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PlayStation VR: Hands-on impressions of Sony’s virtual reality headset

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Ever since Back to the Future Part II wowed audiences with its fantasy tech vision of the year 2015 — Hoverboards! Self-lacing shoes! Virtual reality! — we’ve been waiting impatiently for these futuristic movie inventions to become actual reality. While hoverboards aren’t quite there yet, self-tying shoes are coming in November courtesy of Nike. And with the launch of PlayStation VR on Oct. 13, virtual reality is officially here for the masses.

The PS VR bundle (starting at $399) includes the sleek headset, an external processor that the unit plugs into, connecting cables, headphones, and a demo disc of forthcoming games. It requires the PS4 console, a PlayStation camera, and supports the little-used PS Move motion controllers. Setup is simple and straightforward, and when you strap the headset snugly on your head, it quickly guides you through a calibration process. That’s when the magic begins. 

PS VR is the first video game advancement in years that feels genuinely new and exciting. The PS4 has been immensely successful for Sony, selling more than 40 million units worldwide since its launch nearly three years ago, but it’s ostensibly functioned as a PS3 with better graphical capabilities. There’s hardly any difference between how you play Uncharted 3 on PS3 versus Uncharted 4 on PS4. So much of this hardware generation has focused on resolution and frame rates that it seemingly had lost sight of innovation. But the PS VR feels like the next-gen leap we’ve been waiting for since Nintendo introduced motion controls with its obscenely successful Wii console 10 years ago. 

PS VR builds on that foundation and takes it to the next level. Now, not only are you using motion controls to interact with virtual objects in three-dimensional space, but you can look 360 degrees around you thanks to the headset’s motion-tracking capabilities (provided you don’t get caught up in the headset’s cords, which unfortunately, are still a harsh reality of VR). The ability to look anywhere and see your virtual arms reaching out in space reacting 1:1 is positively transformative, and feels like the next big step in video games — even if many of the experiences offered at launch still feel exploratory at this point.

At its best, PS VR makes you feel connected to the virtual space in ways that typical video games simply can’t replicate. Take, for instance, Batman: Arkham VR ($20), one of the standout launch titles (slight spoilers ahead). Early on you’re standing in Wayne Manor when you hear trusted butler Alfred Pennyworth talking to your right. Because of the 3D audio, which makes it sound like noises are coming from distinctive directions, you know he’s to your right, and it takes a moment to realize that you have to physically turn your head to see him. When you do, it seems like a life-sized butler is standing next to you. 

Alfred holds out a key for you, and using the Move controller, you move your hand, which is represented as Bruce’s in the virtual space, to pick it up. You then place the key in a piano’s lock, use the controller to lift the piano cover, and are greeted with a set of keys. Here you are free to bang out your best Tori Amos impression, which launches a secret entrance to the Batcave. This is where it gets trippy: You’re descending on an elevator, and there’s a moment when your stomach lurches as your brain and your body battle over whether you’re actually moving. You know you’re not, but as you delve deeper into the Batcave, you can’t help but feel the downward trajectory. 

Moments later, in arguably the greatest gaming moment for anyone who wore a blue felt cape as a kid, you reach out into virtual space, grab hold of Batman’s cowl and physically place it on your face (well, you really kind of just bump a controller against your headset). When you do that and look ahead into the virtual mirror, Batman is staring back at you, his head and arms moving in perfect unison with yours. You are Batman in a way that even the excellent Arkham games could never get across previously. And although Arkham VR is a relatively short experience, it’s an exciting taste of things to come. 

At its worst, PS VR can make you feel a little nauseous, particularly in games where you control movement with the analog sticks and are still free to look around with your head movements. I was super into Scavengers Odyssey, a 3D space shooter that is part of the PlayStation VR Worlds collection of smaller interactive experiences, because of this freedom of movement. In Arkham VR, Batman moves around by simply pointing at a location and teleporting there, but in Scavengers Odyssey, you have complete control. I was leaping onto asteroids and having a blast blasting baddies when I suddenly started to feel really queasy. Then I realized my forehead was sweating where it touched the headset, and it was time for a break. I still haven’t had the stomach to go back to that game. 

The biggest problem facing VR is probably the fact that you’re wearing a large sight-obstructing object on your head… which is kind of integral to the experience. The headset itself is quite comfortable to wear (even over glasses) for a while, though after an hour or so, you begin to feel its weight. What’s worse is how incredibly isolating it is, which is great for creating a fantastic sense of immersion in virtual reality, but awkward when you’re patting around your couch to find your controller in actual reality. And if you live with someone, just prepare to have them scare the crap out of you by gently touching your shoulder to get your attention. It was by far a more terrifying jump scare than anything I experienced in the on-rails shooter Until Dawn: Rush of Blood.

PS VR launches with around 30 games, and many are smaller proofs of concept of the types of experiences that will eventually be fleshed out. There are several on-rails shooters, a few 3D puzzle and sports games, and some fantastic rhythm-action games. All of these are improved simply by virtue of being in VR. In gaming, there’s a term called “launch goggles,” which is a lot like “beer goggles” except it makes your shiny new games look more desirable. It’s the reason I liked Battle Arena Toshinden way more than I reasonably should have when PSOne launched in 1995. 

There isn’t really a huge must-buy killer app that demands to be played on day one, but that’s true of virtually every new hardware launch. There are a solid number of great experiences for early adopters to try (check back later this week for our ranking of PS VR’s best launch titles). And I got a surprising amount of enjoyment from the PS VR’s Cinematic Mode, which lets you watch any game or streaming video on a giant virtual projected video screen. I queued up Captain America: Civil War’s airport scene to test it out, and Giant-Man hadn’t looked so giant since I saw the movie in IMAX.

Even though PS VR is more promising than revolutionary at this point, I couldn’t wait to strap the headset on every night of the week I tested it, and I’m excited to see where Sony takes it, particularly once it puts the might of its first-party studios behind it. Uncharted 3 might not have been too different from Uncharted 4, but you can bet that a hypothetical Uncharted VR would be a brand-new experience. It’s been a long time coming, but it feels like consumer VR is finally here to stay — even if it came a year later than Back to the Future promised.