PLAYSTATION VR IS FINALLY HERE – THE BEST AND WORST OF VR IN ONE PACKAGE

I’ve been quiet for a while around here, and had countless experiences since my last post. Uncharted 4 happened, and reaffirmed my belief that Naughty Dog understands how to milk – on an almost impossibly technical level – the most that a console can do at that current time. Plenty of games may supplant that bar they established, but almost certainly none of them will come from external developers, as is the way of first-party development. But Gears of War 4 also happened, and it seems as apt a comparison as any with The Coalition really flexing what the Unreal Engine 4 can do on (relatively) weaker hardware. Games like Forza Horizon 3 are showing that the hardware isn’t the issue; 1080p games are possible on all hardware, and specs mean nothing if something is coded to work the hardware – especially if the competition is boasting said specs. It’s been wonderful to watch this all play out. Yes, fine, I’m biased and I know that in like-for-like 3rd party comparisons, the Xbox one will fare poorly in resolution or textures (or some combination thereof), but when you have first-party developers knowing the specs inside and out, it makes for a game where “limitations” are pointless. It’s gorgeous, sounds like a ton of fun to play, and I will.

But this is a post about VR, a thing that this dumping ground of my thoughts is supposed to be about. I’ve been quiet. REALLY quiet. A lot of that comes down to just not having the time or impetus to actually post something there, but PlayStation VR was finally released this week, and without question I will be biased my impressions. I’ve seen the hardware evolve at work, I’ve seen the software get better, and most of all, I’ve seen how the UI would finalize. I’m not entirely sure that it’s complete at this point (you don’t actually get Trophy notifications, for instance, which I swear was in there before).

There’s no objectivity here, is what I’m getting at. I cannot possibly distance myself from seeing how the platform, the hardware and the games have matured over the course of the last two or so years when I was quietly snuck into a room to try out the hardware for the first time (as Project Morpheus in the parlance of that era). The actual engineering had clearly been done at that point. Visibly it was no different from what you can try today. The head strap, the whole sliding face mask, it was all there, and the research had been done.

What was different, however, as the hardware progressed, was the software, and the actual UI. For the longest time, there was no real UI. After spending ample time in the Vive and Rift headsets, I imagined a sort of “greeting room” approach that never happened. Nope, you’re using the PS4, you get the PS4 interface. That’s fine, and in truth the Playroom VR and Demo Disc constructs do approximate the vision I had of things, but you don’t get that when you unbox the headset for the first time. Instead, things are kept simple, logical, and for the amount of wires this generation requires, is insanely straightforward. Seriously, if you can’t get PSVR up and running in 15 minutes, then my compatriots have failed.

But it was seeing all these things I’d seen before, at multiple points, slowly growing more and more “right” that got me excited. I’ve NEVER been one to hide my excitement for VR. I’m trying to make stuff for VR – PlayStation included, but that’s way after I tackle the other guys first – and this is the first/last shot at taking it mainstream. It was happening. This low(er)-cost headset was performing like the others did. The end result is this: they nailed it. Seriously, the headset tracking is flawless for me, though I know there have been issues with the poor Giant Bomb guys, and I wish they’d actually get a new unit, but I’m guessing they want to review what was given to them because it could happen to someone who walks into a store to purchase things. I will not shill for PlayStation: if you experience the problems they have, that’s horrible, and you should return that thing to the place you got it, because it’s straight-up BROKEN.

Here’s where I also try to avoid the inevitable insinuations that I’m blinded by my approximation to PS VR (see, I separate them because I’ve been conditioned to; PSVR, if you prefer). Move was a poor idea for a motion controller – not at the time; it was WAY more responsive than the Wii remotes, and there are a slew of technical videos that show this was tech Sony didn’t steal or copycat, it was just a Deep Impact/Armageddon kind of thing – visible light optical tech is not at ALL acceptable if you want real, non-jittery motion control. Colored balls are amazing at positional tracking, which is what PS VR uses, but it’s shit at orientation and depth, and those, even with a normal camera that can’t see at an extremely high resolution. The sensors are fine, and will be tweaked to improve things, but the tech is forward-facing, jittery and imprecise because it’s tech from a generation ago.

The headset has its own problems too: the OLED shmutz is unavoidable at this point; if it’s dark, you’ll see a kind of spotting pattern that literally is only there in the dark areas. The panel and what you get per-eye is lower-res than the other headsets, though in practice this is less of an issue than you’d think due to the fact that all three RGB pixels are crammed into the the same block of the screen that would normally be laid top-to-bottom and kinda broken up on the other two headsets. The so-called “screen door effect” is present, but less than you’d get even on the higher-end headsets. The optics were made to squeeze all them pixels together in a way that would focus (quite literally) the available pixels right into the middle. As you look out with your eyes, you see more blur and chromatic aberration, so things aren’t so clean.

Here’s the hilarious part of it: after focusing for SO LONG on the advantages the other headsets had in specs, I honestly don’t give a shit. Yes, both have a wider field of view (meaning you take in more of the “picture” in your head before you see black), and some can feel crisper at their native resolution, neither is as easy to use, offers the same breadth of options, and stands as much of a chance at actual VR mainstream success. For all the specs that the others have (and again, I’m trying to make a game for them, not PS VR), their screens are as poor in the bad ways, aren’t as good in the good ways, and perform literally identically in terms of actual tech.

PlayStation VR genuinely IS the cheapest way to find true presence – the ephemeral quality that removes you from feeling you’re watching something and instead puts you INSIDE that thing you’re watching. It’s essentially the holy grail of first-gen VR, and PlayStation VR nails it despite apparently lower specs. It also has a TON of content. Dozens of hours, at least, in terms of random demo disc (yep, that’s a thing, and it comes in every system, though in truth it’s apparently just a portal to download demo updates at this point), plus stuff like VR Worlds, which is legit as fuck in delivering that presence. Playroom VR is also incredibly good at serving that sort of Wii Sports-style introduction of the ideas, but it’s handled with aplomb in terms of getting you inside a world. You’re literally missing out on the fun if you don’t try it, because it’s free and because you might actually hate fun.

There are so, SO many games I want to talk about, and I will. I’m going to try to commit myself to actually reviewing shit again, because if I don’t I will go insane, but for now, know that PlayStation VR is not the underpowered, second-rate version of VR that people tried to make it. It’s real. It’s incredible, and if you want to get in on VR, this is the cheapest, most straightforward and EASILY the simplest version of it. I hope it takes off, I don’t care if it doesn’t, but I do want VR to catch on, and I think it’s the best, cheapest way to do that and understand WHY VR is so huge.

INDIVISIBLE

Ubisoft gets a lot of crap (often times rightly so) for some of their practices in games. They have, for better or worse, come up with a set of gameplay loops that to many – myself included – find impossible to resist. I don’t have any real-life OCD tendencies, but for whatever reason, the Ubi Formula seems to have been keenly tuned to invoke a sense of OCD in gaming. The set of systems goes a little something like this:

  • Barf a ridiculous number of collectibles throughout the various open worlds that they’ve created, then hide most of them until the player is in range, then highlight them on their mini-map
  • Blanket the world in a fog, but scatter a handful of towers of some sort around, and once climbed/synched, reveal all nearby collectibles
  • In more recent games, gate off upgrades behind a certain number of collectibles – nothing absolutely necessary, but good enough that the player will want to at least attempt to get them

This formula germinated and then was fully fleshed out around the Assassin’s Creed games, but it’s spread to nearly all the other open-world games in the Ubi stable – namely Far Cry and, most amusingly of all, The Crew. I know many poo-poo this whole approach, but for me it creates a compulsion that I can’t seem to shake; lizard brain see shiny, must get shiny, must make number go up.

Though it is without question as small slice of the whole, what I’ve played of The Division’s beta that’s running through this weekend thus far seems eager to buck the ostensible Ubi Formula. There are no towers to climb, no points to sync, though there are at least a handful of different collectible types (downed drones, bits of intel). Even still, what’s here has clearly lifted elements from Destiny’s addiction playbook. A dyed-in-the-wool RPG, there’s XP and levels (with attached gear requirements), tons of pointless loot (to be sold for cash to but new equipment, mods and weapons), and enemies that initially feel a little bullet spongey until those level gains and upgraded equipment make fights far more trivial. This is, to put it plainly, extremely my shit. I’ve always found the role-playing mechanic of leveling up – even grinding if need be to make it happen – and seeing the little stat upticks translate into stomping enemies that were previously an inconvenience. It sets off a tingle in the base of my skull like no other gameplay mechanic, and it’s why RPGs are still my favorite genre.

So The Division ticks those boxes nicely. The matchmaking isn’t nearly as heavy-handed as Bungie’s, but people have rightly drawn comparisons to Destiny with the way The Division handles its version of strikes. Gun down waves of enemies, scoot around a level and take down a boss (or boss mob) and dovetail neatly right back into where you started. You can do all of this by yourself (which I did), but you can just as easily pull up the map (delivered in a slick little augmented reality overhead view of the city) and pick out the yellowy-orange blips of friends scooting around those same levels. Tap a button, join on them, and you can replay missions with seamlessly increased enemy numbers and the chance for different loot drops. It works wonderfully, and the hop-in/hop-out nature of how this is done is absolutely commendable.

All this is well and good. A modern-day take on an RPG with guns is well-trodden ground at this point. Borderlands managed to do it quite well, but The Division really feels right. The gunplay is just wiry enough to feel like you’re not just mindlessly gunning down grunts. The enemy AI can suffer from the occasional brain fart, and enemy types seem divided into Shooty – Sometimes Moving, Shooty – Sniping You With Mysterious Glowly Aura, and Charge You With Melee, and that’s all fine. When you swap bits of cover (handled with the single best point-to-point pathing and targeting interface I’ve seen in a third-person cover-based shooter) without being seen, enemies will keep firing on your old position, allowing you to flank. Opening fire again causes the Shooty – Sometimes Moving guys to adapt to a limited degree, but it seems the melee enemies just sort of stand around. Enemy AI used to be something that was actively chased by developers, reaching something of a zenith with FEAR back on the PC. The better part of the decade, though, hasn’t really seen things grow beyond the Good Enough standards that we have now, and though it would likely cause fights to be far more tedious, this seems like the kind of game where it really could have shined – not as a back-of-the-box feature or anything, just as the natural progression of how a next-gen game in this genre should handle these things. Alas.

Back in my editorial days, I spent plenty of time praising the 50 gajillion Ubisoft teams that cobbled together the multiplayer modes for the Assassin’s Creed games because they managed to wrap that slightly wonky traversal around a completely thrilling game of cat and mouse. By making all of the inhabitants of the multiplayer levels the same as the various characters trying to hunt down and kill each other, there’s a constant tension. Which of those seemingly innocuous AI drones is actually a killer hiding in plain sight? Over the three AC games where multiplayer was present, there wasn’t much in the way of evolution – mostly just tying the XP/levels to unlockables that talked about the Abstergo side of AC lore (the background to the MP mode was that you were an Abstergo trainee learning to become a Templar killer), and after Black Flag, the MP was axed. I can understand the reasoning: the devs just didn’t know where to go with things, but that morsel of constant unease and the rush of sneaking up on someone to off them after calmly tailing them in and out of crowds was so damn thrilling that it didn’t matter. And it was completely unlike any other game out there.

The Division seems to have found that same crack in the familiar multiplayer construct and carved out its own niche by simply playing off human nature. The Dark Zone is the game’s free-for-all PvP area, and the premise is incredibly simple: better loot lives here, but the AI is often far more powerful and numerous, so it behooves players to form loose alliances. Thing is, this is a lawless region, and at any time, a player can “go rogue” and simply gun down all his erstwhile teammates and take their stuff. Doing so paints them as a traitor, making their betrayal a neat little risk/reward setup. Since the Dark Zone is teeming with the virus that took down most of New York in the game, any gear or weapons found here have to be decontaminated by calling in an extraction, which starts a countdown timer for the helicopter to arrive and causes the AI to make a beeline for you. I’m only just getting my feet wet in the DZ, but the systems in place here have that same sense of freshness that AC’s multiplayer did. Whatever culture at Ubi that causes them to share gameplay system and crank out endless sequels does seem to also allow genuinely unique concepts to gestate in all that sameness, and with all their development resources, they can properly flesh out and polish those concepts until they really shine.

I’m not a fan of forced matchmaking, but the “mutual benefits” approach in the Dark Zone and the constant threat of greed overriding any sense of ad-hoc community is incredibly compelling to me. The Division’s beta accomplished exactly what all “beta” releases in this modern age are trying to do: it converted me to a full-blown purchase. Nice work, Massive.