By Andy Humphreys
Virtual reality is fantastic. Most people who try it agree. It’s an incredible experience that finally goes some way towards fulfilling the promise of the fully immersive, life-altering technology that has been referenced in popular culture for decades.
But there’s a word in that last paragraph that keeps on cropping up when we talk about VR: Experience. Because that’s what we’re having when we enter into this virtual realm. An experience.
And many more people are about to have that experience in their homes, because PlayStation VR is currently in the process of rolling out across the world. First and foremost, Sony must absolutely be commended for doing what other companies dared not; they’ve brought VR to a current generation home console, and in doing so, have successfully demonstrated that gamers don’t need to hand over bundles of cash for a high-end PC to enable VR.
But what sort of experience have Sony actually brought into our homes? Well, there’s a large bunch of launch games — a necessity for any important hardware release if it’s to be a success — but what exactly is the level of quality these games bring? Let’s have a look at perhaps the most high-profile title in Sony’s launch lineup: Batman: Arkham VR.
Arkham VR is high profile for a reason: there’s few that can argue against the appeal of pulling on the famous cowl and becoming the actual Caped Crusader. Reviews have been pretty positive, praising the genuinely thrilling feel of actually being Batman, fighting crime, solving mysteries, and using the various Bat-paraphernalia for a time. A fairly short time, as it turns out — the game can reportedly be completed in around an hour and a half.
So Arkham VR gives us a brief-but-thrilling turn at being Batman. But it’s doubtful a second play-through would rekindle that initial buzz of taking on the role of an iconic superhero for the first time. Once you’ve completed it, there’s not much to keep you coming back.
Which is fine. Although comparatively short, it’s still something a great many people will want to experience. But there’s that word again. Because Arkham VR is, inescapably, less of a game, and more of an experience. It is remarkable mainly when viewed as a tech demo of sorts — a glimpse into what can potentially be done, into a future where real gameplay is possible on VR.
This experience theme carries on to the other PlayStation VR Launch titles.
Of the games available on PS VR, there’s little else that really excites. Not that there isn’t stuff with merit, or games that look worthy of a try. But it’s fair to say that 100ft Robot Golf is not quite the dramatic herald of a new age of virtual reality gaming many were hoping for. Ditto Hustle Kings VR, a fairly straightforward pool sim, or Headmaster, a game where you score points for successfully heading a soccer ball… and that’s sort of… it.
Now there are some PS VR titles created from the ground up to take advantage of the system, such as Battlezone and SuperHyperCube, but a remake of a classic first person tank sim and a puzzle game are hardly pushing any serious boundaries (as great as some are rating SuperHyperCube, the last time a system was sold on the merit of a great puzzle game as a launch title was the original Game Boy, and its hard to see a repeat of that particular situation any time soon).
The genuine standout seems to be Thumper, a truly unique and atmospheric take on the rhythm-game genre that must be played to really be understood. But Thumper was not created for PS VR, just re-purposed to take advantage of the headset, and although the VR experience will no doubt add to a player’s involvement in the game, it could surely be argued that it makes less use of the PS VR system than something that was created from the ground up with Sony’s virtual reality platform in mind.
So there are few traditional, what you might call ‘proper’ games available for PS VR, at least at launch. But why? Well there are a number of reasons, and the first is all about power.
Although it’s admirable of Sony to ignore the perceived barrier for VR on consoles — the lack of hardware power — and bring the technology to millions of players worldwide, the fact is that, when compared to other VR experiences, namely HTC and Valve’s Vive, and the Rift headset by Oculus, PS VR is extremely under-powered. There’s just no matching a bleeding-edge PC (the type required by the Vive and the Rift) with Sony’s current PS4.
The power difference is significant because, in order to remove the risk of motion sickness, VR must run at 120 frames per second. This creates a ceiling for the kind of graphical fidelity currently possible on any VR system, but this is particularly noticeable on PS4, where there is considerably less polygon-pushing power That’s not to say that games on the PS VR look awful, far from it. But there is a noticeable lack of detail.
Games don’t need cutting-edge graphics to have great gameplay or a standout story, of course. But because so much of the development of a game is geared towards making it run on the comparatively under-powered hardware of PS VR, there is precious little left to create a game of any real ambition.
And there are other limitations with VR that cannot be confined to the PlayStation take on the technology.
For VR to become a totally immersive, simulator experience, at least for many types of games, the way the player controls the action must be refined. On PS VR, the standard Dual Shock controller or a Move controller is used to interact with the world. This is fine for now — it works well as a familiar bridge between the world of standard gaming and that of gaming in VR.
But this surely must be seen for what it is: VR lite. In order to have a truly immersive experience, we need more than these half-measures. If our in-game view can be controlled simply through the motion of our head, then surely the goal should be to allow movement to be controlled in-game using the motion of our feet. Although the technology exists to make this possible through the many so-called ‘omnidirectional treadmills’ in development, there are currently none that promise compatibility with console VR gaming.
Plus even the most affordable options, for example the crowdfunded (and promising looking) Virtuix Omni, will cost around $1000 — and that’s in addition to paying top-whack for your gaming PC and your VR headset.
Right now, modern VR is still in its infancy, and the novelty of the ‘experience’ has yet to wear off. But if VR becomes as mainstream as companies like Sony and Oculus will hope it to be, it won’t be long before just experiencing VR won’t be enough. Gamers will want actual gameplay with their virtual reality, something more akin to what they’ve become accustomed to through years of orthodox gaming... a full-length free-roaming RPG perhaps, developed from the ground up for use with VR, or a horror-flavored shooter which takes full advantage of the immersive state of the player to ratchet up the chilling atmosphere. That time, when gamers demand more from their VR, will come sooner rather than later. We’ve seen it with Microsoft’s once promising Kinect hardware — there must be innovation and steady progress, or that once groundbreaking piece of technology becomes worthless if it doesn’t add to the gameplay experience.
As soon as that game is made, the one that gives gamers what they want, a crowd pleasing, technically accomplished title that simply has to be played, then VR will quickly open out into the mainstream, something that everyone will want to opt in to. VR will become the cultural zeitgeist that the supporters of the technology have banked on it becoming since the start.
But until the issues are resolved, as fantastic as VR is as an experience, it will remain just that and that alone: an experience rather than the truly immersive gameplay that has been promised for so long.