PLAYSTATION VR REVIEW

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When Playstation VR was first announced at the 2014 Game Developers’ Conference I was immediately skeptical.  I had been burned by Sony on console peripherals before (Playstation Eye, Playstation Move, etc.) and I didn’t think the Playstation 4 hardware could handle VR.  Add to that a strange industry year in which all of a sudden both Sony and Microsoft announced mid-generation console refreshes/upgrades (one of which, Playstation 4 Pro, hits next month, on November 10th) and I was ready to ignore all the launch hype and skip it altogether. And then, several unexpected things happened.  First and foremost, my son told me he wanted it … several days after launch, when the PSVR bundles had started to run out online, and at my local Best Buy (local availability of gaming stuff has been tricky since Gamestop packed up and closed all its stores on the island… but I digress.)  Second, reports started coming in from gaming and tech websites that the final hardware was actually stellar, and even worked on PCs, Xbox and even Wii U on “Cinematic Mode” (more on that later.)  There was even speculation that the hardware could eventually be used for VR gaming on the PC.  My defenses crumbled at this point, but then Ben Kuchera reviewed the PSVR over at Polygon.com, and he went gaga over the thing.  That was the final straw — and let’s face it, when it comes to gaming stuff, I have the willpower of a gnat.  So I managed to secure one of he last Starter Bundles at my local Best Buy.

The first thing to know is that Playstation VR comes in a Core Bundle ($399.99) that includes just the headset, the Processor Unit, basic wired earbuds and all necessary cables.  If you get this bundle, you cannot use the unit at all with just the contents of the box, as it requires the Playstation Camera to work.  For that reason, the Starter Bundle I got ($499.99) is a much better deal, as it includes the Playstation Camera (which alone is  $60 when sold separately, as well as two Playstation Move controllers (yeah, those very same sticks back from when Sony wanted the PS3 to emulate the Nintendo Wii’s motion controls.)

With all parts you get when opening that box, setting everything up can be a bit intimidating at first, but Sony includes clear and step-by-step instructions on how to do it, and even idiot-proofs the whole thing by labeling all the parts with big numbered labels.  You connect the Processor Unit to the TV via HDMI cable, and then connect another HDMI cable between the Playstation 4 and the Processor Unit.  Then you connect the Playstation VR Headset to the Processor Unit via its dual HDMI connector, and the included earbuds to the headphone jack on the VR headset control breakout box.  You want to do this in order to get 3D positional audio, which ads greatly to the immersion, but the included earbuds are just adequate for the job.  You really want to use your own headphones.  The VR headset has its own microphone, so you just need headphones, not an actual headset.Finally, you connect the supplied power adapter to the Processor Unit.

One important tidbit:  you need to charge those two Playstation Move controllers first, and Sony won’t tell you this, but they need a data connection in order to charge.  That means you need to plug them into a Playstation 4 or Playstation 3 (or an official Sony or third-party charger) for them to work.  You cannot plug them into the wall with a generic USB charger or with a non-official charger brick.  Also, before you start, you need to connect those move controllers to the Playstation 4 at least once, using the supplied cables, in order to sync them with your console.After

After all that, it’s just a matter of powering your Playstation 4.  If you haven’t used it for the last couple of weeks (which I had not) it will ask to update the firmware to the latest version, which enables the Playstation VR compatibility.  After that is done, you power on the Playstation VR via the button on the headset’s breakout box.  The Playstation 4 will detect it, and ask you to update the headset’s firmware, which only takes a minute.  After that, it launches into the setup and calibration, which only takes a few minutes.  You get screens giving you step by step instructions on expanding the headsets rear band, and fitting it over your head, and putting the headphones on. headset is pretty comfy, even for people who wear glasses (like yours truly.)

And then the world disappears.

Seriously.  All of a sudden, you are in a pitch-black space, with a giant cinema screen in front of you, showing your PS4’s display.  This is the “Cinematic Mode”, in which you can watch movies or TV, play regular non-VR Playstation 4 games in complete immersion.  You can move your head, and the system’s camera tracks your movements, and you will then see the screen at different angles, depending of how you move, but it’s always at the same distance fom your eyes, and always clearly visible.  From here, you launch your games and apps just like always, using the Playstation 4’s Dualshock 4 controller.

At this point, I hadn’t installed any games, but  noticed that a new link had been added on the Playstation 4’s menu: The Playroom VR.  I selected it, and it took me to the PSN Store to download the game for free.  It’s basically a more elaborate version of the original Playroom that came with the Playstation 4 back at launch.  That one used the Playstation Camera for some fun Augmented Reality effects and basic games.  This one goes further — a lot further.  When you launch the game, your field of vision suddenly expands.  You find yourself facing a giant menu with several mini-games.  At this point, I was a little disoriented and was standing up, looking around .  The system tracked my movements seamlessly, and the effect of really being in another place was uncanny.  I selected the option in the middle of the menu, just out of curiosity, and all of a sudden I found myself in what looked like a child’s room filled with furniture, decorations, toys and whatnot.  In front of me was one of those coin-operated crane machines they have in game rooms and fairs everywhere.  As it turns out, you get coins by playing the different mini-games, and then come here to use them to get toys out of the machine.  They toys are collectibles, and they appear throughout the room as you “win” them.  I had some fun here, getting my feet wet with VR, getting the toys and examining them all around by moving my head around them.  It’s been years since I’ve had that sense of child-like wondered triggered by anything gaming related.  Off the top of my head, the last time I felt that way was when I powered on my launch Xbox 360 and marveled at the beautiful, unmatched (at the time) visuals of the games, or when I first tried Wii Sports and Link Crossbow Training on the Nintendo Wii at launch.

It was getting late and I wanted to try one more game before ending my session for the night, so I quit Playroom VR and decided to install Batman: Arkham VR ($20).  Though it was the disc version, the game downloaded an update during installation – I think all the VR games do, as the included VR Demo Disc and Playstation Worlds also downloaded updates.  I took the opportunity to remove the VR headset and rest my eyes a bit while the update downloaded and installed (about ten minutes.)  I should note that the VR headset is comfortable, and playing the games gave me no ill effects — no nausea, headaches, or what have you.  Keep in mind that I’m the type of gamer who gets nausea from the majority of first-person shooters.  Still, like with all things, moderation is key, and I intend to rest my eyes after every hour of gameplay.  I should also note that the headset doesn’t cause your face to get all sweaty or greasy, which some people have described as issues with the Occulus Rift or HTC Vive.  In any case, Sony includes a fiber cloth to clean the headset, if you need to.

After the update completed, I put on the headset again, and started the game.  After the usual Rocksteady and Warnerl ogo screens, the game asks you to turn on the Playstation Move controllers (you use both of them with this game) and then asks you whether you want to play the game standing or sitting down.  Standing is the recommendedoption for this particular title.  The game then asks you to stand on the Bat symbol on the floor.  I looked down, and was dumbfounded to find that, yeah, a Bat Symbol was there, so I stepped on it, and pressed X….

… And all of a sudden I was a child, on a dark rainy night, in Gotham City’s Crime Alley… The experience was visceral, creepy and in-your-face-scary. No spoilers, but the game is a must-play VR experience. 😉

In conclusion:  the Playstation VR is a must-buy for Playstation 4 owners.  I was totally, absolutely wrong about it.  You only have to try it once o realize that this is the future.  Last night, I happily went off to sleep, with visions of the potential of the Playstation VR and what devs are going to do with it… full-immersion MMORPGs like the one in Sword Art Online.  Flight and space combat simulators that make you feel like you’re really there.  VR and Bioware… the possibilities are limitless.  I can’t wait to play the other games and demos tonight. 😉