Between the hustle and bustle of Oculus Connect this week it was all too easy to forget that one of VR’s biggest headsets was celebrating its first birthday. In fact, even without Oculus stealing the headlines, it’s hard to believe PlayStation VR (PSVR) really launched a year ago to the day.
Time flies when you’re having fun, right?
On paper, PSVR has enjoyed an encouraging start, at least relative to the rest of the VR industry. As of June, the kit has sold more than one million units, which is thought to be more than what the overall more expensive but higher spec Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have shifted in the extra half year they’ve been on the market. Sony’s recently been boasting that over 100 games and apps are now available on the platform, too. Compared to other PlayStation pushes in recent years — namely the Move controllers and the ill-fated PS3 3D campaign — the headset’s hit the ground running.
In practise, though, things are a little more complex.
PSVR remains an incredibly impressive piece of technology. Plug the kit into any PlayStation 4, fit its comfortable strap around the top of your head, grab a DualShock 4 or a pair of Moves, adjust your PlayStation Camera and you’re ready to jump into virtual worlds. You can lean into these new universes as if you were really there, and reach out and grab things, too. Pick up a PS4 Pro and you can even experience those same worlds with increased performance and visual fidelity. Though the Oculus Rift may now match it on price ($399), the powerful PC the Rift requires still puts it way outside PSVR’s league in both affordability and accessibility.
There are of course major trade-offs to this, but you can’t argue that PSVR isn’t capable of hugely compelling gaming experiences. Though played with a DualShock 4 and a not strictly designed for the platform, Resident Evil 7 remains the biggest and best game not just on PSVR but arguably in the entire industry. We’re still not sure what voodoo Sony and Capcom conjured, but the further we get from the survival horror game’s release the more remarkable it seems, featuring unparalleled production values and a full game’s worth of content that no other developer has yet been able to match.
Several smaller success stories are worth noting too: a competent port of the excellent Superhot VR means PSVR also enjoys one of the best games on Rift and Vive, developers like FuturLab have created experimental oddities like TinyTrax and the new Aim Controller has provided a solid control scheme for shooters like Farpoint and Arizona Sunshine. Overall the library isn’t anywhere near as laden with must-plays as you’ll find on a traditional console, but VR as a whole is going to take its time to get to that point, and just the fact that there’s been something interesting to play every three or so weeks at least is an achievement Sony should be proud of.
Still, it’s fair to say that over the past year the cracks in Sony’s compromises have started to shine through a little too brightly. While Rift and Vive owners can both enjoy 360 degree positional tracking with the ability to walk around, for example, PSVR’s single-camera tracking solution prevents the use of Move controllers when facing away from the sensor. This means that, instead of naturally turning to meet threats and change directions, developers have had to awkwardly implement workarounds that never feel natural and casts doubt over big upcoming releases like Skyrim VR.
Worse still are the tracking consistency issues, which will plague just about any game you play in some way. Whether it’s the slight drifting movements you’ll spot in your headset when not actually moving your head, or placing your hand just a little too far out of the tight tracking zones and struggling to interact with the world, PSVR’s setup causes headaches that you won’t find half as often on Rift and Vive. Combined with downgrades in visual fidelity that come with porting from PCs to the less powerful PS4, it’s a routine fact that PSVR versions of games appearing on all three platforms are the worst. You can struggle for hours to find the ideal setup to reduce these issues, but should you really have to when you’re paying $399?
It also doesn’t help that the Move controllers themselves lack the analogue sticks or the trackpads seen on the Oculus Touch and Vive wand controllers. Again, this has led to plenty of developers forcing in awkward workarounds for controls; play Arizona Sunshine with the $75 Aim controller and you’ll have a smooth experience, but grab the Move controllers and the same game is decidedly more uncomfortable.
Issues like these may have been acceptable in October 2016, but as 2017’s progressed the gap between PSVR and its rivals has widened, and it threatens to only grow in the coming months. Microsoft’s Xbox One X may not yet have a VR headset to call its own, but the company’s suggesting it will get one in 2018, and it could even be wireless. Combined with the company’s inside-out tracking tech, Xbox may soon offer a vastly superior VR experience to PSVR, while other customers tired of fighting tracking might choose to upgrade to the increasingly cheaper Rift and Vive.
If PSVR is to keep up then the year ahead is going to need more Resident Evil 7-calibre content. It’s very possible that Skyrim VR, played with a DualShock 4, will be the headset’s next must-own (though I fear the failure to communicate the game can be played this way will lead it to be viciously mocked by outlets using Move), and it helps that more RE7 is coming via free DLC. Beyond that, though, we’re not really sure what Sony’s got up its sleeves.
That said, at this point we’re more eager to see what it might have on the hardware front than software. Updated Move controllers with better tracking and analogue control are practically a necessity at this point, and if the company can come up with a cheap solution to get 360 degree tracking with no drift, we’d be all-in.
So, yes, PSVR has had an encouraging year but it’s also in danger of becoming far too outdated as we head into 2018. Sony still has a lot to prove with its headset, and we don’t want to have to wait until the PlayStation 5 (and a potential PSVR successor) to see some of its biggest issues fixed.