My Adventures in Virtual Reality

So VR is a thing that I’ve not cared much about. It… exists, and I respected that the library of content for it was growing. And for a time, that was that.

And then somebody told me there was a VR Tetris.

So with the hardware slightly matured and the library of titles that are more than tech demo-y experiences finally trickling out of the woodwork (and with a not insignificant amount of sales and gift cards to soften the blow), I picked up a PSVR headset bundle. Let’s do the thing where I aimlessly talk about stuff as though my opinion has value!

The Hardware

I haven’t had much experience with other VR headsets, so I can’t speak too much to their setup process, but the PSVR runs almost exclusively off of the move camera and gyro to track movement and position, with no other sensors for controllers. It feels a little less precise than the short interactions I’ve had with the Rift and Vive hardware, but nothing that really breaks the experience.

The headset looks fairly bulky, but wearing it is comfortable once you’ve adjusted it to the appropriate size and viewing distance for your own noggin. The first thing that popped out to me was the relatively low pixel density on the display compared to the higher end PC headsets, but still nothing so terrible as to ruin the experience. The move controllers… exist, and perform their basic function just fine, with the added benefit of no longer having to look at the giant lollipops while you play.

And that’s… essentially all there is to say about it. Despite the off-putting amount of cables that come with the unit, it all ends up being pretty well contained when all is said and done. The only obvious wires that come out of my setup are the ones that go directly to the headset, which can easily be disconnected and stored. Sleek!

The Games

Alright, with all boring objectivity aside let’s talk about the real meat and what I feel makes the PSVR the most worthwhile VR platform… for my very specific interests. As a general caveat, these aren’t comprehensive reviews. I’ve only really had about an hour or so with each one and these are mostly just initial reactions to VR and what it does for the game. I’ll probably spin these out into full critique once I spend more time with them.

Beat Saber

The VR bundle I got was the Beat Saber/Borderlands 2 VR set, and Beat Saber was the primary reason why. I’d played it before very briefly on a Rift and fell in love with it, but wasn’t too keen on the idea of getting a whole VR setup for the one game… but more on that specific line of thinking later.

In spite of that, Beat Saber absolutely was a deciding factor in biting the bullet and picking up a headset. Guitar Hero meets light sabers is a strange sell, but they absolutely nail the sensation. And despite the move controllers generally being unwieldy to hold, they work perfectly here, given the context.

In terms of content, there unfortunately isn’t too much, only clocking in at about 20 songs. But what’s there are legitimate bops and I adore the concept so much that I’ve already got funds earmarked for DLC. For what feels like it should be little more than a tech demo, everything just works.

Super Stardust Ultra VR

Super Stardust is one of my favorite pick up and play arcade titles, and the VR upgrade seemed like a fun way to waste an afternoon. Seeing the planets pop in 3D right in front of my face was a nice touch, but not a real system seller.

And then I tried the exclusive VR Invasion mode, which attempts to adapt the formula to a first person view from inside a cockpit. And while it initially blew me away, it ended up feeling shallow. It doesn’t hit the arcade highs of the game proper, and ends up a bit slower and less chaotic. Fun all the same, but not 200 dollar headset fun.

It also introduced me to motion sickness, something I’ve never experienced before, and that was definitely a trip. An issue unique to cameras in VR is finding a way to present first person motion that’s palatable to the average user, and it’s clear that we’ve still got a ways to go on this front. While games where the camera is stationary (like Beat Saber) or have a fixed, central target (like Stardust’s standard gameplay) don’t seem to trigger any reaction, the sensation of having visual and auditory motion without any tactile feedback has a tendency to trigger nausea or worse in many individuals. In games designed from the ground up for VR, this is a problem that needs to be solved… in cases like Stardust, it largely seems to be forgotten.

Either way, Stardust is a blast, but I probably could’ve lived without the VR upgrade.

Borderlands 2 VR

So to preface this, I don’t care for Borderlands very much. I think they’re plainly average games which have more value in a multiplayer setting than anything, so you can probably imagine my initial impressions of the idea. 

And unfortunately… it kinda lives up to it? A low-effort, high-cost port that mostly feels like the VR was an afterthought, even though it’s right there in the title. In an attempt to alleviate motion sickness, the game tries to force a teleport on you and encourages you to use it primarily, which did little to help me adjust and I immediately sunk back into playing it like I always have. And while that did make me queasy for a bit, it was ultimately a better experience than using the VR gimmicks the game was trying to guilt me into trying.

But ultimately, I got used to it and it’s pretty much what it says on the tin. Borderlands 2. In VR. Without multiplayer. With very little effort put into preserving the presentation of the game, and cutscenes jarringly forcing you back into 2D before you’re kicked back into the 3D world with little to no transition.

Had it not come included with the bundle, it probably wouldn’t be on this list.

Tetris Effect

I’m not going to lie. Tetris Effect was the reason I finally decided to buy one of these things. My “killer app,” as it were. And while the general core loop of Tetris is still there and engaging I kinda have to say… I’m not all that impressed yet? It could just be that I’m still adjusting to VR and I’m just not capable of feeling the “wow factor,” but…

I dunno, this is one where I really wanted the experience to be enhanced by VR and so far, it’s just kinda… there. I’ve had about as much playing it in VR as I did in 2D, so I’m not sure it was really worth the effort just yet.

Astro Bot: Rescue Mission

Since I wasn’t paying too much attention to VR prior, I didn’t really know what the library contained outside of the more general “experiences” that I’d been able to try here and there, like Batman VR and Job Simulator. It’s part of what painted my perception of VR still being a medium in its infancy without any real additions that did much for gaming. But I happened to hear that Astro Bot was a pretty good title for the platform and managed to pick it up on sale alongside the headset.

And holy crap, I think I found the definitive VR experience.

Astro Bot is an adorable 3D platformer starring the equally adorable robots from Studio Japan’s free (with peripheral) titles, The Playroom and The Playroom VR. The plot is as light as you’d expect, the tiny robots fly through space on their adorable faceship, who’s recently picked up on VR as well. Then an alien bumps into them and wants in on the action, steals the headset, blows up the ship, and causes the bots to crash land on planets nearby.

Truly, the Citizen Kane of VR.

What sets Astro Bot apart from what else I’ve played so far is that it doesn’t try to force a formula that doesn’t work for the experience. You straight up control Astro Bot as a standard 3D platforming hero, who jumps, punches and gets jet lasers. Instead the game sort of pits you as Lakitu from Super Mario 64, being the anchor point for the camera at all times. You watch Astro Bot in the world from the comfort of your own robo-saucer, which means that you need to do the camera manipulation yourself – peeking around cameras and searching for secrets before sending Astro Bot off into the wild blue yonder. It works extremely well, and enemies work to disrupt both your vision and halt Astro Bot’s advance.

You’re also occasionally given small gadgets to assist with the platforming yourself, either by breaking things with your own giant noggin or using grappling hooks and other tools to provide ropes for Astro Bot to walk along and/or be launched off of.

Unlike most of the other games here, where the VR is sort of plastered onto the experience to add a new layer of immersion into an existing formula, Astro Bot actively works to make VR an essential part of the experience. You could probably play Beat Saber or any 3D cockpit game in 2D and still have the same experience, but you actually would be losing something from playing Astro Bot on a standard 2D screen.

In Conclusion…

How much enjoyment you get out of VR right is going to depend on just how much you enjoy playing games with polarizing gimmicks. We’re finally seeing the hardware drop down into reasonable levels that make it more accessible to average consumers, which means we’re finally starting to get more VR Games than VR experiences.

But if you were to ask me if it was worth it, I’d probably have to tell you to save your cash, at least until we see these transitional issues solved. Getting used to movement without motion is a unique challenge, and until we actually see developers solving that problem consistently the dream of open VR worlds is still far away.