When it comes to VR, my hype level is pretty low. While I’m impressed with how far the technology has come in the past few years and – unlike Warren Spector – can definitely see amazing potential gaming-wise for the various VR platforms, a truly satisfying VR gaming experience feels years away.
Or felt, I should say. Although it was still fairly low res, this year’s Morpheus E3 demo was leaps and bounds ahead of that of last year, and has me hopeful that the PlayStation 4 will have enough grunt to provide some decent if not utterly spectacular VR experiences.
The Morpheus headset is lightweight and comfortable – even when wearing reasonably chunky glasses – and is a cinch to take on and off. It’s not yet wireless though, and there was a second cord running from the separate headphones I used, so moving around wasn’t much of an option.
The field of view on the Morpheus is about 100 degrees, which is slightly more restrictive than that of the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, but if you haven’t spent time with those headsets it won’t bother you. In-game control was this year handled with a pair of standard Move controllers, and these tracked surprisingly well.
The two short demos I played were grouped under one umbrella called The London Heist. I was seated for the first, called Getaway, because it took place in the passenger seat of a car cruising along a fairly nondescript London motorway at dawn. As my Cockney companion convincingly spat lines about the mob and this and that, I could manipulate various things in the environment using my hands (which were represented by gloves in-game): the glove box, the door handle, a bottle, the radio.
The calm vibe was then interrupted by Russian gangsters shooting at us from cars, vans, and motorcycles speeding up to and past us on the motorway. A gun was tossed my way, and with my right hand I aimed, shooting using the Move’s trigger.
Hitting tires and petrol caps had effects you can probably predict, and using my left hand I could open the car door, lean out, and then look and shoot backwards at the less bold of our pursuers. The reload mechanic was pretty cool too; I had to grab a clip from the centre console and press it into the base of the gun. It slotted in with a very satisfying click.
The second demo, Interrogation, began with a muscled and angry London gangster (possibly the same dude) pulling a bag off my head to reveal my predicament – sitting on a chair in an anonymous warehouse. Not good. There’s been a betrayal of some sort, but I’m given a chance to prove it wasn’t me.
Now standing both in-game and out, I’m behind an ornate desk in what appears to be a mansion of some sort. There are exits dead ahead and to the left and right, and security guards traipse around outside, periodically poking their heads through one of the doorways to shines a light around the office. When this happens, I must crouch or risk being seen.
Not that it matters in the end anyway – while going through the desk’s drawers, I nab a large gem that triggers an alarm, and soon enemies are swarming in through the doors and out onto a balcony above as well. Out comes the gun again, and now I’m ducking to avoid being hit while blind firing like a pro.
It’s only a three-minute demo, but it feels like an eternity – in a good way. And despite the fact that it all looked like a PlayStation 3 game, The London Heist was a lot of fun. In fact, that’s probably an understatement – it was a blast. The frame rate remained smooth and rock solid the whole time, and the Move ably tracked my hand movements.
Of course, we haven’t truly seen the limits of what the Morpheus is capable of. It remains to be seen whether the PlayStation 4 has the power to smoothly handle a decent-looking VR narrative experience in which the player is able to move about freely using something like the Move joystick controller, for example. It's also not clear how holding a joystick-equipped Move controller will affect things, as they aren't tracked by the PS Camera and thus can't represent a hand in-game as well. It will certainly be most disappointing if all we get is a procession of rail shooters and survival horrors that restrict rather than enhance the player freedom.
Much hinges on its projected uptake as well: will PlayStation 4 owners be happy to pay what will in all likelihood be a few hundred dollars for a headset that can only play a handful of games? Developing for Morpheus has to be a risk, so it'll be up to Sony to lead the way in that regard. Morpheus's launch certainly feels like something Sony can’t half-ass, and it will need a killer app or two to convince all but the richest or most obsessed of its fanbase to invest.
Even so, colour me less skeptical than before about the headset’s potential. Sony has the advantage of its own closed system to work with – even if that system is more limiting than a PC power-wise – and it also has the basics nailed. Not once did my experience feel rough or inaccurate, and motion sickness wasn't even a slight issue for anyone I spoke to. Sony also has No Man's Sky, and as well all know, spaceships and flight games are what's properly tantalising about VR.