Virtual Reality is well past the proof-of-concept phase, but even its most ardent supporters would have to admit that the bandwagon is moving slowly, at least when it comes to gaming. Nearly a year after its release, Sony’s PSVR is hardly a mandatory accessory. Most of the offerings are little more than glorified tech demos, and while many of them are intriguing, we haven’t seen anything with the impact needed to drive sales for the platform.
That’s why I was excited to see that Sony devoted so much of its floor space to PSVR at Fan Expo Toronto over the weekend. Though the booth had a handful of more conventional titles like Call of Duty: WWII and Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite, half of the area was set aside for a collection of PSVR originals. I had the chance to try Bravo Team, The Inpatient, and Gran Turismo Sport, all of which demonstrate the significant strides that Sony’s developers have made in the past year.
They also highlight the sales challenge facing any VR platform. While the games are getting better, VR still feels like it’s better suited to public venues like Fan Expo than it is to a home environment. That has less to do with the games than it does with logistics. To play Gran Turismo Sport (Polyphony Digital), I put on the PSVR headset and then sat down in a full-size car seat that comes complete with pedals and a steering wheel. The effect is incredibly immersive, but I don’t have the money for a car simulator, nor do I have the space for one in my apartment. That’s the conundrum. Gran Turismo Sport is a blast that gives players a safe way to drive dangerously, the digital track allowing you to reach speeds that you would never risk on a physical road. It’s just not something I’m likely to do in the comfort of my own home because I don’t have all of the necessary equipment.
A horror game like The Inpatient is better suited to the average living room, but even that is not without its drawbacks. Developed by Supermassive Games, The Inpatient is set in an asylum. As the titular inpatient, you’re strapped to a chair while a doctor asks you questions and tries to jog your memory. Later, you walk around and discover that there is a far more sinister presence inhabiting the hospital. It’s a simple yet effective premise with some decent jump scares, an eerie atmosphere, and a spooky shadow that resembles the Wendigo from Hannibal. Despite some lingering VR issues – my mild unease was more motion sickness than terror – that’s a combination that I usually find appealing. It’s also the sort of thing that I’d rather play at home, if only because I wouldn’t want to start screaming in a room full of strangers.
At the same time, there are benefits to an event like Fan Expo. It took a few minutes to calibrate the headset and there were no visuals until we were able to sort everything out. Having professionals on hand to troubleshoot those technical issues made the experience more accessible and more enjoyable. I could (and would) have taken care of it on my own, but my frustration probably would have carried over to the game itself. The Inpatient requires a greater narrative investment. The PSVR is reasonably user-friendly, but there are still technical barriers that discourage that level of engagement.
Bravo Team, meanwhile, is a cooperative military shooter that splits the difference between the two extremes. In the demo (also developed by Supermassive), you have to make your way across a heavily fortified bridge with the help of a teammate, sprinting from one cover point to the next to avoid enemy gunfire.
The game is competent, but it once again feels like something you’d play in an arcade. Some of that is a function of the genre. Bravo Team is a descendant of rail shooters like House of the Dead or Time Crisis, with a tactile element that makes use of a custom controller shaped like an assault rifle. It’s a highly intuitive control scheme (once you figure out where all the buttons are), and disappearing into a headset is a little more immediate than standing in front of an arcade cabinet. It feels natural to raise the gun to your eye to look down the scope (even through the headset), and doing so is far more satisfying than using a thumb stick to push a reticle around the screen.
The catch is that you are plugged into a headset (with headphones to match), and you still need to communicate with your teammate. At Fan Expo, I was very much aware that there was someone sitting at the station next to me. Bravo Team is an intimate use of VR in the sense that you’re sharing both a physical and digital space with another person. That kind of asymmetry can be fascinating, but it’s expensive and difficult to recreate at home. The Bravo Team co-op is designed for online play, but the game is more potent when played in person. That’s been true for almost everything I’ve tried in VR. The games demo better when a dedicated space has been set aside exclusively for that purpose.
All three of the games I tried at Fan Expo simply reinforced that fact. They were also legitimately exciting, which is why Sony’s ongoing support for PSVR is both welcome and encouraging. A game like Bravo Team is a significant mechanical improvement over something like London Heist. I’d like to see developers continue to explore that design space.
However, VR will have to clear a few more hurdles before it’s ready for widespread adoption. For now, I’m glad that the public is getting the chance to try PSVR during events like Fan Expo (and I do recommend that you try VR if you get the chance). Games like Gran Turismo Sport hint at greater possibilities. High-profile showcases should generate enough interest in VR make the platform more sustainable, and I can’t wait to see what the top game studios create when given more opportunities to experiment with VR.