Saturday, November 24, 2018

Okay, yeah, this was probably a mistake

Years ago - I think it was three years, now - I set my alarm to wake me up super-early on a weekend  and dragged my sleep-deprived carcass down to my local EB to a limited-time PSVR demo.  I checked out Eve Valkyrie and was not blown away by what it offered.  I don't remember if I had a preorder down on the thing at the time, but if I had one I cancelled it that day.

I needed it to be as profound a leap for me as Super Mario 64 was the first time I played it in a Toys R Us like, decades ago, and Eve Valkyrie just wasn't.  Looking around inside the cockpit was cool but it didn't... shock me.

But PSVR's kinda' been on my mind, lately.  It probably started with some folks in my Twittersphere talking about something something Rescue Mission - I didn't pay much attention, but they seemed weirdly positive about it.  Last weekend I went to the mall to pick up a birthday present for my little brother, and in the central plaza of the mall they had a fleet of recliners and PSVRs set up for demo purposes.  Hm.  It reeked of desperation.  Sony must be dying to unload the things.

And now Penny Arcade is talking about Beat Saber, but whatever.

But I'll be honest, I think it was learning that Chamberlain was considering it that... infected me with this new desire for one.  It's been three years, after all - surely there's a compelling library of fine products for that platform at this point!  Surely!

And just like in 2016, there's this part of me that believes this could be something really cool - I just couldn't be sure that it is cool, at this point.  Maybe I felt like Chamberlain's curiosity about it legitimized my own. 

I woke up thinking about it.  Wrote an email to Chamberlain and Alex complaining that he had me thinkin' about it, and together we reflected on how little use the thing would see, how the library likely still sucks and how no, we're not doing this.  No, we're not doing this.

Fuck it, I'm doin' it.

Despite spending it at a nice restaurant with my family, my birthday felt pretty lonely this year.  This would be the foolish gift I don't really need that I can give myself.  I called my local EB and asked if they had any of these price-slashed PSVR bundles.

Turns out they did!  They had two of "the Creed bundles," which was a meaningless phrase to me.  Here's what they meant:

No, they wouldn't hold one for me 'cause it's Black Friday.  And anyway, if I could pick a bundle it wouldn't be that bundle.  I don't want those Move controllers anyway, and I have zero interest in Creed: The WagglingSUPERHOT VR might be cool, but whatever.  I'm having a Shopping Therapy day, and gosh darn it I'm worth it.

Or maybe I will be, one day.  Okay probably not, but I want it.  I made my way down there.

Patiently waited in line behind all the other Black Friday peeps, made small talk with the Manager.  Finally got to the register and I asked if they still have those two "Creed VR Bundles."  Nope.  Sold out, the Manager tells me.

"You had two a half-hour ago!" I exclaim.  "Okay," I shrug, and go to leave.

"We've got the Astro Bot bundles though," he says.  Astro Bot is the PSVR game journalists have been pretty positive about for the last month.

That's a plus.

"...does it have the Move controllers?" I ask.

"No," he says.  That's a plus.  "And it also comes with Moss."  ...that's a plus.  The Creed bundle was like $350 - $100 off its normal $450 price but not a crazy saving, plus two games I didn't feel like I needed and two controllers I didn't want.

The Astro Bot Rescue Mission bundle is regularly $400, and they were selling it for $230.  A major saving, no Move controllers to worry about, and two VR games I actually wanted to play.

So I bought it.  I spent a bit of time setting the thing up, puttered around the house the rest of the day and waited patiently for the moment I could actually put the headset on and try it out.  Last night, I tried out my very own PSVR.

First, it won't work with your PlayStation Gold Headset (or Platinum) quite the way you expect.  You don't turn on the headset - you just fire a double-male audio jack into the VR headset, put the other end of the jack into your audio headset, then you put on the VR headset, and over that you put the headphones.  So you're like awkwardly feeling for these headphones next to you while you're sitting there in a digital space, and once you've got those on you're blindly fumbling around for the DualShock you're sure is around here somewhere...

It's a lot of hardware on your head at once, but the depth of sound the Gold headphones can do is massive when compared to the earbuds the VR comes with.

The lenses on the VR need to get real, real close to your eyes for the 3D effect to work and for your eyes to view the image as intended - to the point that my glasses were pressed painfully into my eye sockets, the headset lenses pressed against them, and if it isn't that close, you aren't seeing the image properly. Everything looks blurry, light blooms off in weird directions until you get it right.

Once you get it perfect - once you really see the image, the first thing you immediately understand is that 1080p in each eye represent far fewer Ps than your eyes are generally accustomed to.  Everything you can see is clearly made up of pixels.  It's like... looking at a picture from an old low-resolution digital camera - or more to the point, you're inside the picture and reality is low-rez.  Some early-gen VR headsets have what's called a "screen door effect," in which the screen is so close to your eyes you can see the black spaces between the pixels, and feels like you're looking at the world through a screen door.

That's not quite the case, with PSVR.  It's not a screen door, but it's definitely a pixellation, and at first it's strikingly disappointing.  We're in the current-gen, of course, and things can look staggeringly sharp and beautiful (RDR2 says hello) - this is, immediately, a step back from the sharpness of a 50-inch screen five or ten feet away from you.

But it is not without... value.

Yes, things aren't as sharp as you'd like.  This isn't a photorealistic experience, and realistic visuals aren't what produce the magic of the VR experience.  The magic is just what happens when you're in a VR game, hear something to your left, and turn your head.

So maybe Thumper wasn't the best first choice to illustrate that - but Thumper's what I played first.

Thumper is a psychedelic "rhythm-violence" game that I really enjoyed on a flatscreen when it first launched.  It's made to be played with a DualShock, and the effect of playing it in VR is frankly as fun and beautiful as it ever was on a flatscreen - just with bigger perceivable pixels and instead of watching the beetle sail down the track, you are on the track with the beetle.  You're rocketing along and rhythm-buttons are flying at you and if you fuck one up it's an instant death, and huge fireworks of visuals are exploding around you.

You don't want or need to look around, but the effect is still that you're a bit... transported.

It's cool.  I'm gonna' play it in VR more.  After that, I tried... Overwatch.  'Cause I'm still me, I guess.

Playing a non-VR game with the headset is a very different experience, but also not.  Again, the pixelization is pronounced, but it's basically like this - imagine if you were sitting five feet from a 200-inch flatscreen that was floating in the dark in front of you. 

This seemed to have a negative impact on my peripheral senses in-game - or at least, I can't imagine that it helped, when the edge of the effective screen feels like it's a foot and a half to my left, but y'know what's weird?  It didn't seem to hurt at all.

In fact, it felt like I was playing better.  I ran Tracer around the target range and everything just felt a little sharper, a little quicker, my aim and pulse bombs a bit more perfect.  I jumped into Mystery Heroes and did very well, for a little bit.

Unexpected.  This will require further investigation.  And then...

I booted up Astro Bot Rescue Mission.  I've been hearing about it on social media all month, so it seemed worth checkin' out.  I adjusted the headset into place and dove in.

In the opening cutscene, you're literally floating in outer space.  Suddenly, funny spaceships are flying around you - you watch it circle and a little cartoon intro sequence plays out before you that you feel you could reach out and touch. I literally giggled with glee, at this - and then found myself shocked to be so utterly manipulated by the tech.  An evil alien blob-thing has scattered all the adorable bots of an adorable bot-ship across the cosmos, and the bots' sentient, wounded, cute ship clearly needs help.

And out of the ship comes Captain Astro, the cutest and sweetest bot of all, with a jaunty iridescent hard-light cape streaming off his little Apple Tech-esque shoulders.  He waves to you and wants your help, and when you look down at the controller in your hands, the controller is right there in the virtual space.  You never have to blindly reach for the controller when playing Astro Bot - you can always see it through the headset - a righteous design choice.  You can hold it up and boop Captain Astro with it, and he cheerfully leaps in to the touchpad of your controller and encourages you to investigate the first world.

I played the first level.

Then, I took off the earphones, took off the headset, put them down, picked up my phone and wrote this to Chamberlain and Alex:

"Gentlemen, I return with news.

Astro Bot Rescue Mission is the game that would have sold me a PSVR two years ago."

If this had been the game I had demoed in that EB in the fall of 2016, I would have honored my preorder and bought the thing.  I'm not kidding.

Astro Bot Rescue Mission is the astounding, transportive leap of possibility that I haven't experienced in gaming since things went from 2D to polygons in the 90s.  And everything's pretty pixellated.  And the headset is kinda' heavy.  And I don't fucking care.

Astro Bot Rescue Mission is, somehow, the game that overcame my Old Gamer Cynicism and really, completely absorbed me in its reality.

Imagine, for a moment, you're taking your dog for a walk.  Except instead of a dog, you look down and it's an adorable, cheerful robot with expressive E.V.E.-from-Wall-E eyes, and he runs around like a little Mario who you completely control with the DualShock.  He's a bit of a coward - he's scared of heights - but he trusts you implicitly.

It's like you're running a ten-inch Mario around your living room, telling him to jump on your coffee table and bop a Goomba off it.  And when you walk him up to you, he smiles with those eyes and waves and says hi.  You run him up a staircase to your left and crane your neck back to look up and guide him along a narrow rail to rescue the helpless little bot that waits at the end of it.

He bops the bot.  The bot flies down to you and cheers as you hold out the DualShock and let it fly into the touchpad.

It's magical.  It's just absolutely fucking magical.

Seeing your DualShock in the virtual space really, somehow, makes you feel more present in its world - and the little touchpad flicks you can use to use grappling hooks or spray water are some damn effective motion controls. 

It's not perfect.  I've seen some 10/10 reviews for it, but I think that's a bit over-generous.  You inhabit a physical space within the world, and float forward gently behind Captain Astro as he makes his way through the level - but you can never back up.  If you suddenly notice something behind you you want to investigate, there's no way to go back - your avatar within the world can only move foward, and it would be a real meaningful benefit to the player to just allow us to back our point-of-view up (or forward) via the right analog stick, which is otherwise unused by the game.

Captain Astro himself feels rather similar to playing as Clank in a Ratchet game, or Knack in, y'know, Knack.  He's simple - left stick to move, X to jump (hold to float), square to punch (hold to charge up a spin attack) - and that simplicity works generously in the player's favor.  It's instantly-understood and intuitive, and the impact of the feeling of guiding him through a space that you occupy is nothing less than profound.

The other thing I'd say is, so far, the game likes to mix things up by considering the player's physical presence within the game.  There are breakable boards the game wants me to smash with my forehead by leaning in to them - okay, whatever - and now there are bees that will fly at me, stinger-out, requiring me to lean to the side to avoid the blow before turning and headbutting them away.

I don't like this shit.  It's a distraction from the simple, pleasurable gaming beauty at the heart of Rescue Mission, but that simple, pleasurable heart is... the most excited I've been about a game - about gaming - in years.


But it's worth noting...

Skyrim VR is absolutely fucking terrible, for me.

The moment the game begins, one is dumbfounded by how shitty the graphics are.  I don't remember them being this shitty, but these graphics are shitty as shit.  But that's okay.  It's not about how good the graphics are, it's about how well the game transports you into its reality.

As you move forward through Skyrim's languid opening - remember, rolling along in the cart on the way to be beheaded? - you can shift your perspective in terms of the right analog stick, but your view doesn't smoothly sweep to the side like it does in literally every game you've ever played.  It jumps from straight ahead to 45 degrees to the right to 90 degrees to 135 and so on.  It snaps.  It's jarring and shitty.

Perhaps there's a point to this - remember seeing people teleport around in VR games when VR first really started up?  Maybe it's actually in my favor, but it feels absolutely awful in practice.  It's shocking.  You move forward, backward, and strafe left-to-right normally with the left stick, but actually turning around with the right stick is a horrible, horrible choice.

I don't know if it woulda' made me sick to just let me have the smooth movement on the right stick, but I WOULD LOVE TO FIND OUT.

Ah well.  Skyrim VR was half-off what with the Black Friday shenanigans.  Only a $40 loss, and maybe I'll return to it one day.  (Shivers.)

Oh, one other thing.  When you set up the PSVR, you take an HDMI cable that runs from your PS4 and jack it into the VR's connector box.  Then you run an HDMI cable from that into the TV.  This produces a little bit of input lag on the TV.

So after all of the above, I unplugged the PSVR box from my PS4 and jacked my PS4 directly into my TV and played a 'lil bit of Overwatch before heading to bed.

After three or four hours of using the thing, I couldn't take any more time with those screens a half-inch in front of my eyes, weighing down on my head.  I just wanted to play a 'lil.

Astro Bot Rescue Mission definitely would've sold me a PSVR two years ago, but I'm not sure that woulda' been a good thing.  It keeps a promise that, so far, no other PSVR game can really approach.  It sets a water mark you'd anticipate should be exceeded, and I'm not sure that's happened.

Maybe this "killer app" is the only one the thing's ever had - maybe the only one it ever will - but... y'know, I may just keep lookin'.

I still need to check out Moss.  I'm definintely gonna' keep playin' Rescue Mission and Thumper and y'know what sealed game is still on my shelf, having never been played?


  1. Can't wait to try Astrobot!

    FYI - you can turn on "smooth motion" in Skyrim, so you can move around like you normally would with the sticks + look around for added perspective. However - it will still look really rough & you may get motion sick. Still - the option exists buried in the settings to turn off snap-turning, if you want to mess with it.