While the original PlayStation VR was an admirable first effort for Sony, it was also an awkward piece of hardware. It launched when consumer-focused headsets were in their nascency, which is probably why Sony could get away with a jerry-rigged chimera of old and new technology. The headset looked slick and was comfortable, but its displays left a lot to be desired, the setup was frustrating, and it used controllers that were a generation older than the PS4. PSVR felt like a solution hurriedly thrown together to make the most of an emerging trend.
Its successor, the PlayStation VR 2, is the opposite in almost every way. It's a thoughtfully designed piece of hardware that is powerful and delivers a user-friendly, plug-and-play experience that is almost entirely frictionless. The technology powering it is modern, making it a worthy companion to the PlayStation 5, and its Sense controllers are designed specifically for gaming in VR spaces. The PSVR 2 is undoubtedly a major step forward for PlayStation's virtual reality ambitions and one of the best headsets on the market, but in the ever-shifting landscape of virtual reality, its price and current value proposition leave it in an awkward position once again.
Out of the box, the PSVR 2 looks and feels like a premium piece of technology. The matte-white-on-deep-black PlayStation color scheme is replicated here to great effect, and the form factor swaps the sharpness of the PS5 for rounded corners and curved bands that make the whole unit pleasing to look at, as well as put on and take off. The Sense controllers are similarly elegant in design, comfortably filling my hands and allowing my fingers and thumbs to rest on the buttons and triggers very naturally. The original PSVR was lauded as being the most comfortable headset on the market, and PSVR 2 can also claim that accolade, as it is even more comfortable to wear. It may feel a little heavy for those who are used to the lighter Meta Quest 2, but the weight feels well-distributed, so I didn't have the neck-fatigue issues that I feared may crop up during longer sessions.
There are some brilliant little product design features on the PSVR 2 that, when you read about, don't seem like a big deal, but make a difference when using the headset on a day-to-day basis. One such example is the headphones that are included with the headset, which plug into the band and have a thin plastic body that contours around the band so that it doesn't even look like a separate piece until the ends, where a small stretch of wire and in-ear headphones dangle. On either side of the band are two indents that you can push the headphones into to safely hold them in place, like little finger traps. It's easy to put the headphones in, take them out, and store them without removing the headset.
This kind of care and consideration put into comfort extends to more essential parts of the experience. On the front of the headset is a button that lets you easily move the lenses toward and away from the face. Another button on the back serves a similar function for the band, which means it's very easy to slide the headset on and have it fit comfortably. The mixture of hard plastic and cushions give the PSVR 2 a sturdiness and comfort that other headsets relying on straps can't match—on the Quest 2 you need to pay extra for the comfort by buying a headband. Once the headset is on, it's easy to make adjustments to find the sweet spot that works for you. A dial on the front moves the spacing of the two internal lenses so you can better align them with your eyes, while another on the back tightens the band to secure it to your head, similar to how it worked with the original.
Setting up the PSVR 2 is a breeze, which is a far cry from the original headset's mess of cables, cameras, and breakout boxes. This time around, it's as simple as plugging a single wire into the front of the PS5. Each Sense controller must be physically plugged into the console via the USB port, but just once to pair them. From there, the PS5 recognizes that a PSVR 2 has been connected and runs the software setup. Again, this process is streamlined to the point where it requires almost no interaction from the user beyond advancing tutorial prompts and informational text boxes. Since it has inside-out tracking via the four cameras on the headset, the PSVR 2 quickly scans and maps the room around you--which it visualizes in a cool geometric pulse--and then defines a safe play space, taking into account any nearby objects. If you want to extend it, you can manually edit and fill out more of the space to your liking. And if you're sitting, it will just place a circular play space on your position for you to move within.
Naturally, the optimal environment for the PSVR 2 is one which has a clear open space with the freedom to move around without bumping into things. It also needs to be well-lit so that the various cameras on the headset can keep track of your movement in the space. Most people won't be able to play in perfect conditions, however. In my case, I stood between my couch and chair, positioned behind a coffee table, which amounts to about a foot of space, and my lighting came from bay windows during the day and a bog standard lightbulb at night. Despite these less-than-optimal conditions, I didn't have many issues while using the headset. After the freedom of Quest 2, being tethered to the PS5 was a little annoying initially, as it is also a limiting factor on the range of movement you have. I found that a part of my attention was always dedicated to making sure I don't get too engrossed in game, so as to not send my console crashing to the ground. But the trade off is being able to leverage the power of the PS5, which has a noticeable impact on how ambitious games can be. The only other hiccup with my less than ideal environment happened when the Sense controllers became inconsistent with finger-tracking, resulting in strange and unexpected movements in-game. This seemed more pronounced in the evenings, when there was much less light. It wasn't a major problem at all; it's just a bit odd to see my virtual fingers glitching out every now and then.
My favorite feature on the PSVR 2 is a little button on the underside of the headset, which pauses the game and swaps the visuals to a view of the room you're in so you can see your surroundings. It's not a crystal-clear, colored video feed, and is instead a weird night vision-like view, but it's more than enough to safely walk around the room and pick up or put down controllers, reorient yourself, or--as I did--check to see what level of bemused my cat was while watching me. This is one of those situations where the hardware--specifically the external cameras--is being smartly utilized to give the user a better experience.
The whole process of going from taking the PSVR 2 out of the box to playing a game takes just a few minutes, and what helps significantly is the smooth integration into the PlayStation ecosystem. There's no need to make new accounts or merge them, as you've probably got an existing PlayStation account, and it leverages that. As someone that went through the ordeal of dealing with Oculus accounts, Facebook requirements, and migrations to Meta, this frictionless experience was very much appreciated. There's nothing more to setting up the PSVR 2 than that.
But where it gets complicated is the games. From the outset, there's one clear showpiece for the PSVR 2 that distinguishes itself as the "killer app," if you will: Horizon Call of the Mountain. As I mentioned when I previewed the game and the headset, Call of the Mountain is a reminder of how transcendent a high-quality VR experience running on powerful hardware can be. The technical specifications for the headset are out there, if you want to know the nitty-gritty of the internals, but the end result of all those bells and whistles is that Horizon Call of the Mountain is a beautiful game--easily one of the best-looking VR games I've ever seen. And, better still, it makes effective use of every feature the PSVR 2 has, to some degree. The OLED displays and advanced techniques such as foveated rendering deliver rich and vibrant visuals that render the world of Horizon with an overwhelming level of detail, without compromising performance. PSVR 2 allows players to get intimate with their environments, and the fidelity of what you see holds up under scrutiny: Oars glide through the water, trees sway in the wind, light pierces through outcroppings, and mountainsides are rough and craggy. Being able to get up close and personal with robotic dinosaurs highlights some of the superb work Guerrilla did with its creature design, and the same goes for its world.
I previously described the feeling of being in the world of Horizon as awe-inspiring, and this sensation holds true now too. That is, for me, the enduring magic of VR. There's nothing quite like the feeling of using the Sense controllers to carefully grasp handholds to climb my way up the side of a towering structure, only to glance over my shoulder and have the virtual world momentarily override my sights and senses to make me believe in the peril that awaited me should I take one wrong step. Or taking out enemies by quickly reaching over my shoulder to pull out arrows and carefully lining up shots to hit weak points, and then marveling at the physicality and instinct that went into doing that while ducking under lasers and narrowly leaping out of the way of robotic claws. Playing Horizon Call of the Mountain makes the PSVR 2 sing, and it's a beautiful song.
But for as impressive as it is, eventually, I couldn't help but think about the VR experiences I had when the technology and games first became available, what they are now, and how little they've evolved. For its part, Horizon Call of the Mountain developer Firesprite has done an exceptional job of taking the tried-and-true gameplay ideas and mechanics that VR has to offer and executing them superbly in a AAA VR title. Call of the Mountain is virtual tourism in a fantasy world at its most engrossing; it's one of the best climbing games I've ever played; the bow and arrow combat is incredibly satisfying; and the game even has a story that fans of the Horizon series will enjoy experiencing. But at the same time, each of the components of this game exists elsewhere, in other experiences, for other devices, and I've done them before many times.
That brings me to the biggest challenge that PSVR 2 faces: There's nothing that truly distinguishes it from the competition. Yes, the headset is cutting-edge, and the Sense controllers, with their finger-tracking capabilities, are both capable and comfortable, even if they're utilized in predictable ways. Outside of very limited cases--mainly Half-Life Alyx--VR games feel like they're still trapped in the same small box of possibilities they came in when the Rift hit the market all those years ago. There's nothing wrong with these ideas, just as there's nothing wrong with taking existing games like Gran Turismo or Resident Evil Village and using VR to open up new ways to play them, but the question then becomes, is that enough for you? And is that enough if it's all it will ever be?
With a price tag of $550--and the cost of the PS5 it's attached to--that's an important question to ask yourself, especially at launch when the PSVR 2 feels more like a luxury item than a must-have gaming platform. For some, spending that much money to have the latest technology is all the justification they need, but for those who are interested in entering the world of virtual reality in earnest, PSVR2 is a tough recommendation at the moment.
As I said, I enjoyed my time with Horizon Call of the Mountain, but no other game made the same kind of impression on me. Kayak VR Mirage let me paddle around a few real-world environments during the day, night, and while a storm was happening. And although it was definitely impressive to be in realistic recreations of locations I probably won't ever visit in real life, these thrills were fleeting--there's only so much furious paddling I want to do in my leisure time. Cities VR let me create my own metropolitan paradise by using the Sense controllers to effortlessly lay roads, erect buildings, and micromanage the day-to-day existence of my virtual fiefdom. But the process of constructing what became my nightmare hellscape of a city felt more novel than something I want to return to over and over again.
PSVR2 is a very well-made VR headset that has a high-quality build and premium feel while utilizing powerful technology and features to ensure it hits all the markers for what a modern VR headset should offer
What I found myself missing was something that charmed me in the way Astro Bot did when I turned on my PS5 for the first time. Or a game that showed me something new and only possible in a virtual reality video game experience. You might say that's a lot to ask of PlayStation designers and developers: to find or create revolutionary ideas in VR. But in a crowded market where other--some cheaper--options exist, that's exactly what it needs to do if it wants to separate itself from the pack. It says a lot that the games that I found myself most enjoying were either old or available in other places. Moss and Moss Book 2 are utterly delightful, and if, like me, you let these pass you by, rectify that mistake. Tentacular, a game where you're a kind-hearted monster with tentacles trying to complete tasks to help out the quirky citizens of La Kalma, is funny and creative. It let me use the PSVR 2's excellent eye-tracking to interact with characters, and the Sense controllers to pick up and fling objects for some physics-based mischief. And being in a galaxy far, far away in Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy's Edge is a lot of fun, but these games are also available in other places.
The hurdle PlayStation and PSVR 2 need to overcome if the platform is to have a fruitful future is ensuring that there's support for it. And not only that, but give people a compelling case to buy or use it by offering exclusive and unique experiences. As it stands, Horizon Call of the Mountain is carrying the PSVR 2 on its back. The lineup of games that support it will grow, and there are a few games on the way that I'm eager to play--Resident Evil VIllage and Resident Evil 4 Remake's VR content chief among them. Still, I can't recommend spending the cost of an entire gaming console for them, especially not at launch.
This leaves PSVR 2 in a very strange spot. As a successor, it improves on what came before in every possible way. It's a very well-made VR headset that has a high-quality build and premium feel while utilizing powerful technology and features to ensure it hits all the markers for what a modern VR headset should offer. And it does this while being paired with an equally powerful console capable of rendering awe-inspiring virtual spaces. But there's nothing that makes it absolutely essential to own right now, beyond the thrills of being there on day one for new gaming hardware--or if you just really want more Horizon.
What Sony has created is a VR headset that can exist in the space between the affordable but underpowered Quest 2 and the expensive but powerful Index. But much of what it offers can be found on cheaper devices like the Quest 2, which has the added benefit of being standalone and wireless. For enthusiasts--and people willing to push through motion sickness, like me--it's very impressive hardware that needs more software to actually impress them. I hope that Sony and its partners start thinking outside of the box a bit more when it comes to games, and commit to supporting the platform long-term in a meaningful way--the excellent hardware deserves as much. If they do, the future of PSVR 2 will be exciting, but for now, that excitement is built on the same thing VR has always enticed hopefuls with: potential.