This week, Sony is taking the rather daring move of releasing a new gaming platform. It’s not the new PlayStation Pro, but instead a system add-on to the PlayStation 4: the PlayStation VR, a headset that promises a glimpse of the future today, albeit through a mess of wires.
This isn’t the first time Sony has experimented with gaming; the original PlayStation was a risky venture that paid off. Since then, they’ve tried Augmented Reality (AR) and some terrific use of stereoscopic 3D, and they’ve given a lot of support to indie creators of label-defying virtual experiences.
The PS VR, however, might be their boldest venture yet. It’s a $400 head-mounted display that uses either the standard PlayStation controller or up to two of Sony’s Move controllers to help you navigate your own private 3D space. Releasing with over a dozen games, the PS VR does wonders for showing the wonders—and pitfalls—of virtual reality as a whole.
The system also brings back the demo disc, which we haven’t seen in a long time. Impressive demos of upcoming and current games like the stunning racer Drive Club VR and the amazingly creepy Resident Evil VR demo Kitchen show off just how next-level VR can be. The giant-robot team-sport game RIGS: Mechanized Combat League is a fast-paced multiplayer riot, while the hilariously B-grade Until Dawn: Rush of Blood is a fun and twisted carnie-ride shooting gallery.
There are surreal musical shooters, gimmicky ball games and impressive 3D puzzlers to be had within the confines of the surprisingly comfortable visor. There’s even an amusing Batman simulator. There’s no so-called “killer app” here, nothing that screams “must have,” but most of the launch titles are entertaining enough to show you the great potential of VR as a tool to make gaming much more immersive.
Here’s the thing, though: It’s a fine line between playable and nausea-inducing, and time will tell if the PlayStation 4 really has the horsepower to create truly expansive VR worlds. Most of the games here are carefully designed to provide illusions of depth while staying within the limitations of the system. It’s easy to tell when a game goes outside the line, because when it does you’ll feel sick for the rest of the evening—even after taking the headset off.
Case in point: Here They Lie. It’s a stunningly grim slow-burn horror game that takes place within the twisting streets of a desolate city. It’s exactly the kind of game I love, but it’s clearly unoptimized for the PS VR (or simply too much for the system, which seems less likely). Played from a first-person POV, the game features controls that flick your view in whatever direction you push the stick or the option to turn freely. The former option makes the game more physically manageable, but it never felt aligned right. And the latter, even though it automatically narrows your field of view to compensate for motion issues while turning, is so disorienting that I very nearly vomited.
Where Sony takes the PS VR and how well the market receives it could very well determine the fate of VR as a whole. While the PC-only Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are impressive pieces of hardware with a diehard following, the entry price for a PC powerful enough to run them on top of their significant retail price is a huge hurdle. If Sony can prove that people are willing to sit in their living rooms with a large object strapped to their heads, it could open the floodgates for mainstream VR.
But that’s a pretty big if. As it is, I really like the PS VR for its array of stunning games. The real worth of the PlayStation VR will be directly tied to how well Sony supports it with new and innovative titles. Right now though, it’s a solid buy for diehard gamers in search of a new experience, but not yet a required purchase. In a telling sign of the product’s advantages and shortcomings, I found special satisfaction in the fact that it can be used as a personal screen for playing regular old PS4 games.