks to exclusives and some thanks to existing VR developers moving their creations to this new headset. This isn’t new in that it should be considered as somehow better than Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, which is significant. PlayStation VR is an exercise in consumer adoption by focusing on pricing and availability, and the overall experience is more than good enough for most people who want to enjoy VR.
Still, there are some clear pain points that Sony and its software partners could stand to work on. The Brookhaven Experiment features a 180-degree rotation button that didn’t exist in the original version to make it easier for people to turn all the way around when you’re shooting zombies. It’s a clever enough fix for a lack of full room tracking, but it’s also incredibly disorienting to jump around like that in VR.
The PlayStation Move controllers can’t be used to fully navigate system menus, so you have to switch between holding the two plastic sticks and holding the gamepad while you have a headset on and can’t actually look down to see either. PlayStation Move isn’t a requirement for every game, but it’s used frequently enough that they should be a little better integrated into the overall experience.
The $500 question
PlayStation VR The Bottom Line
Sony has created a VR system that is cheaper, more comfortable, and more stylish than anything else in its class. That last part is the most interesting, because Sony is managing to do all of this with six year-old motion tracking tech in a game console that was graphically outdated when it launched — at least by PC gaming standards. Yet somehow, it delivers experiences that walk right up to what the considerably more expensive HTC Vive and Oculus Rift offer. That’s not to say PlayStation VR is as capable as these two desktop-based VR experiences, but it’s close enough that a whole lot of people aren’t going to see the value in buying and maintaining the equipment needed to say they have the best. And yeah, you can watch porn on it.
Sony has created a VR system that is cheaper, more comfortable, and more stylish than anything else in its class.
It’s also important to look at the games Sony has available for PlayStation VR, because that’s going to be a very big deal over the next year. Oculus and HTC have worked hard to deliver platforms for developers to create great new things, but Sony’s efforts with AAA publishers are going to turn heads. Names like Batman and Lara Croft sell consoles, and when you show someone they can be these characters in VR it sells headsets. It’s just as important that Sony continue to attract indie developers as well, if for no other reason than those simple and comparably inexpensive experiences are frequently the best ways to introduce friends and family to VR.
Is this the best VR headset out there? Not if you care about full room tracking or the most capable hand controls or the best possible graphics. If you care about having a great time on your couch with your friends, and you want to do so on a budget, there’s a good chance your answer will be yes.
Should you buy it? Absolutely
PlayStation VR is just plain fun, and it’s considerably less expensive without a lot of functional sacrifice. If you want fun VR right now, and you already own a PlayStation 4, this is an obvious choice.