On October 13th, Sony released PlayStation VR, a $399 virtual reality headset for the PlayStation 4. Below, you’ll find our review of the hardware, coverage of the games, and everything else happening around this lower-specced, but more accessible, competitor to the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.
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Thumper: a trippy ride through hell that’s even better in VR
Thumper starts with a familiar design for rhythm games: a track right in the middle of the screen, with bright lights running along it. It almost looks like a simplified take on Guitar Hero or Rock Band. But from that familiar launch pad, the game rockets into some weird, amazing, and alien places.
In Thumper you control a shiny, metallic beetle as it races along the aforementioned twisting track. As you zip through the world — a trippy, abstract place full of pulsating tentacles and shape-shifting pyramids — a thumping rhythm plays in the background. In order to progress unharmed, you’ll need to move your fingers in time to the music. When you slide over a glowing light, you hit X. When you reach a turn, you hit the analog stick in that direction. As you progress, the game slowly introduces new ways to interact — spikes to slam through, treacherous pits to jump over, multiple lanes to switch between. But the controls remain simple throughout; Thumper never uses more than one button and an analog stick.
But like the best rhythm games, complex controls aren’t what make Thumper so challenging. Instead, it’s all about timing. When I play Thumper I understand what I’m supposed to do; getting my brain and fingers to react quickly enough is the challenge. Though it starts slowly, Thumper’s tempo builds into a blaring crescendo. You’ll jump, shift, and drift, all in a matter of seconds. Failing to do so either causes the sequence to loop or deals damage, until your little metallic beetle dies, forcing you to restart. As challenging as it is, Thumper eliminates a lot of frustration by dividing its nine levels into smaller chunks, so that when you restart, you don’t have to play through a lot before getting to where you failed.
Thumper is described as a "rhythm violence" game, and the tag fits: it’s an aggressive, heart-pounding experience, one where it feels more like you’re fighting a song, rather than playing one. It’s also a game that’s best enjoyed in virtual reality.
Thumper is available as a traditional non-VR game on both PS4 and Steam, but something about playing it with a PlayStation VR headset just feels right. It doesn’t change the fundamentals of the experience; the levels are all the same, as are the controls. But being immersed in Thumper’s world makes it all the more hallucinatory. A lot of what makes the game work so well is its alien feel; the dark and twisted abstract visuals, the pounding soundtrack that sounds like a chant from some ancient civilization. All of those sensations are amplified in VR, making Thumper all the more intense.
Thumper isn’t an example of a game that only works in VR — it’s just one that’s a lot better with a headset.
Batman: Arkham VR
The fantasy of actually being Batman is compelling, but unfortunately Arkham VR doesn’t manage to capture what it’s like to be the Dark Knight. The hour-long journey takes you to familiar locations, like the Batcave and Arkham Asylum, but it never really gels into a coherent or engaging experience. There are some memorable moments: early on you get to pick up Batman’s mask and put it on, and there are some well-thought investigative sequences that have you scanning dead bodies and exploring a holographic crime scene. But there are just as many silly scenes, like when you’re trapped in a cage with Robin, and have to find a bunch of glowing red gears to fix a machine that advances the plot. With its short length and half-baked story, Arkham VR is more like a small, cold appetizer than a full, warm meal.
Job Simulator is already available on other VR platforms, but it’s still one of the best early experiences for PSVR. You play as a visitor to a job museum in the future, where you can experience modern-day careers like office worker and chef through the eyes of a robot. The goals are incredibly goofy — you’ll be doing everything from shredding documents in a wood chipper to super-sizing slushies — but the structure offers fun ways to use your hands in VR, since you’re performing relatively simple everyday actions.
PlayStation VR Worlds: the perfect introduction to virtual reality
If you’re new to virtual reality, there are few first experiences more thrilling than being trapped in a shark cage while a great white swims around you.
PlayStation VR Worlds isn’t a game so much as a collection of virtual reality experiences ranging from the aforementioned shark cage, to a futuristic take on Pong, to a heist scene riffing on Guy Ritchie movies. There’s no thematic connection between the five included games, but they serve a very important purpose: if you play them in the right order, they do a great job of easing you into the world of virtual reality — not unlike how Minesweeper and Freecell taught a generation of new computer owners how to operate a desktop.
The best place to start is "Ocean Descent," a game that asks you to do nothing more than stand in place and look around. You don’t actually interact with the world, but the trip is no less enthralling. As you descend into the depths of the ocean, you’ll encounter a variety of marine life — from colorful tropical fish to groups of manta rays — culminating with with a very perturbed shark.
Obviously, you’re never in any real danger, but it’s easy to forget that when a lifelike shark swims so close you can see the blood on its teeth. I found myself ducking and jumping and, yes, occasionally yelping.
They do a great job of easing you into virtual reality
Next, something more interactive. "Danger Ball" is a futuristic, sporty version of Pong, where the paddle has been replaced with your face. You move your head around to whack the ball back to your opponent, adding some spin by hitting it on an angle, or some more power by thrusting your neck like a pompous rooster. "Danger Ball" will, without question, make you look silly.
"Danger Ball" is a good example of how even a simple and familiar game has a different vibe with the addition of VR. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for "VR Luge," easily the worst of this bunch. The racing game has you luging down a busy street, and steering by turning your head left and right. The perspective — your character is lying down whereas you are presumably sitting or standing — is nauseating, and the control is poor. It’s a fine idea that wipes out at the starting line.
On the flip side, my favorite game of the bunch is "The London Heist," which plays like a collection of scenes from a ‘90s crime caper. It’s also the only game in the collection to use the PlayStation Move motion controllers. There’s a bit of a story in "The London Heist," told through moments where you’re tied to a chair, about to be tortured. But the fun comes from the action sequences. The first has you rifling through a desk in search of an expensive diamond, before fighting off a surge of armed guards. I found it satisfying to duck behind cover, and slam new magazines into my gun after unloading round after round. The shootout is followed by a chase sequence in which you take out incoming bad guys on motorcycles and in armed vans, while your partner attempts a getaway. It is the rare video game that makes you sweat.
The final game is called "Scavenger’s Odyssey," and it’s the one that’s most like a traditional console video game. You play as an alien in a futuristic tank-like vehicle that can jump, fly, and shoot (handy for swarms of deadly space bugs). "Scavenger’s Odyssey" is played with a standard Dual Shock controller, which feels a bit strange at first; controlling the camera in virtual reality with a joystick instead of your head feels unnatural, and takes some getting used to. But once you get the hang of things, the game is fun, if not fairly basic. Little touches like being able to look all around the cockpit of your futuristic craft are notable now, but will surely be the bare minimum should VR click.
Puzzle games may not seem like the best fit for virtual reality. For many of us — myself included — they’re the kinds of games we play when we have a few minutes free in line at the store or while riding a bus. But SuperHyperCube makes the case for immersive puzzle experiences. The game itself is simple yet challenging: you’re presented with a block and a wall with a hole in it. In order to progress, you need to rotate the block so that it fits in the hole. The better you do, the bigger the block gets, and thus the challenge increases. The gameplay is already intense on its own, but it’s heightened by a fantastic presentation that makes it feel like you’re trapped in a Daft Punk music video. It really helps get you into the zen-like state needed to rack up a high score.
Harmonix Music VR
It’s not exactly Rock Band VR, but Harmonix’s new PSVR experience is an interesting way to interact with your music in virtual reality. The base mode, which puts you a psychedelic beach, is a throwback, like being inside of a Windows Media Play music visualizer. It’s fun for a few minutes, but Harmonix Music VR’s best feature is also its most surprising. One mode lets you use the PlayStation Move to draw 3D art that reacts to whatever music you’re listening to, thumping and pulsing in time to the beat. It’s not as full-featured as popular VR art tools like Tiltbrush, but it’s intuitive, and the reactive musical elements make it feel extra trippy.
Wayward Sky: a cute, heartwarming VR adventure
Many VR experiences overwhelm the player with spectacle. They can simulate the feeling of being chased, attacked by a terrifying creature, or floating through space. Wayward Sky, on the other hand, is rather modest and pleasant. A cute, heartwarming adventure game, it’s a welcome escape from the calamity of the competition.
Wayward Sky puts you in the role of Bess, a young pilot who must explore a mysterious, floating city to find her kidnapped father. Unlike most VR games, Wayward Sky isn’t first-person. Instead, you view the world from a far-removed third-person perspective, and control Bess by pointing the PlayStation Move controller where you want her to go. This perspective gives the game a diorama-like quality. Bess and the other characters are all so tiny, almost like toys. From a distance, you can see just how big the world is in comparison.
Navigating the world requires solving puzzles. Bess can slide along ropes, control robots, and operate all kinds of arcane machinery. Sometimes the perspective will shift to the first-person, letting you do things like flip switches or turn a water main with your hands. The puzzles are straightforward— I never found myself stuck at any point — and sometimes repetitive, forcing you to repeat the same actions multiple times. This is a common trait of adventure games, but it’s especially annoying in VR, where solving puzzles can be much more physical than just pushing a button multiple times. It’s no fun constantly twisting your arm to install a light bulb.
Puzzles aside, what makes Wayward Sky work so well is a sense of style. The game has a Castle in the Sky-meets-Tintin vibe, mashing together advanced robots, ruined floating cities, and World War I-era planes. It’s like being inside of an animated movie. Wayward’s palette is bright and colorful, and everything oozes personality. The robots speckled through the world are one of the game’s highlights. They range in size from a human to a building, and some are chatty, chirping away like R2-D2, while others are silent. Their personalities feel distinct, making each worth seeking out.
If nothing else, Wayward Sky is a great example of the breadth of experiences virtual reality can offer. It’s a cute and pleasant place that feels completely different than the rest of PSVR’s launch lineup, making it a great way to cool down.
Incredibly simple activities can be fun in virtual reality. Tumble VR is a puzzle game that often has you doing nothing more than stacking blocks on top of each other. You’ll need to figure out how to make a structure sturdy while also as tall as possible. Other puzzles have you moving beams of light by placing mirrored blocks, or trying to blow up a structure in as destructive a way as possible. Tumble VR is sort of like a spiritual successor to Boom Blox — one of the first great motion-control games on the original Wii — making it ideal if you want you give your Move controllers a workout.
Until Dawn: Rush of Blood
Don’t let the name fool you: Rush of Blood has very little in common with the fantastic PS4 horror game Until Dawn. Whereas the former was a narrative-driven psychological adventure, the latter is a relatively simple shooter. Rush of Blood is a lightgun shooter — think those arcade games with plastic guns and lots of zombies — where you sit in a roller coaster seat and blast things as you pass them by. As basic as it sounds, Rush of Blood is surprisingly spooky. I found myself on edge even during the earliest moments, when I was just shooting carnival targets. Did I mention I’m given to yelping?
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