I have long been what I consider an optimistic sceptic when it comes to new “ground-breaking” technology. A part of my brain clings white knuckled to the notion that the latest tech stride will definitely prove a small step for a man, but a great leap for mankind and change the face of gaming, or movies, or making toast, forever. Whereas a different part of my brain sort of sits back and says, “that’s bollocks mate.”
This mindset is the result of having been burnt previously on red hot new technology. I owned the ill-fated HD-DVD player for my Xbox 360. I bought a Dreamcast and said no thanks to a PS2 roughly a week before Sega unplugged the life support. I own a SmartWatch, it lives in a drawer with assorted drawing pins, Kinder Egg toys, string, and long dead pens. My sceptic has grown in power, but my optimist still lingers.
It is also a mindset that triggered the alarm bells when the thinking people thunk up the idea that it was high time virtual reality reared its head once more. This was a road I had already walked, albeit briefly before the intense VR headache kicked in and I was fated to lie in a darkened room for three days. I thought this time I would be happy to wallow in a sort of old man rut and declare this new fangled way to play is not for me. And then a friend offered to loan me a Playstation VR headset for the weekend. And I took it.
What an unforgettable three days it turned out to be!
From Friday to Sunday there was genuine open mouthed awe, there was raucous laughter, there were shrill screams that I ashamedly admit were largely from my own vocal chords, there were thrills, wonder, and terror in heavy doses, and there was motion sickness.
I had harboured high hopes for PSVR, the optimist that lingers on had watched various videos of people donning headsets and playing this new age of virtual reality, and it had felt a twinge of excitement. The first game, or demo, I tried, was the deep sea diving one, where the player is in a shark cage and gradually descends towards the ocean floor. And, it was incredible. Like, literally incredible. One of the most surreal and brilliant experiences I had ever encountered in a game, or a non-game really with this one. The PSVR had studied the expectations I had arrived with, laughed heartily and declared, “Is that all you’ve got?” And then things got really good…
The demo’s on offer in the Playstation store do a great job of showing the versatility of this new hardware. We have the expected first person action that allows the VR to truly shine, such as a pulse raising dogfight in space fought from the cockpit of some futuristic high-powered jet, pedal to the metal racing where every sweeping corner and hairpin bend can be felt right in the pit of the stomach, or pure grim horror inside the ramshackle dirt encrusted nightmare that is Resident Evil 7. Sitting alongside these treats are some nice glimpses of alternative options for your VR delights. A taste of how a simple platformer can come to glorious life, or how watching an animated story unfold becomes deeply mesmerising, with every new title I fired up, the PSVR never seemed to miss a beat.
It is genuinely quite difficult to do justice to what it feels like to walk through the house in Resident Evil. To shift from decades of watching games unfold on the screen, to suddenly being in a situation where you are inside the game is a mind-blowing experience. I expected to still feel some detachment, to possibly find the headset cumbersome or that my peripheral vision was catching glimpses of the real world in the shadows beyond this virtual reality, but instead I was completely lost in the games. Of course I did often yank the headset from my noggin and declare to all around, “Quick, just put it on and look at this for a minute!”
The whole experience does a phenomenal job of tricking the mind. For example, there is a point fairly early on in Resident Evil 7 where as a player you are seated at a dining table from hell with the cast of The Hills Have Eyes. One of the group stands and gets right in your face, he tries to feed you some nastiness from the rotting meat on the table, and as the fork came towards my mouth in the game, I instinctively closed my mouth tight in the real world, for a moment I thought I felt his breath on my face, and never has a game felt so real in all my time playing. There are so many moments like this where the brain seems to play these tricks and allow the player to feel things that aren’t really there that over my first weekend with the hardware I missed details of games because I could only marvel at what was happening beyond the threads of the story.
Despite having my whole view of VR altered, and despite having just enjoyed a weekend gaming filled with more wonder than any that had gone before, there were issues. As I made reference to earlier, I got slapped a few times by the hand of motion sickness. This hit me in varying degrees. The first was after foolishly changing the Resident Evil settings to a smooth movement rather than a move in degrees one, the nausea hit hard within seconds. Driveclub was even worse. Things were okay when I had cars in front as a point if focus, however, as soon as I hit the lead and the track was swooping and curving before me at break neck speeds my head began to spin and I had to yank the VR from my cranium and look forward to a couple of hours of trying to settle my stomach back down. To be honest most of the games that involved some semblance of 360 degree motion at speed destroyed me. This proved frustrating as a player. All I actually wanted to do was play for maybe an hour or so, but, the most I really managed on most occasions was maybe half of that before I needed to take a breather and allow my body to fend off the nausea. This isn’t a hardware issue, that does everything it should and much more besides, and it didn’t affect everyone in the family, but for myself it was crippling.
All in all, my weekend with the VR headset was an amazing experience. It was like all those dreams I had as a kid about where one day games might go had come true, and I was living them, I was there inside the game. Any doubts I held about the hardware have been obliterated by the blinding brilliance that is the reality of virtual reality in 2017. And for that level of wonder I can take a little motion sickness in good humour, because this is the game-changer I’ve waited over thirty years for.