Hands-On With PlayStation VR: The Type of 'Experience' I've Been Hoping For

This past weekend I was finally able to get my hands on Sony’s hotly anticipated PlayStation Virtual Reality headset. I’ve been pumped for VR for a long time now, and this was my first opportunity to find out whether or not I had let my expectations and excitement for new tech compromise my better judgement. Although my experience with the technology was brief, I came away still very much excited about the prospects of virtual reality. A few of my concerns were addressed, while a new one that I hadn’t anticipated being a problem arose.

Unfortunately, because I only had time to try out one demo, I was not able to test PlayStation VR using the Move controllers. I had to choose between the London Heist and EVE: Valkyrie demos and, because I had watched the previous participant try out the London Heist demo (which she thoroughly enjoyed and looked really fun thanks to the TV that was displaying what she was seeing), I figured I’d go with EVE: Valkyrie simply because…space battles! It’s also important to note that I don’t have any experience whatsoever with any of the VR headsets currently on the market, so this will not be a comparison in any way. I'm not an expert when it comes to Virtual Reality; I'm covering this purely from a consumer's perspective. 

My fellow Short Pause contributor, Benjamin Boyce, has often said he’s trying to avoid visiting any local retailers to demo VR for himself because he wants to experience it in the comfort of his own home and environment. I honestly thought he was just being snob about it (Editor’s Note: Thanks, Brent!), but after trying out the unit in a packed retail store, I can appreciate his decision to steer clear of these demos. With so many people around, even with some nice headphones on, hearing the conversations going on around me was somewhat distracting.  I’m 100% sure that my overall experience will improve greatly when I’m in the confines of my gaming cave with no distractions whatsoever.

Headset Build and Setup

While waiting for my turn, I was able to see the PlayStation 4 system the VR headset was running on. It was a baseline PlayStation 4 (not a special model or a PC), so the performance I saw onscreen is what we can expect when the PlayStation VR launches in October. The head-mounted display (HMD) was plugged into the processing box, which from there was connected to the PlayStation 4. This box was about 60-70% smaller than the PlayStation 4 itself, but you’ll want to make sure you have room around your current setup to accommodate it.  The headset felt sturdy and well put together, but it never struck me as too heavy or unbalanced. When the demo started, I almost forgot I was wearing the thing.

I’m still curious to see how well it will hold up over longer play sessions, but not once during my 15-minute demo did I experience any sort of physical discomfort from the headset. Putting the headset on is fairly simple. There’s a button on the bottom right side of the headset that allows you to move the HMD forward or backward for comfort. Obviously, the further away it is, the more likely it is you’ll have light bleeding in around the edges which may take away from the immersion. Also, I wear glasses and I was really concerned about whether or not they would interfere with using the HMD. I’m 100% happy to report that not once did my glasses get in the way or take away from my experience. Once I had it at the correct depth, pulling the headset down helped clear up any visual distortion I had experienced. It’s important to remember to adjust the headset to your liking before you start playing because if your image isn’t clear, it will pull you out of the experience. Thankfully I was able to get things squared away before we started and, once my eyes adjusted, the image was very clear and looked great.

Performance

At the beginning of the EVE: Valkyrie demo, you find yourself seated in the cockpit of a spaceship armed to the teeth with weaponry. It’s pretty obvious this won’t be a relaxing, explorative space-simulator flight. You hear someone’s voice over the ship’s com briefing you about the mission you’re about to embark on and, before you know it, you’re accelerating at high-speeds down a long corridor before being jettisoned into space. Here, you find yourself surrounded by massive ships and other small crafts similar to your own. The sense of speed you experience while speeding down that corridor — all the while being able to look around the cockpit as if you were really there — was the first moment where I thought to myself, “Wow, I’m really in this ship right now!” I even looked down to see the person I was playing as, torso, legs, arms, and all. Now, because I was playing with the DualShock 4 controller, my arms weren’t moving. My hands were on the controller, but I was still very much immersed in the game because my character’s hands were always on the controls. Everything was running at a very high, very consistent framerate, which no doubt added to the experience, and the environment around me looked fantastic. Are we talking Uncharted 4 graphics here? Of course not, but they weren’t anything to scoff at either; this was a very good-looking game that ran smoothly.

The demo really turns up the action when enemy ships enter your sector and all hell breaks loose around you. You use your DualShock 4 controller to pilot your ship just like you would in any other game, but the ability to look around and see ships out of the corner of your eye that you otherwise may have missed really adds to the excitement of being in a dogfight. Hearing a member of your squad calling out for help with an enemy on their six, looking up in your right hand corner to see them taking fire, and piloting your way up there to take the bogey out is incredibly satisfying. Whether you’re flying through clouds of fire from exploding enemy ships, or maneuvering around massive Star Destroyer-like vessels at high speeds, you’ll find yourself leaning and holding your breath through most of this intense experience, and that’s what I want from VR. Lastly, I’m not sure if the over-the-ear headphones I used for the demo will be the same ones included with the headset at launch (I’m assuming they won’t be as they were really nice), but for the full experience, a pair of surround sound headphones will be a must-own. Even if PlayStaiton VR does ship with some nice stereo headphones, I have to believe that a nice set of virtual surround sound cans will further enhance an already kick-ass experience.

Motion-Sickness

Going into VR, I was primarily concerned with the build quality of the headset and its performance; given that this is one of the cheapest entries into VR gaming this year, it’s easy to wonder where the cuts are being made compared to higher-end models like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Thankfully, both of those questions have been addressed for the most part. Shockingly, the one issue that I was not worried about at all managed to come up during this demo: motion sickness. When you first accelerate out of your mothership and into space, going up and down using the left control stick wasn’t an issue. However, when I started to tilt my ship left and right with the right analog stick, I began to feel a little queasy, similar to how you feel when you’re in an airplane and you hit an air pocket that causes the plane to drop a little bit. I tried doing a few barrel rolls after that and, again, I felt a little uneasy. Thankfully, as I continued to play and focused more on the game as the action intensified, that slightly nauseating feeling subsided and I was able to enjoy the experience. Whether or not this will be an issue going forward, or if it’s just one of those things you’ll need adjust to over time, remains to be seen. Everyone is different; some may need time to adapt, some may throw-up, and some people may not even notice it at all. Just be prepared the first time you try it out, because it will definitely hit some harder than others.

Overall Impressions

I’ve been overly excited about the possibilities that VR can open up for gaming in the 21st century, probably to the point where my expectations may be a little higher than they should be. I have watched the Rift and Vive launches come and go, and I’ve read many (more good than bad) impressions from other gamers who have used those fine headsets. The reality is, though, I’m not ready to invest THAT kind of money into VR just yet, even though I'm sure you're getting much more in terms of visuals and performance. Plus, my gaming rig is going to need an upgraded CPU before I can even think about taking that plunge. Nope, for me, as a console gamer first (novice PC gamer second), PlayStation VR is the ideal entry into VR-gaming this generation. Whether or not gamers embrace it — and whether or not developers support it — remains up in the air, but that’s a different discussion altogether. What I can tell you is that I went into my demo with incredibly high expectations, and I walked away just as excited as I was going in. Sony’s HMD is a good-looking, comfortable, and totally competent product that did the one thing I really wanted it to do. It put me inside a virtual space and gave me an experience that’s not possible with the traditional console setup we’ve come to know and love. With the exception of some mild queasiness at the beginning of the demo, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with PlayStation VR. October 13th can’t get here soon enough!