Sunday, January 01, 2017

The PlayStation VR - my... review?

There's a line in "A Christmas Story" about the "best Christmas present I had ever received, or would ever receive." I'm not saying this is that for me, but it's close!

This is the PlayStation VR. My wife had a hard time finding one for me, but I ended up helping her out with that. Only the Sony store in Manhattan seemed to have them in stock at all before Christmas.

I'd love to do a video on this thing, but I don't have the right equipment for it. So for now I'll just write about it here. I might do a video later just shooting directly at my TV set.

I love it. It feels like an entirely new way to play games. I know there have been abortive attempts at VR in the past, and of course the PS VR isn't the only option out there right now. (The HTC Vive is too expensive and requires an entire empty room; I did consider the Oculus Rift but decided I'd rather play in my living room.) But we're finally at a point where virtual reality can really be convincing.

Now, I've ridden a bunch of VR rides at "virtual theme parks" in the past, so I already knew both that I liked virtual reality and also that I didn't suffer from a lot of the negative effects some people seem to. I've been a gamer for a long time, and I think that helps. I never feel any sense of vertigo or motion sickness while wearing my PS VR headset; my body and mind are not fooled to quite that level, or maybe I'm just not prone to motion sickness in general. Your mileage may vary.

But it's still incredibly interesting to me that part of my brain is fooled, that I can't completely disconnect what I'm seeing in front of my eyes from reality, even though I know it isn't real. I suppose this is the same part of the brain that allows the movies we see to cause us exhilaration or fear or sadness, despite knowing we're watching actors recite lines from a script.

For example, the PS VR launch bundle that I got comes with a short demo from the upcoming Resident Evil: biohazard simply called "Kitchen". (Minor spoilers ahead, if you care.) In it, you're tied up sitting in a chair in, well, a kitchen. Your friend is unconscious in front of you. Eventually he wakes up and tries to cut your plastic restraints off. Suddenly, he's attacked from behind by a female infected (aka a zombie), who also stabs you in the leg. She then drags your friend's body away into the darkness before tossing his head at your feet.

From there, you can hear her banging around the room but you can't see her. You can look around, but it's too dark and you're still tied up. Suddenly, she puts her hands over your eyes from behind. When she takes them away, she then climbs on top of you, growling and dripping saliva and blood on your face, her knife ready to plunge into you.

Playing on TV, this would be a typical scene in any zombie game. In VR, it is legitimately scary. The first time I played through it, I actually exclaimed "aaaaaaaaaaahhh!" out loud and moved to the side (though I did laugh at the ridiculousness of it). One thing I somehow didn't realize about modern VR is that it is actual 3D, and the effect is far better than the paper cutout effect you get with 3D movies. All objects have real depth, so when a person really gets in your face in a VR game, it's easy to cower down instinctively.

I've now noticed this trick used in several of the other VR titles, and I hope it doesn't become a cliche, but I'm sure VR will eventually have its share of tropes like any other format.

I later downloaded and played through the longer Resident Evil: biohazard demo, and I have to say that by the end, I felt like I was in a real-life nightmare. Several of the titles that are on the demo disc are also horror titles, and in each one I played, the creepiness builds up over time. My brain almost slowly begins to accept and adapt to the game world as reality. It makes me a little worried about the future of humanity! Eventually, maybe once we get more elegant headsets, a lot of people will be playing games this way and almost living in total alternate realities. What kind of reality will people choose to inhabit, and how will that affect them in the "real world"?

That's a big subject that I'd like to see more written about. Certainly this goes beyond the effects of simply playing a game on TV - that seems obvious. VR really gets to you on a much deeper, more instinctual level, where even if the intellectual part of your brain isn't fooled, the animalistic part is. Whole worlds will be created to suit any taste, or indulge any fetish. Things will become normalized that maybe shouldn't be, and the lines between actual and virtual reality will begin to blur a bit - especially when VR games become more social. This is the same debate we've always had about violent video games, but VR makes even current flat-screen video games seem quaint in comparison, like a child's fantasy.

But it's also really fun, and I'm admittedly addicted already. I've ordered the physical version of Rez Infinite - one of the main reasons I wanted the PS VR to begin with - and I'm sure I'll pick up Rush of Blood, Batman: Arkham VR and Battlezone at the very least in pretty short order. Basically everything I've played on the demo disc has been fun, and nothing feels like the VR's clunky or tacked on. Everything is surprisingly polished and just feels "right" in VR. And PS VR games are generally made to be played either sitting down or standing in one spot, so it's pretty easy to fit it into an existing living room setup.

I do hope that enough people buy these things to make continued development of the hardware worthwhile. I'd actually love it if the PS5 was a VR-based console, with the sensors built into the system, allowing for a smaller headset with either a single cable, or no cables. (Wireless would be awesome.) VR headsets all need to be a little more elegant, easier to set up and not as cumbersome to use.

The PS VR is probably the worst offender because of its camera, processor unit and the four cables connected to it, two of which then connect to the headset and keep you tethered at all times. These cables aren't very long, either, which probably serves to remind you how close you need to stay to the PS camera (which helps track your head movements via lights on the headset). These limitations and annoyances need to go away for mass acceptance to happen. VR isn't something you sit on a shelf; this is something you have to wear and move your head around with. So it needs to be a little less cumbersome. I like PS VR's futuristic look right now, but I predict that in 20 years this generation of PS VR (and all current VR systems) will seem positively clunky.

I do highly recommend it for right now, though. It definitely fulfills the promise of a first-generation product. Despite the almost inherent goofiness of wearing a giant tethered headset on your head, this is really a new kind of experience. I don't think I've felt this way about a gaming platform since at least the switch to 3D consoles from 2D, and maybe not since the first time I played video games at all. We're one step closer to real Star Trek holodeck type stuff here.

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About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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