If Sony can get its PlayStation VR headset into the same ballpark of user-friendliness as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive (despite its horsepower disadvantage), it could do big things. With a huge head start in base station adoption (all those PS4s already sitting under gamers' TVs) and a relatively low price, it could hit a nice middle ground for VR early adopters. We aren't counting out Sony's headset, but it also isn't there yet.
After spending four hours today playing various launch games, we can say that PlayStation VR is doing quite a few things right. The headset has nice ergonomics, as it's easy to slide on and adjust in two different places (by pressing one of two buttons) to find the right fit. It's easy for glasses-wearers to leave their specs on and find the best positioning without squeezing too tight.
Though PSVR is working with lesser horsepower in its PS4 base station compared to the Rift's and Vive's gaming PCs, that alone isn't a deal-breaker. Sony and its developer partners have done a solid job squeezing as much graphical fidelity out of the experience as the hardware allows. Eve: Valkyrie, a game we've played on the Oculus Rift many times, is noticeably lower-end here, but still looks good. Most importantly, the gameplay is identical and, once you jump into space dogfights, you'll forget about details like inferior lighting or shading.
The problem is Sony's PlayStation Move motion controllers and the PlayStation camera that tracks them simply weren't built for today's VR. These were controllers for the tail end of the Wii era – basically obsolete tech by today's standards. If Sony sticks with this setup, we think the company is making a colossal mistake. It needs something much better before the headset's October launch.
We were psyched for our first demo, Golem. The game has an awesome premise: you're a little girl who can't use her legs, but who, from her own bed, can telepathically take control of small dolls and giant golems battling in fantastic worlds. When you become the golem, the game is essentially Mike Tyson's Punch Out, as you engage in one-on-one battles, blocking enemy attacks and countering with your own attacks (using the huge sword in your hand).
But when I went to counter my opponents' moves, the controller didn't respond well at all. Tracking was inaccurate and inconsistent. It sorta swung in the general direction I was aiming (most of the time) but it couldn't track speed with any reliability (so you're left swinging the controller in slow motion) and has way too low an overall accuracy no matter how quickly you move the controllers. This is last-gen tech that has no business being part of a flagship first-gen VR headset.
Another example: Job Simulator. This game has been a favorite of ours on both the Rift and Vive, as you use their respective motion controllers to manipulate objects in virtual workspaces. The PSVR version, though, was the first time when the tech got in the way of the game. I'd reach out to grab a stapler on the desk in front of me and suddenly the virtual hand would fly up in the air, two feet above my head.
Again, clearly not the developer's fault, as the game plays perfectly on the Rift and Vive. It just can't do much with Sony's shit tracking.
There's also a lack of delicacy with the ergonomics of the PS Move controllers. Both Oculus Touch and the Vive controllers do a good job of feeling like you really have hands inside virtual worlds. PS Move is too thick and remote-like to fill that role – it can only feel like a hand with a large pole in it.
This theme was consistent throughout my PlayStation VR demos. Cool games with some promise, but the horrible PS Move tracking ruined most of them.
The two best PSVR games I played today were Rez Infinite and Eve: Valkyrie. Guess what they both have in common? They use the PS4's DualShock 4 gamepad instead of PS Move.
Fortunately there's hope. Sony has over six months before the headset's October launch – it could still release a new pair of motion controllers and new camera before then, without spoiling all the work developers have put into this. The company didn't say anything about PS Move in the event today – and neither it nor the camera are bundled with the US$399 headset – so maybe Sony already knows it needs to be better and has something in development behind closed doors. Maybe.
We'll keep our fingers crossed, because PSVR can represent consoles in this first round of VR headsets much better than it is right now.
Back to the games, Rez Infinite (above) is a standout – a potential first-gen VR killer game. It blends trippy visuals with a groovy techno soundtrack, and gives you a pleasant sense of movement through simple Tron-like, abstract worlds. Hard to describe, but very fun to play. And, again, since it uses the gamepad, the horrible optical tracking doesn't come into play here.
We'll wrap up with an open letter to one of our favorite companies in gaming:
You have a storied history in gaming, and are the current-gen console leader. Some of the smartest minds in the industry are working for you and we've fallen in love with so many of your exclusive franchises through the years.
Please do something much better for PSVR in the optical tracking and motion controller departments before October. Buy HTC Vives for your hardware team, and try to get your hands on an Oculus Touch developer kit. You need to use them to fully appreciate how unusable your current motion control setup is. It stinks, it's horrible, it needs to go.
Recycling obsolete tech for an emerging new field is a shortcut that's beneath you.
We tell you this not out of smug self-righteousness, but because we love your company and the great things you can do. You owe it to your reputation, the gamers who have invested in your ecosystem and VR early adopters. Get this right, Sony, and it will pay off.
All the best,