The VR medium has struggled mightily for decades to hit big with mainstream consumers. If you’re among the many who have yet to buy into VR — and especially if you’ve already tried to get into it — there’s very little on offer from the PS VR2 that will change your mind. If you already have a Quest 2 or Steam Index headset collecting dust, the PS VR2 isn’t going to be the device that changes your perspective.
It’s among the most comfortable VR headsets, matching the Quest 2. Still, that’s faint praise, like saying a chair is as comfortable as a coach seat on a flight. The headset is still a front-heavy device that adds 560 grams, or 1.2 pounds, to your face and skull. It comes with dangling earbuds that latch onto the back of the device. Removing the headset feels like taking a squid-like creature off your face, the buds detaching from your earholes and dangling like tentacles.
Its technical feats are notable, with 2000 x 2040 pixel resolution per eye. That’s basically a 4K resolution screen pressed right up against your face. That means it offers a more pristine image than the $1,500 Meta Quest Pro. Paired with OLED technology that brings out sharp blacks, as well as high-dynamic range colors, this is probably the most visually impressive VR device on the consumer market. It’s a shame the VR medium’s best traditional game, Valve’s “Half-Life Alyx” may not see release on PlayStation’s platform, where it could reach the potentially massive PlayStation audience. It’s also too bad that games on PlayStation’s first VR headset won’t work on the new one. It would’ve taken a considerable investment of resources, money and time to make that a reality, but it’s still disappointing to leave behind PS VR gems like “Astro Bot Rescue Mission” — one of the best platforming games ever made in the medium, not just in virtual reality.
Unlike PlayStation’s first VR headset, the setup is easy. It’s too bad the headset couldn’t be wireless, but it’s a single USB-C plug into your PlayStation 5, and you’re already almost set up. The PS5 user interface will walk you through optimizing the VR lenses to your eyes. It is genuine praise, not a backhanded compliment, when I say I’m glad PlayStation ripped off the controller designs of the Oculus. The Oculus Touch controllers are the best on the market, and PlayStation was wise to adapt their design.
Much like its strategy for the PlayStation 4 and 5, Sony’s big bet in VR is on exclusive games for its new headset. Co-developed by studios Guerrilla Games and Firesprite, “Horizon Call of the Mountain” is a strong opening argument. With the Horizon series and its colorful, sci-fi post apocalyptic world full of robot dinosaurs juxtaposed against colorful plant life, PlayStation has a visual and technical showcase almost on par with “Half-Life Alyx.”
“Call of the Mountain” immediately envelops you into its world. It begins with a boat ride that feels like a VR version of a Disney ride. You can use your hands to splash the water around your vessel, and also move hanging vines out of the way. The sun shines and gleams off the metal of a collosal brontosaurus-like robot that vibrates the headset as it steps over you.
The biggest and most innovative feature of “Call of the Mountain” is the actual climbing of the titular mountain. Thanks to touch sensors on the new PS VR2 controllers, you can use your fingers to grip handholds on a cliffside. Each handhold is marked clearly in white, which makes pathfinding easy. It’s up to the player to find the next cliffside handhold to grab onto, and then lift their hands up and grasp the PS VR2 controller to mimic grabbing the ledge. Looking down into the valley as you hang off a rope, you’ll need to remind yourself that none of this is real.
The game bears little resemblance to the original Horizon games, which are open-world action adventure experiences with lots of robot dinosaur fighting and bandits. You fight foes here, but these encounters are all stripped down to the bare essentials of dodging while aiming a bow to shoot at weak points. It’s here where we bump into the limitations of VR gaming experiences: The medium has yet to match the robust, dynamic experiences of playing regular video games. It’s going to be some time before a VR developer can make an immersive experience like “Call of the Mountain” or “Half-Life Alyx” without it feeling like a dumbed down version of those games’ standard predecessors. As groundbreaking as “Half-Life Alyx” was, movement in the original Half-Life games wasn’t confined by the boundaries of your living room.
As good as PS VR2 is for a VR headset, it’s still bound by the limitations of its medium. It is always going to be more tiring to climb a mountain by pawing the air mimicking the movement in your living room than it is to simply hold a joystick up. Setting up the PS VR2 is a breeze, thankfully, but it’s still a whole ritual to place the headset on your face, making sure it’s screwed tightly enough, adjusting the lenses so depth perception is correct, clearing the area around you of debris so you don’t accidentally knock something over, and then play an interactive experience that requires you to move your arms and head around for hours.
Thankfully the PS VR2 innovates in its eye-tracking feature. Once your eyes are paired with the headset (yes, I realize that sounds quite dystopian), the PS VR2 will allow you to navigate menus, adjust your view so anything you look at offers heightened detail, and even allow you to aim with just a glance. The PS VR2 isn’t the first headset to use this technology, but it’ll likely be the mainstream audience’s first encounter with it. The gameplay possibilities are enticing. One horror game, “The Dark Pictures: Switchback,” has a sequence that asks the player not to blink, lest they see the room change around them, similar to the nightmarish Weeping Angels of “Doctor Who” fame.
It also helps that PS VR2 has a relatively healthy launch lineup. I was able to test the headset with two of my favorite video games ever made, “Rez Infinite” and “Tetris Connected” by Enhance Games. Both are standard video games converted to become an audiovisual trance-like experience that surrounds you. Both games have trance music that syncs to in-game actions, a cymbal crash for shooting missiles in “Rez,” or the syncopated snare kicks when flipping a Tetris block in “Tetris Connected.” Neither game requires much movement. Although both games are available on other VR platforms, their inclusion here helps diversify the launch lineup. The PS VR2 isn’t just exhausting immersive experiences. Sometimes you just want to be in a digital cocoon of electronica and lasers.
Sony has created a good VR headset. Even at the relatively high price of $550, PlayStation is offering a higher quality headset than most consumer grade devices. The PS VR2′s success hinges on PlayStation’s ability to offer distinct, innovative and engaging first-party software, the kind you won’t find on Meta, HTC or Steam headsets. PlayStation’s first-party output wins awards and sells millions, but longtime Sony fans will remember the lackluster first-party support for the handheld devices as well as its first VR headset. PlayStation is the console market leader because it focused on a single console — as it did during the recent PlayStation 4 era. Their biggest weakness become apparent when they work to spread first-party support across multiple devices.
The PS VR2 will be a big test of the PlayStation brand’s power, and whether their software is enough to move a $550 piece of emerging technology hardware.