To VR and beyond

Farpoint1
Farpoint.

That’s right, I’ve never experienced VR before. Is “experienced” the right word? Subjected myself to? Suffered through? Delighted in? Something in between? That’s what I aim to find out, so here it is — my first foray into VR, from getting my hands on the blasted thing to shooting my way through evil clowns. (Because those fuckers are every-fucking-where.)

Getting my hands on PSVR.

Over Black Friday/Cyber Monday, just about everyone had the PSVR Skyrim bundle on sale. Amazon sold out, but they kept taking orders at the sale price, which I thought was pretty awesome of them. I almost ordered it, but I dithered. Then I noticed that Dell had it on sale for slightly less, except I couldn’t get their damn shopping cart to actually work (I, uh, may have mentioned this before.) Eventually, I managed to finally get the cart to function properly (sort of). I still wasn’t 100% certain that I even wanted to order the damn thing, but I was morbidly fascinated with the fact that Dell’s bloody shopping cart wouldn’t work during the busiest shopping days of the year.

I finally said to hell with it and ordered the damn thing. Then I settled in for a long wait, because no matter what you order from Dell, it’s going to be a long wait.

A few days later, they sent an email telling me that my order would be delayed. The delay was only a few days, so I shrugged and let it go. Two days later, a disturbance in the Force led me to Dell’s site to check the order, where I found a note that there had been an additional delay, and they were going to cancel the order within 24 hours if I didn’t tell them I wanted to keep it. There was no email sent about this second delay. If I hadn’t randomly checked on it, it would have been canceled without my knowledge. Bad form, Dell. (I’m guessing this is how a previous order of mine was mysteriously canceled without my knowledge, though it would have been nice if your customer service peeps could have figured out why. They couldn’t.)

I was tempted to let it go, but my perverse streak rebelled and I told them that yes, I would like to keep the order.

Then there was another delay.

Then I found out that all of the PSVR stuff was going on sale again, and I finally got fed up. I canceled the Dell order, marked the start of the new sale on my calendar, hit Amazon at 10:00 PM the day before, and ordered the bundle the instant the sale price went live. Good thing I did, too, because when I checked the next day at 1:30 PM, Amazon had already sold out again.

As always, the bundle arrived two days later, while I was in bed with what felt like a 24-hour flu. (Though given how I felt the next day, it might not have been just 24 hours.) I was already nauseous and a little dizzy, so… probably not the best time to dive into VR. But I could at least set the thing up and start getting everything charged and ready to go.

No more Dell. This isn’t the first time I’ve given up on an order that I placed with them, but it’s going to be the last. I keep giving them chances, and they keep acting like they’re stuck in 1992. Or maybe 1892. Except with computers. And stuff.

Setting it up.

It’s not hard, except that changing anything about my gaming setup is always hard. The whole thing is a pile of Tetris blocks balanced on the head of a pin and anchored by power strips that look like something Escher would squint at, and then walk away from, shaking his head. Unplug this from that, plug this into that, carefully thread this cable through there, realize that I also need to thread this cable through there… spend some time trying to figure out how to make the Kinect share space with the PS camera…

Speaking of the Kinect, people have been hailing its demise just as I finally started actually getting some use out of the darned thing. About halfway through my return visit to Wolfenstein: The New Order, I suddenly started actually using the voice commands. And liking them. There’s something cathartic about shouting, “Reload! Throw grenade! Shotgun! Assault!” at the screen.

Once everything was hooked up, it all worked flawlessly. Luckily, I had a moment of foresight a while ago and acquired a charging stand long before I actually ordered the PSVR. That baby can charge up the two PS Move controllers, hold the VR headset, charge up two regular controllers, and charge up an unspecified device of your choice at the same time. Score. I’d also nabbed the Farpoint / Aim controller bundle, Job Simulator, and a free copy of Until Dawn: Rush of Blood. I was set.

Except not. The system was ready to go, but my play space was definitely not. I ended up having to shove the recliner way back just to play Farpoint (with the chair squarely against the back of my knees), and I couldn’t get it out of the way enough to play Job Simulator effectively. That chair is heavy and hella hard to move. Moving it back and forth on an ongoing basis is not an option, so it had to go. I need something that’s smaller and easier to move, or my desk chair is going to have to do double duty.

That recliner was a pain in my ass before, too. Years ago, we decided to get rid of the couch and put two recliners in the living room. I found a set I really liked, and the spousal unit found a set he really liked, so I gave in. He was waaaay more excited about his than I was about mine, and mostly, a chair is a chair. Right? Wrong. Within a few months, he hated those chairs. Eventually, one of them migrated into my office for use as a console-playing chair. The other remained in the living room for my use, and he snagged a free couch from a buddy for his use. Arrrrggggggg…

It puts the helmet on its head.

I’m not certain what I expected, but after the first bout of fidgeting and fiddling, I have to admit that the headset is designed pretty well from a take-it-off-put-it-on standpoint. The one problem I had was figuring out the best place to seat the headband at the back of my head. It tends to want to ride higher than I think it should. It felt like I was going to get a headache from the pressure, but eventually I managed to figure out how to get it to stay where I wanted it.

You can wear glasses with it, which I initially thought would be unnecessary for me. My eyes are seriously lopsided, eyesight-wise, and I do have glasses, but I only really need them for driving, or when I’m stuck at the back of a large room and need to read things on a screen way at the front. I can’t wear them at all when I’m dealing with things that are relatively close up, because that makes my eyes go all wonky. I assumed that I wouldn’t need them for VR, either. I mean, the thing is this close to your eyes. But I tried it anyway, and I quickly realized two things. Wearing glasses with VR didn’t make things clearer or easier to read — it was about the same with as without. What it did do was make things less disorienting. Don’t ask me why, but without my glasses, the VR thing feels a little floaty-weird behind my eyes. With glasses, that feeling went away.

I haven’t felt any nausea or dizziness. When I first booted up Farpoint, I figured that this was when any irritating side effects would be likely to make themselves known, but I was fine. Normally, standing up while playing games that involve a lot of on-screen movement actually makes me feel a bit of vertigo. I can play games standing up when the stuff on the screen is mostly just coming at you, or going away from you — like Guitar Hero or Rock Band or anything on the Wii — but trying to run and gun while standing messes up my balance. With VR, standing wasn’t a problem. I did notice a tendency to slowly pivot to the right, so that I wasn’t facing the camera square on, but I solved that by the revolutionary method of… turning slightly to the left occasionally.

Playing around in virtual reality.

Obviously, I also have Resident Evil 7, which has a VR mode, but I’m so not going there yet. I can barely play that game normally, never mind making it more immersive. I’ve never had to change my underwear while playing a game, and I’m not eager to experience it now. I’ll have to ease into that one.

I booted up Skyrim first, and holy cow, it’s something to be able to look behind you while playing a game. Any game. Later, I messed around with The Playroom VR. While in the toy room, I turned around to behold a swarm of those creepy little robots, all standing behind me. Staring. Yikes.

Playing in VR does make little glitches stand out. Watching Ralof get stuck at the end of the cart, for instance. I wanted to scream, “Move it, you stupid Nord!” while he kind of jiggled there for a few moments.

I would totally react the same way IRL, BTW. Even knowing that moving forward meant getting a little bit closer to my own grisly execution, I’d still get irritated as hell if some guy got in my way while taking a million years to climb out of a bloody cart. I really need to work on my patience.

Speaking of, staring down at a head in a basket while bending over an execution block took on a whole new perspective. Before? No big deal. Now? Yuck! Seriously, can you guys at least clear away the last body before you move on to the next? Hello, it’s called courtesy…

The dragon was awesome to behold. Watching him fly around was nifty. But what really struck me was the moment when you have to jump out of the tower and into the burning building next door. Suddenly, there was actual depth and distance. Suddenly, I was no longer bouncing through the hole in the wall before what’s-his-name had finished getting the words out of his mouth. Suddenly, it felt like there was actual risk involved.

I was dying to try out the Aim controller, though, so at that point I bounced out of Skyrim and into Farpoint. If you think standing around watching a dragon lay waste to a town is fun, imagine sitting in the pilot’s seat of a shuttle. In space. Just looking around at all the instruments and panels and oh-shit handle (you know the one… in the middle, you have to reach up and pull it down? that one) and the space behind the pilot’s compartment was seriously cool. Almost cooler than dragons.

Farpoint
Farpoint

The weirdest part of Farpoint was finding myself doing things differently for no apparent reason. We’re long past the days when enemies only came at you from the ground — we know that we have to look for things creeping along the walls or on the ceiling. Yet watching for creepy alien spiders crawling on the underside of overhanging rocks felt new and different. My eyes wanted to scan the ground, and I had to remind myself to keep checking above. It became a habit again pretty quickly, but it was strange to find that I’d lost it to begin with. Hell, I was shooting Nazis on catwalks above me just a day earlier. Moving from a flat screen to VR didn’t just change how things looked, it changed how they felt, and it messed up all of my previously-learned habits. That was unexpected.

There were some irritating issues in Farpoint with the Aim controller getting out of sync with the camera. I’d notice that it was slowly drifting off to the left, until it was completely out of whack and shooting off at an angle when I was aiming straight ahead. Shaking it always cleared the problem up, but there were times when I was having to shake it after every kill.

From there, I decided to try Job Simulator before going to bed (more properly, Job Simulator: The 2050 Archives). That game is more fun than it has any right to be. In the convenience store sim, I threw things over my shoulder (and occasionally at customers) with abandon, stole the robber’s hat and wore it, ended up with a pile of bananas that kept popping into and out of the display case, managed to fail several times at the difficult task of shaking up an energy drink for a customer (I accidentally opened it when I grabbed it, but I figured it wouldn’t make a difference…. it does) and generally wreaked mayhem. All they need to do is add the ability to argue with customers, and they can re-brand it as a Clerks Quick Stop simulator and make a zillion dollars.

The office and chef simulators were similarly fun, but the mechanic sim was a hoot. Respray getaway cars, replace tires with doughnuts (like, sprinkles-on-’em doughnuts), hang crumpled tin cans from a customer’s rear-view mirror, pour sugar in gas tanks… it was oddly satisfying.

Did you ever play Order Up! on the Wii? Job Simulator is just like that, except in VR. Tell you what — I would totally play a VR version of Order Up!, which was another game that was more fun than it had any right to be.

Initial thoughts (or what passes for them).

Is virtual reality the future of gaming? Given how many times VR has been trumpeted to the masses — followed by promptly sinking like a stone — I’m not going to go there. So far, it’s a lot of fun. I haven’t had any nausea, sweats, or other distressing physical side effects. Sometimes when I remove the headset, I have to take a moment to reorient myself to the real world. It’s a bit like stepping off a moving walkway.

VR is highlighting some interesting differences between playing on a flat screen and playing in a virtual world. Unlike craning my head to try to see over something on a flat screen, standing on my tiptoes in VR actually does let me see what’s on the other side of the cubicle wall. (Yes, I still catch myself trying to see more on a flat screen by craning my head. Or tilting it. Or peering to the side. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t work.)

After my strange little problem with looking up in Farpoint, I’m looking forward to playing more of Skyrim in VR. I’ve played Skyrim a lot (understatement alert), so it should be easier to spot weird little changes in my habits. I’m curious to see how my brain adjusts to VR — or fails to. Will it change my preferred play style? I always, always go with a bow and sneaky sneaking, but will VR change that?

Things that could make VR better:

  • Fix the tracking issues. They’re not a deal-breaker (yet), but sometimes they’re beyond annoying, and no amount of fiddling with the camera placement got rid of it entirely.
  • Smell-O-Vision. Just kidding. But I happened to start playing Skyrim right around the same time one of my neighbors decided to light a fire in his fireplace, so I was actually smelling smoke while the dragon was burning everything in sight. It was both nifty and a bit disturbing.
  • You know what would be nice? If there was a button you could push to turn off the VR view and give you some kind of real-world view, so that you can do little things like grab a piece of gum or take a swig of your beverage of choice without having to take the headset off (or push it awkwardly back on your head and then have to readjust it again.) There are probably all kinds of good reasons why this isn’t possible (or would be hideously expensive), but it would be nice.

I’m on the fence about the cost. I got everything on sale, and I’d say that felt ok. Not great — I mean, hey, it’d be great if the whole rig was ten bucks, but what are the odds of that? — but it was better than the MSRP, which probably would’ve felt a bit too pricey. Hell, it’s still pricey, but is it worth it? I’ll have to see how long it holds my interest. (Or how long it takes before the whole thing is obsolete.) At the moment, it’s new, it’s engaging, and it’s not too much of a pain in the ass to go from the Xbox to VR to regular ol’ Playstation and back again.

But I’m still not going into the VR Baker house any time soon.

Evil clown alert!

p.s. I was standing while playing Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, and when we got to the top of the coaster hill, I almost sat down. I figured it would be smarter to try it sitting down, first, in case it messed me up. Then I thought, hell, since when is Until Dawn about being smart? I reminded myself that I was standing firmly on the floor in the real world, and that the floor was probably not going to move. (I grew up in earthquake country, where that is not actually guaranteed… but I’m not there now, so the odds were with me.) Having thus mentally prepared myself, I remained standing while the game shot me down the hill and around a bunch of turns. It almost, almost felt like being on an actual coaster. Given that I’m pro-roller coaster, that was awesome.

I had some of the same issues with the Move controllers here that I did with the Aim controller in Farpoint, though. The right-hand controller stayed more or less on point, but the left-hand one kept wandering to the right. I’ll be fiddling with the camera placement next, to see if I can improve on that. It makes precision shooting a bit difficult. (Me? Precision shooting? Ha ha ha… ha… ha.)


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