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Diving into PlayStation VR

If you told me when I was a kid that I'd be able to see fantastical, magical worlds in nearly perfect 3D I would have said you were crazy. I would have said you were crazy about being able to give voice commands to my TV and carrying a powerful computer in my pocket too, but here we are today with virtual reality (VR), smart TVs, and cell phones. To that end this week I will be reviewing the PlayStation VR.

Before I dive in deep to the PlayStation VR, I feel I should talk a bit about how much I've experienced so far in this emerging virtual technology. When Oculus Rift was announced I got a behind-closed-doors demo of one of the early "bubble gum and duct tape" prototypes and was really surprised at how good that was. A bit rough and blurry, but it worked! They had adapted DOOM 3 at the time, so I could "walk" and "look" around in the space station setting and marvel at it all. Couple years later I found myself at E3 2013 and they had the High Definition (HD) version of the Oculus Rift fresh from development. The difference was almost like night and day. After that demo, I started to think this virtual reality thing might actually take off.

Then things got interesting.

Companies started coming out of the woodwork to make a VR device of some type. Most are using adaptive devices for smartphones, like Google’s Cardboard and Samsung’s Gear VR. At the higher end is Oculus Rift who got the ball rolling and HTC’s Vive. The HTC Vive took that ball and honed it. This year, after PAX West 2016, I got invited to HTC’s Seattle offices to try out the HTC Vive.

Mind blowing is an understatement.

Granted they were probably using a top of the line computer to power it all, but DAMN! Their VR system set the bar high. The visuals were crisp, detailed, and lifelike. The first thing they showed me was a demo of being under the ocean. I stood on the bow of a sunken ship and looked out. I bobbed my head away from minnows as they swam around my head. When a blue whale swam into view I was gobsmacked at the size and detail. As it moved past me I swore it was going to hit me with its tail. All of that does come with a high price tag, though. The HTC Vive base system comes in around $800. That does not include the beefy computer you will need to run it. Oculus Rift is not cheap either. Smartphone systems work, though I can't say how well as I have not experienced any of them. They are a cheaper option, but I don't see them having the power to be as good as the Vive or Rift.

Then there is the PlayStation VR.

Currently, the PlayStation VR is the only entry for the home console market. It is a cheaper option with the basic headset only option coming in at $399 and the deluxe with a camera and two move controllers at $499. Both come with the PlayStation VR Demo Disc. So does cheaper mean terrible quality? Not quite.

Quality, in this case, depends on which PlayStation 4 (PS4) system you have, the regular or the Pro. The regular will be the focus what I talk about here since that is what I have (a launch PlayStation 4 no less). The PlayStation 4 Pro does have more power available to developers to use if they wish, for VR. I wish I could tell you how much, but I can't. I have heard that it is a noticeable difference.

So, how well does the PlayStation VR perform on the regular PS4? Awesomely!

Setting up was a bit of a chore and part of that was a weak link in my home theater system. I run my HDMI cable for my PS4 through a multi-tap that includes both my PS3 and my PS4. When I first turned on the PS4 with the PlayStation VR I saw nothing on my HDTV and assumed there was no output. Trying to configure the headset when viewing everything through said headset was a nightmare. It was only a day or two later when it dawned on me that my cable routing was the problem. Once I was directly plugged into my HDTV everything was so much easier.

Still, even with the cable trouble, I had that first day, I was able to be up and running within about fifteen to twenty minutes. Making sure I had everything connected and then repositioning my PlayStation Camera higher, above my HDTV, I was soon off and running.

The first thing I tried was PlayStation’s version of the undersea demo, part of the PlayStation Worlds demo. Here you are being lowered onto a platform from a ship. As I was lowered different things came into view. At first, various fish and smaller sea life. Eventually, I was deep enough to where manta rays were swimming around me. Soon I passed them into darker depths to where bio-luminescent jellyfish started gathering around. It was breathtakingly beautiful. It wasn't as crisp and clean as the HTC Vive, but for a home console, it was much better than I originally anticipated. I would describe the difference as looking through a screen door versus looking through an open door. The PlayStation VR had a slight screen door effect, but I would soon find that wasn't the case with everything.

There is quite the variety of game types on the PlayStation VR Demo Disc. I drove a Ferrari in DriveClub VR, a futuristic tank in a heavily updated Battlezone, Wayward Sky was a point and click platformer of sorts, and watched trippy visuals dance with music in Harmonix Music VR.

Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, Here They Lie, and Kitchen Teaser (for Resident Evil 7) all put on the horror scares in different ways. Kitchen Teaser had you tied up in a chair while someone else tried to free you and battle a possessed woman at the same time. I had some real goosebump moments in it. Here They Lie was a first person survival horror where you wandered around a subway trying to not get caught by monsters. Until Dawn: Rush of Blood was best of the three. It combined into a sort of house of horrors with a carnival shooter ride.

Allumette stood out since it wasn’t a game. It was an animated short told in virtual reality. You could move around and see the story play out from different angles. At one point I even put my head "inside" one of the set pieces and could watch the things happening inside. Forewarning, have some tissues handy, it is a sad, but heartwarming story.

Catlateral Damage and Job Simulator both had goofball fun going for them. Job Simulator had you working in an office cubical where your boss and all your co-workers are robots. The makers of Catlateral Damage added VR support to the game for free, so now you can jump around rooms as the cat and swat things off shelves onto the floor.

Of all the games and demos, though, Rez Infinite was the super highlight. I love Rez. I have the PlayStation 2 version and the Xbox 360 Remastered version. It is an on-rails shooter game wrapped in a cyberpunk world with an excellent techno, electro-club music soundtrack. All of your shots and subsequent explosions are sound samples that work with the soundtrack giving it a personal remix feel. Developer Enhance Games provided me with a full copy of Rez Infinite. It takes the original game and puts it into virtual reality making what could be called the “definitive” version of Rez. Familiar, and yet new, I fell in love with Rez all over again. For me, Rez Infinite is almost reason enough to get a PlayStation VR. The visuals, the controls, and the sounds… It felt perfect. (Side note, at the time of this being posted, Rez Infinite it has been revealed that Rez Infinite has won Best VR Game at The Game Awards 2016.)

So far, PlayStation VR is a real kick to play around in with VR titles, but what about non-VR titles and apps? They have included Cinematic Mode. In Cinematic Mode anything that is not VR plays out on a screen that is virtually set six to ten feet away from you. The screens come in three virtual sizes: Small (117 inches), Medium (163 inches), and Large (226 inches).

As cool and awesome as the PlayStation VR is, it wouldn't be a proper cool and awesome new tech without some drawbacks. The most obvious are that you can't see what is really around you. Sony advises you have a clear area around you of about six feet wide and nine feet deep. I'd round up to ten by ten if you have space, just in case, especially if you are using the move controllers.

Next, sit if you have to. Many of the games are designed with you sitting in mind, but not all. If you feel nauseous sit. If you still feel nauseous take the headset off. Sony states this also. You have to remember your eyes are getting information that everything is moving around you, yet the rest of your body feels nothing. Your brain might not be able to process this and sometimes you might feel nauseous. In the demo for Until Dawn: Rush of Blood you’re seated in a "carnival car" and at one point the tracks rise and drop like a roller coaster. I felt the gentle tickle of butterflies in my stomach at that point, but it passed for me.

Some games use the Move controllers. These seem to have been improved since the PS3 version to read better, but there was a point I turned too far for the camera to see them. This happened to me in Job Simulator as I tried to move an employee file to the "FIRED" stamper. So it's not quite a perfect system, but kudos to Sony for using technology that some PlayStation owners might still have. It makes the upfront costs less of a barrier.

The headset itself is very comfortable. Its design puts the weight and balance almost mid/top of your head and is thickly padded, keeping it from weighing down the front of your head and straining your neck. The viewing unit of the headset also slides forward and back to accommodate for people that wear glasses. I have to wear glasses for reading and working on my computer but was able to use the headset with them.

Final thoughts, is PlayStation VR worth the investment? I hate to make the yes/no answer here, but it really comes down to can you afford it now? While I completely enjoy it and I think Rez Infinite might be the killer app for it right now; the reality is a little less. I think that VR can be the next big thing. I was never sold on the 3D TVs because they never really pulled you in. Yeah, it had some things come at you and some things are in the distance, but the scene never surrounded you. It never seemed quite right.

Truth be told a lot of the 360 video shorts I watched, like the one that puts you in Times Square in New York, were really cool. But video quality was grainy when compared to some of the VR games. Of the VR games, the ones that looked the best had simpler graphics while the ones that went for realism started to have that screen door effect. Again this was on a launch PS4 so it might be a limitation of the system or maybe the developers just need more time to better understand the specifications of VR and find better solutions. Games in the mid to end of the life cycle of a system usually look better because devs know the hardware much better. Personally, I feel it is an investment in the future of gaming. Recommending it is easy to do, with the caveat that you need to look at the area where you are going to be playing it and whether or not you get motion sick easily. As many safeguards as developers put in to make the game as smooth and playable as possible, there are still going to be the few individuals that get queasy.

Either way, I think Sony have firmly got the middle ground between the high-end PC elite VR and the lesser smartphone VR locked up (for now) on the home living room consoles. They walk a good balance that looks great and is fun but has room for improvement. Except in Rez Infinite. That is super perfect until they create the virtual reality suit.

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