Review: PlayStation VR2 is a huge leap that still can’t escape its niche

by Ana Lopez

The PlayStation VR2 is a simultaneously exciting and disappointing development in the virtual reality space. Well specified, easy to set up and reasonably light and comfortable, Sony’s latest still can’t shake the fundamental issues that helped make VR mainstream: a lack of compelling content and, despite a brand new 4K OLED display, distracting image fidelity . It’s the best VR ever, and I still can’t bring myself to recommend it to anyone who hasn’t already been on board.

The PSVR was one of the first truly consumer-accessible VR headsets and was easy to set up for its time, but also relied on outdated controls in the immediately outdated Move controllers and a TV-mounted camera. Still, it showed that VR had a future in gaming, and that Sony approached it with accessibility and ease of use in mind.

The PSVR2 was announced last year, and based on specs alone it generally led the pack, with a few exceptions here and there. With a retail price of $550 all-in, it struck a balance between the increasingly decent entry-level headsets (Oculus Quest 2) and more expensive, complex PC-bound headsets (Vive Pro 2).

With a 4K OLED screen operating at 120 Hz, inside-out sensing (meaning no mounted cameras or transmitters), and a few controllers adopted and improved from others, it seemed to embody a best of its kind , with the main drawback being that it is a single-platform device.

And really, in practice, that’s exactly what PSVR2 is: the best of its kind, with no meaningful compromise in hardware other than a single cable. It’s a breeze to set up and is suitable for both room-scale playstyles as well as seated and standing playstyles. A variety of games will be available on day one, including a Horizon: Zero Dawn spin-off and a Resident Evil title, along with others in less intense genres. So why am I still hesitant to recommend it?

Because VR gaming – as magical as it may be – is itself still a compromise. Even at its most seamless and convincing, VR is a sweaty, uncomfortable, artificial-feeling experience, like being under a blanket watching a 3D TV through a screen door. Within 10 seconds of delivering Sony’s biggest hardware effort in years, I couldn’t help but think, “So VR is still like this, huh?”

Image Credits: Sony

I know some will say it just makes me a hater. But I actually want VR to be good. I want it to be successful – I tried that Oculus duct tape prototype all those years ago and immediately understood the potential. And now, ten years later, I see a significant one fraction of that potential – but nothing like what I’d need to say to someone “hey, go spend six bills on this” unless they were willing to forgive a lot.

Still, I don’t want to outright dismiss a perfectly good VR headset because it’s part of an evolving ecosystem, so let’s talk about what the PSVR2 gets right.

Easy, airy, pretty-ish

Firstly, the headset is attractively designed and fairly light, and doesn’t take up much space when not in use. Likewise the controllers, which are a bit puzzling and pretzel-like at first, but ultimately make sense. It’s all very well thought out and put together.

Setup is also incredibly easy – by far the easiest VR setup I’ve experienced. Plug the headset into your PS5’s USB-C port and you’ll get a step-by-step tutorial on how to put it on, adjust the fit, which buttons do what, and how to sync the controllers (literally just hit the PS button on them) .

Automatically scan and adjust the playing space. Image Credits: Sony

Setting up a playing area is done automatically by looking around you in passthrough mode, which is a real-time black and white representation of your surroundings (and somewhat unnerving for some reason). It builds a small play area using the free space around you, which you can easily add or subtract by zapping it with a beam coming from your controller (it’s actually kind of fun).

Gaze detection is built in and installation is also quick and easy: just follow the dot around and it’s done within 20 seconds. It was accurate enough for non-precision stuff, but I found it impossible to look directly at the crosshairs in Rez: Infinite, which, frustratingly, was always only half the width under my gaze. Repeated configurations didn’t help, but I beat the first two areas unscathed anyway – it was point-down, but otherwise accurate and extremely responsive.

Once you’re in a game, you’re given some familiar clues, such as whether to use gestures or the analog sticks to move. I was definitely thinking about gestures until I discovered that in Horizon: Call of the Mountain the gesture to move forward is to hold down buttons on both controllers and pump your fists up and down. I laughed out loud and switched to the sticks, which weren’t much better. Motion in VR is still an unsolved problem.

(I didn’t have enough room to really try out the game at full room scale, but from what little I did, the tracking seemed good, if not particularly necessary for most games.)

PSVR2’s controllers look like pretzels. Image Credits: Sony

The most impressive aspect of the PSVR2 is definitely the accuracy and responsiveness of the controllers. While there’s still a layer of “well, these fake, silly-looking hands aren’t my hands,” the instantaneous feedback of motion and rotation—no vibration or shock to be seen—fools your brain very quickly. There’s a reason why climbing is central to the Horizon game; it turns awkward movements into something natural and fun. On flat surfaces, the game feels weird; on cliffs it’s really exciting.

The screen is great, as VR screens go. It’s bright and vibrant and has nice deep darks because it’s an OLED panel. Motion is smooth too, either at a full 120 Hz or a lower frame rate interpolated to that level. At 110 degrees, the field of view is among the best, much better than the tunnel vision in other headsets – but the vignetting is still very noticeable and occasionally distracting.

Hard limits

But even at 4K and 120 Hz you can’t escape physics, and in fact your eyes are just inches from the screen, with a complex Fresnel lens construction in between. The result is – as it pretty much always has been – shimmer, chromatic aberration, smearing, aliasing, vignetting and inevitably eye strain.

To be clear, it looks as good or better than anything else out there right now, especially in terms of color intensity and depth. Still, it’s not (and neither is the competition) what I’d call sharp. I found there was a very narrow sweet spot where I got maximum brightness, and even then that brightness decreases as you move further from the center of the viewport.

Other reviews have said 2K per eye dramatically reduces aliasing, which is true, but it’s far from eliminated and the final image, while compelling for its depth, fluidity and nature of VR, still seemed blurry and thick to me. Unfortunately, screenshots are not an accurate representation of what it really is like.

In the context of a detailed and immersive game environment such as a Horizon jungle or a stylized Rez area, even the storybook tableaux of the Moss series, you can very well see past the screen door effect and enjoy the moment, but it is always there, waiting to be noticed. In more static scenes where details can be admired at leisure, the lack of brightness will become immediately apparent, especially for gamers accustomed to seeing ultra-sharp images on large 4K screens from 2.5 to 3 meters away. The idea that someone would want to play a normal game or watch a movie on the virtual screen in “movie mode” instead of on a decent (and I mean $300 a few years ago, like mine) TV just doesn’t hold lurch.

A typical scene in the new Horizon game. Keep climbing! Image Credits: Sony

The fundamental problems of convergence and accommodation fatigue – your eyes can’t properly choose their focus by redirecting and reshaping themselves – are also not alleviated by eye-tracking and foveated rendering, although these techniques show promise. I’m not prone to motion sickness, but after an hour or so in the game my eyes and temples absolutely hurt and there’s a lingering sense of optical distortion.

While the experience has been streamlined very effectively and the technology has improved tremendously in recent years, the games are still not worth the price of admission for most people. Sure, some dedicated players who really like Horizon or Resident Evil, and are constitutionally fit for VR play, were sold on the PSVR2 long ago.

And to them I say: enjoy! It’s better than ever and super easy to set up, and the controllers are awesome! And there is the opportunity to deliver truly new and powerful gameplay experiences!

But the PSVR2 advancements, important as they are, seem unlikely to convince anyone who was unconvinced years ago. The games still feel like expensive showcases and while some titles take advantage of VR (Eye Control Rez is truly remarkable and cover shooters will shine), the level of visuals and immersion on a TV screen is still only increasing. I didn’t have to wear a VR helmet to terrify me deep in a cave in Elden Ring. And Resident Evil Village was already scary as hell when I was looking around with a mouse!

Games that really take advantage of VR’s capabilities still feel tentative and half-formed, a hint of what’s to come. I hope to eat my words in the next two years when a real killer app appears. I would not want anything else.

But for now, VR is just too expensive for the experience it offers. And with the increasing picture and audio quality of home TV setups, gaming isn’t in dire need of an upgrade, let alone an afterthought. The PlayStation VR2 achieves its goal of making a state-of-the-art headset simpler and more capable than ever, but unless you’re already one of the VR faithful, it can safely be considered another promising step towards the holy grail.

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