This week, Zero Punctuation reviews PlayStation VR.
So it's officially Shooter Season 2016 - the wonderful time of year when the spectre of consequence-free violence stalks the land draining the nation's supply of ADHD medication. I've got the usual variety twin pack of Battlefield and Call of Duty on the list, but after Gears of War 4 I didn't want to be that guy who played too many shooters in a row and then drank a shooter while watching Shooter, the 2007 Mark Wahlberg vehicle and then became cursed every full moon to transform into the chairman of the National Rifle Association.
So instead I thought I'd have a go on PlayStation VR. It would have been remiss of me not to, since I've been talking VR up for years. It's a genuine advance in immersive gaming. How can it not be? No matter where you look you cannot be anything but in the game because you nailed two TVs to your fucking face. Admittedly VR is still struggling through two major teething troubles: firstly ensuring that the player doesn't look like a massive knobend to passers-by, a.k.a. the Google Glasses conundrum; and secondly, that it makes most people want to puke until their sex organs are dangling from their nostrils like Christmas mistletoe. But hey, Disneyland broke down on the first day too and VR wasn't started by a closet Nazi!
The other thing that makes VR interesting is that it's one of the few areas of gaming that's still evolving and exploring possibilities. Standard gaming tech has basically been perfected for years, but the hardware lads still try to convince us we're missing out if we're not playing Halo in 10,000p, counting every piece of gravel in Master Chief's driveway. Resolution in VR, meanwhile, is still crap. It's like sticking your head in a bucket of Lego, and improving that would actually mean something.
Let me reiterate now that motion controls continue to be a used tea bag full of hot sewing needles and it upsets me that publishers keep trying to pair VR with it, in the same way one pairs a punchbowl with a stream of piss. It makes no sense to me because it's combining a more immersive gameplay style with a less immersive one, effectively cancelling them both out so you end up with nothing but incessant calibration tests and a living room full of trailing wires. Thankfully most PSVR games let you use standard controller, but motion controls were always part of the broader initiative to market video games as a party starter - that wholesome box of living room fun around which inoffensively attractive 18-to-35s gather in pastel shirts to have quality time. And I get that the sense that PlayStation is having trouble relinquishing that mindset. Push your VR-based local multiplayer party games all you want, there's no denying that VR is inherently a single-player innovation. It's a device for lonesome spods to find more lasting escape from a cruel reality, which is great because it means those spods aren't shooting up movie theatres or hovering around an office Christmas party making suggestive remarks about vol-au-vents in a disastrous attempt to flirt.
Speaking for the spods then, the PlayStation VR helmet is comfortable enough to wear with enough adjustability that I can find the sweet spot where my vision isn't blurred and the bridge of my nose doesn't hurt after bare 30 to 40 minutes of fiddling, which puts it above average for commercial VR headsets. And then there I was, inside the virtual world with a heavy thing hanging off my face like a tortoise was trying to mate with my cycling helmet, which doesn't help with the queasiness but a big part of that is game design, and developers are continually finding new ways to mitigate the issue.
Batman Arkham VR, for example, hits upon the clever notion of being such incredible garbage that you close the game in disgust before you have a chance to feel ill. 30 fucking bucks I paid for a half hour CD-ROM virtual tour from the mid to late 90s. I'd have expected more if I'd found it on the cover of a fucking magazine. Now I know why I couldn't find a free demo of it. The demo would've probably been two nanoseconds of Batman looking sad.
Here They Lie was better: a rather absorbing horror game about exploring a dilapidated and increasingly fucked-up city that will probably turn out to be Hell or Limbo because that's usually the case in games like this and -- well, Limbo. It's a linear walking simulator and there's not a whole lot of gameplay barring a few rather anti-climactic monster hiding moments that felt more like a simulation of trying to walk home from work without having to pass by groups of scary-looking teenagers. But I enjoyed it nonetheless, which may prove my point about VR as it was absorbing enough for me just taking in the sights, standing on the edge of bridges, leaning over and looking down to see if I could spot places the developers forgot to texture.
I was, however, a little bit confused by the turning controls. Every time you nudge the right analog stick, the game pulls a black bag over your head, rotates you precisely 45 degrees and pulls it off again. I assumed it was another puke preventative, but I wouldn't have thought merely turning around would have caused a stress mess until I played Windlands, which is a game that lets you turn off the black bag approach, and turning felt like my brain was attached to my eyeballs with partially melted Slinkies.
Windlands is rather basic platformer with an air of my first Unity project. But if you're looking for an encyclopedia of nausea prevention aids, then look no further than its options menu. "You want black bag turning? You want to disable strafing? You want to stick your head in a great big hamster ball? Come on! There's got to be at least one combination of these that will keep your lunch down while you enjoy the very expensive tech investment you've got strapped to your bonce!"
About that hamster ball thing - there's the option to put a cage around your head partly because one must occasionally take a risk trying to stay ahead of fashion trends, but partly because having something stationary around you helps with the nausea. "Hey! I thought we were sitting immobile on a couch!" says Mr. Body as we play VR. "What's all this jumping around and exploring dilapidated cities business Mr. Eyes is going on about? I'm confused, so I'm going to have a big sulk and send all this food back up to Mr. Mouth in protest." "No wait!" says Mr. Eyes. "Look! There's a stationary cage around us. We are sitting immobile after all." "Hmm, story checks out." says Mr. Body. "My apologies. Back to normal business. Let's eat something bad for us and have a quick wank."
That's the theory, anyway. And perhaps it's the reason why VR comes into its own with games where you're piloting a vehicle. It would be a shame if VR ends up only really working with certain very specific kinds of games, like the thing that Wiimote had with rail shooters and bugger all else. But doing only one thing can go a long way if you do it well enough. And anyway, vehicle-based gaming covers a larger variety of experiences from Forklift Simulator 2016 to giant mech combat in orbit around the planet of tits.
The game that finally gave me the VR experience I wanted was Eve Valkyrie, a space shooter. That was where it all came together: the yawning majesty of the infinite but an inch of Plexiglass away, interludes of intense, 3-dimensional combat, looking down and seeing the body of someone attractive and physically fit. Of course the only version of the game available cost me $90 and only had 3 story missions which is taking a not insignificant amount of piss. But you know what, there's no need to rip the toilet seat out just 'coz there's a bit of piss on it. That's what your sleeve is for!
- Forever struggling with the knobend issue: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I find the nausea is further mitigated by spending the entire play session with my head immersed in a fish tank
- Well it takes your mind off it at any rate