Sony's PlayStation VR2 landed in late February, boasting a beefy lineup of 50 launch titles and groundbreaking new hardware. If you spend just a few minutes with the device, you'll find that it provides a comparable experience to Meta's Quest headset, and that significant advancements since the first PlayStation VR headset have made for a smoother, less motion sickness-inducing experience.
Before the platform launched, it's been hard to gauge what the PSVR2 might offer developers. At minimum, it's good for the VR market that Meta is facing stronger competition. Valve's sort of checked out on the Index (maybe justifiably so, the Steam Deck is incredible), and other VR and AR headset makers have stepped back from the market in the last few years.
George Jijiashvili, principal analyst at our sibling organization Omdia agreed with me that there's lots of market potential in the new headset. According to the firm's data, the headset's installed base is projected to cross 10 million active installations, high above the number enjoyed by the first PSVR. "As many as 3.6 million PSVR2 headsets could be sold in the first two years of its availability," he noted.
Omdia estimates that the platform might achieve an attach rate of about 6.8 percent of users on PS5 consoles.
We've now had a chance to spend time with the PSVR2, and opportunities to think about what the platform offers the game development world. The biggest advantage over other headsets right now is PSVR's integration with the PlayStation ecosystem—and that might mean more devs not currently working in VR should start giving it a shot.
PSVR2 proves the pleasant power of VR ports
Three of the PSVR2's big launch-window titles were Horizon: Call of the Mountain, Resident Evil Village's VR mode, and VR support for Gran Turismo 7. Two of those games are tied to first-party PlayStation brands, so it's understandable that Sony come out swinging with those titles.
But while Horizon: Call of the Mountain is a compelling experience on its own (more on that later), it's Resident Evil Village and Gran Turismo 7 that I've had my eye on. Videos of hardcore Gran Turismo fans playing with their full racing rigs have been breathtaking to watch, and my time with Resident Evil Village convinced me that now might be the time to port more and more non-VR games to VR.
Estimates on PSVR2 sales from third-party analysts seem to partly confirm this. According to GameDiscoverCo (which combined data from PlayStation's published charts on its stores), Gran Turismo 7 was the top-selling VR title as of March 1, with Horizon Call of the Mountain in close second.
It'll be interesting to see if the playing habits of VR users on other platforms translate to PlayStation VR2. GameDiscoverCo boss Simon Carless showed us a chart indicating that multiplayer games like Gorilla Tag VR and GYM CLASS - Basketball VR were recently the top-selling games on Meta Quest. For the moment, PSVR2 seems to be in a position where it can capture a more single-player focused audience.
I do recognize that building virtual reality modes for shipped games is not as simple as "push button, ship VR," but I'm very close to saying that Resident Evil Village's VR mode might be the definitive way to play Capcom's award-winning survival horror game.
Playing the game's VR mode after time with Horizon: Call of the Mountain makes for a fascinating juxtaposition. Call of the Mountain is painstakingly molded for the PSVR2. All of the game's environments and interactable objects are tuned to support shorter sessions, high interactivity with the hand controls, gentle traversal that's less likely to make you nauseated, and drawing the player's eye so they're always turning their head.
Resident Evil Village boasts few of those accommodations. Its main hook is that the combat and puzzle mechanics have been reworked for hand controls, meaning that just like the VR modes for Resident Evil 4 and Resident Evil VII, players spend more time physically interacting with the guns instead of just smashing a reload button. You steady your aim by holding guns in two hands, you have to push each individual shotgun shell into the chamber, and after every rifle shot you have to pull on the bolt to eject the round.
It's far from a perfect system but in practice, it makes the game so much more tense. There's a fumbliness to shooting now that feels appropriate for hapless protagonist Ethan Winters. The physical presence of the game's monsters shifts your behavior in fights. And seeing creepy NPCs invade your personal space really puts you on edge in a way that they don't on a television screen.
What I want to call out is that while these experiences are much better, there's so many elements of Resident Evil Village's VR that are actively worse than neighboring ground-up VR experiences. Games like Call of the Mountain, Moss: Book II, and Star Wars: Tales from Galaxy's Edge all benefit from ground-up design that we've heard touted over the years, and do feel better than Village when you're not in combat.
In those titles, there's more to interact with, better traversal mechanics, and more exploration of what's possible when hands make things more immersive. Meanwhile in Village, Ethan Winters is knocked off his feet so often that your head will frequently be placed at an impossible angle on ground level, and it will feel like your lips are making contact with the floor.
But that's the thing. Village struggles with all of those conventional VR design rules, and I still felt like it crossed the bar for an outstanding VR experience. I don't know if Capcom made any additional tweaks beyond the gun and puzzle system improvements, but it feels like they got a lot of bang for buck by not leaning into hard what's made other VR experiences great.
Resident Evil Village still comes with that blending of high camp and visceral scares, but the scares feel more prominent thanks to the headset's effectiveness at promoting a sense of presence.
How are the hand controls?
The individual hand controllers for the PlayStation VR2 are a surprising mixed bag. First, the high marks: I can't deny they're aesthetically pleasing and win points on ergonomics alone. I feel much more comfortable holding and playing with the VR2 controllers than I do a regular DualSense. After 3 hours with a DualSense my aging gamer hands will start to cramp up. After 3 hours with the PSVR2 controllers, no cramping whatsoever.
Frankly, the VR2 controllers are so much fun to use that I want developers to make them compatible with non-VR games on PlayStation 5. I'd much rather play Marvel's Midnight Suns or Dead Space using these! Yes, I'd be giving up the D-Pad, but if developers can think up creative ways to use gesture controls, I'd feel much more comfortable.
My two disappointments with the controllers come with the finger tracking and control schemes across each of the games I've played. To be fair to Sony, the finger tracking on these was never meant to approach what's currently possible on the Valve Index or Meta Quest.
It's neat enough that the player's hands in Horizon Call of the Mountain and Resident Evil Village will mimic where your fingers are moving, but because it's just watching the buttons, that makes it less fun to goof around or react to the behavior of NPCs when they interact with you.
It's my own personal "wave test." If I can make an open hand and wave at an NPC when they're talking to or about me, I feel that much more engaged by the experience. But the way Sony's finger tracking is currently designed (it checks if your fingers are hovering over individual buttons), I'm liable to make a weird half-fist or claw when I'm having those interactions.
Likewise I need to be moderate about how I describe my problems with the different control schemes I've encountered—after all, lots of different games on PC or Consoles use different controls, and players always have to adjust. However, I think the PSVR2 controls have one physical problem, which is that the R1 button usually accessed using the middle finger is not a good button to "grab" objects with.
Sony itself seems aware of this. Horizon Call of the Mountain has players grab items with the R2 button, which uses the index finger, and it feels great. The adaptive triggers kick in and objects get a certain heft and weight.
But the R1 button isn't adaptive, and players are left reaching out to grab objects by clawing their middle fingers. While holding objects, players are also denied access to the meaty hand muscles that help you maintain a grip because the R1 button is on the inside of the controller.
So while jumping between Tales from Galaxy's Edge and Resident Evil Village, I was struggling with remembering which button let me hold onto my gun and which one let me pull the trigger. Village gets especially confusing when you're trying to heal, because you have to use R1 to grab a bottle and then R2 to pop the top off. Whatever praise I had before about Village not needing to follow strict rules of VR design, I need to claw it back here, because "treat bottle like gun" is not how my brain works when quickly trying to heal in a panicky situation.
Developers we spoke with did talk up the value of PSVR2's adaptive triggers, and it seems like this will be the most interesting design space for titles shipped in the next year. Funktronic Labs' Eddie Lee told us that the player grip position and side button are all "different" from other platforms, which had a big impact on the studio's roguelike The Light Brigade.
The Light Brigade's big pitch is that the designers took inspiration from more cumbersome and interactive World War I-era guns in a fantasy setting, so it took tuning to align the controls designed for other platforms to work on PSVR2. Lee was downright excited about the changes, saying that the studio "tweaked the resistance curves on the triggers" to enhance the feeling of pulling the trigger of a real rifle.
Polyarc designer Doug Burton commented that in updating the Moss games, implementing the adaptive trigger features made the process of grabbing breakable objects "new and exciting." "The advanced controller haptics and HMD haptics became features that felt like they had been missing all along once we got them in the game," he added.
For developers making the jump to PSVR2, I'd encourage you to let players grab items with R1, especially if your game doesn't involve pulling a trigger on a weapon. If you need to figure out how to integrate trigger mechanics into that philosophy...uh...I'll get back to you after taking a class on interfaces.
Eye-tracking and the pass-through cameras feel underutilized (for now)
If you asked me what the PSVR2's eye-tracking tech was good for, I couldn't tell you. Horizon Call of the Mountain uses it for navigating the menus, which feels mostly good, but Resident Evil Village and Tales from Galaxy's Edge finger-guns menu navigation felt much better.
In theory, the eye-tracking lets developers take advantage of the headset's foveated rendering technology. Unity Create senior vice president and general manager Marc Whitten told Game Developer that the engine maker has worked closely with PSVR2 developers to optimize the engine for VR development, and that he personally saw lots of potential in the headset's foveated rendering tech.
For the unfamiliar, foveated rendering is a process where VR headsets can dynamically alter image quality in areas the player isn't looking. On the PSVR2, eye tracking can play a role in determining what part of the game world needs to be most optimized.
I'd wondered if Call of the Mountain would have a gimmicky eye-tracking moment or otherwise make it obvious when the game was tracking where your eyes are, but no such feature is visible in the first few hours.
That said, VR developers speaking to Game Developer told us that foveated rendering and eye-tracking have already helped them improve games previously shipped on Steam and Quest.
"Foveated rendering was [an instance] where the user wouldn't notice the feature but using it would let us elevate the visuals across the entire game and they would notice that," said Burton, on the improvements made to Moss: Book II. Polyarc's artists apparently were able to improve the game's lighting, shadows, and reflections across both Moss titles.
Burton's explanation of the best uses for eye tracking may have just highlighted that I also can't see when that feature is working well. "We found that making [eye tracking] too obvious was distracting, but using it to enhance the interaction feedback channels we were already using, like the glowing of interactive objects, worked really well."
He said that it seems like eye tracking can help reduce the need for tutorialization in VR games. "Players can now get information about what objects are interactive by just taking in the scene visually," he said.
The PSVR2's other new innovation is the pass-through camera, which lets players see their surroundings with the push of a button. I don't want to undersell how much of a quality-of-life improvement this is for safety and taking breaks. If my partner walks into the room and needs to talk to me, I can push a button and be smoothly taken out of the game world so I can see what they're saying (They still have to look at me with the headset on, so maybe this is a one-sided benefit).
But if you're a developer looking to ship games that can use the pass-through camera, I don't think that's going to be a great experience. The camera currently displays a black-and-white image, and its primary function seems to be mapping the player's room environment in order to build VR volumes for safety and play.
Pass-through cameras have been a staple in discussions about where the future of virtual and augmented reality might intersect. Lots of metaverse-minded analysts are more bullish on technology that augments our real-world vision than ones that have us strap on vision-obscuring headsets.
I don't think PSVR2 fulfills that dream at this time, and that might leave the platform's scope limited for this hardware generation.
Our final thoughts on PSVR2
Despite the hardware limitations described above, I'm keen on the commercial and artistic possibilities for game developers on PSVR2. Having a plug-and-play VR headset that can use the full power of the PlayStation 5 is a good trade-off for not having the mobility of the Meta Quest hardware.
It may take time for sales of the headset to ramp up, but there are opportunities for VR-first developers to introduce their games to a console audience, and for console-first developers to start dabbling with VR game design. The tipping point of my experience really was with Resident Evil Village, a game which, again, broke most rules I've heard about making games in VR, but was ultimately more thrilling when played with hand controllers and a head-tracking camera.
My time with the VR headset did make me briefly reflect on the future of the metaverse, which some still want tied to fully immersive worlds that you engage with through VR or AR headsets, and I came away with this thought: if metaverse software is so integrated into our society that we need to wear these headsets for multiple hours a day, then the metaverse is going to be an incredibly uncomfortable physical experience.
That's not a slag on the PSVR2's physical design. It's the best headset I've worn in terms of comfort. But the presence of being inside virtual reality for hours has a strange psychological effect, especially if the sun goes down while you're playing. The headset's weight drags on your head, and since you've been physically moving around more than you might have otherwise in your home, your physical stamina may be slightly depleted.
Metaverse boosters point to the future of lightweight headsets and other science fiction-level advancements that can solve these problems, but I think developers and consumers alike should be demanding better than pitches straight out of Ready Player One. There's a certain feeling that this is all going to turn out like self-driving cars have: optimists will promise that the necessary technology is always a few years away, and then a few years will pass, and another few years will be promised.
Current visions of the metaverse already leave me mostly unimpressed, and for now I'd rather use the PSVR2 to try out interesting games from creative developers. There's still too much the outside world has to offer.