What's next for PSVR
Sony's content roadshow exhibits promising indie games, but no first-party milestones
At Friday morning's PSVR showcase in London, the last leg on a lightning tour of Western Europe, Sony laid out the roadmap of the device's immediate future with a selection of games and apps designed to focus on versatility and power.
In a white basement bathed blue by a dozen or so HMDs, waves of journalists jumped between spacecraft, experimental facilities, ancient seabeds, distant planets and tropical beaches. Whilst nothing on show would likely qualify as the AAA VR release which many players seem to be pinning a hardware purchase upon, Sony's clear message was one of commitment to the platform.
Headlining the show was Farpoint, a co-op focused sci-fi shooter designed to make best use of the brand new Aim controller it will be bundled with. The Aim is a plastic rifle with baked-in tracking techy, with a familiar squishy Move bulb at the business end and a body and handle formed of smooth curves - a slightly offset rhomboid which feels solid and comfortable in the hands. Integrated into the rear grip are the face buttons and an analogue stick, plus a trigger. On the front hand, the second stick and a couple of shoulder triggers.
In Europe, the Aim and Farpoint together will cost €79.99. I'm told there aren't currently plans to make the Aim available without it, but the US, where it can be bought without the game, it'll be priced in line with the DualShock 4.
Farpoint itself is a slick enough co-op arcade shooter, emphasising score and simple shooting gallery fun. Movement is smooth, controlled with a stick rather than using teleportation, and an initial impression of ice-skating soon wears off as the controls sink in. Whilst moving and strafing is handled with the front stick, turning is done by tracking the headset, with no rotational controls on the sticks.
Physical crouching is also supported, encouraging players to duck behind rocks and other cover, if their thighs are youthful enough to take it. As such, it's a relatively full-body experience, encouraging a surprising amount of movement and coping with it well. It's certainly not Vive-standards of freedom, but it does demonstrate that PSVR isn't the static, seated experience it looked like at release.
Farpoint is also very much a shop window for the Aim, and works well as such - holographic or iron sights atop each weapon respond well when the Aim is shouldered, and turning is smooth and accurate - but it does still have the feeling of a game made to be bundled with a peripheral: fun, slick and accomplished, but perhaps a little too focused on the opportunities offered by the Aim itself.
My demo ends, shortly after I've been told that friendly fire is turned on, when I accidentally launch a rocket directly into the back of the skull of my team mate. Consequently, I'm shuffled off to something less prone to murder/suicide - a David Attenborough narrated tour of the origins of life which has previously only appeared in museums but is now available on the PlayStation store.
Fuzzy CGI means it's slightly reminiscent of a video wheeled out by a supply teacher rather than a cutting-edge VR experience, but again it's a good proof of concept. I only see a demo, but the full 15 minute experience is available on the PS Store now, at a fairly aggressive £5.35.
A few giant, carnivorous arthropods later and I'm on the YouTube 360 booth, hang-gliding over the grand canyon before switching to a 360 Gorillaz video. None of the content is optimised for the PSVR, but it's all running directly from the YouTube app, so quality is dependent on the uploader.
Multiplayer shooter Starblood Arena is next, which sees you floating around in spaceships with six degrees of freedom, a la Descent. I'm told that there are some of that team's developers working on the project, which offers hope for a slightly lacklustre early demo, but it's a little too early in development to pass any serious judgement.
Sci-fi stealth shooter The Persistence offers yet another angle to the PSVR experience. Dropping the VR player in a small, procedurally generated series of rooms on board a spaceship, the Persistence also lets up to three other players link to the game with smartphones or tablets, allowing them to control the environment to help or hinder whoever is wearing the HMD get to their goal. All players have to be local, adding some frisson to the ability to play nice or nasty, but it's a good concept slightly clumsily executed, the short rounds not offering much in the way of the camaraderie or friend-baiting which it promises.
Two of the most interesting games are tucked away in a back room, and I almost miss them: lightweight strategy title Korix and puzzle game Statik.
Korix is a bit of an oddity, and reminds initially of mobile title Rymdkapsel. Starkly geometric and minimalist, players have to defend a base and energy sources from constant waves of tiny enemies which swarm from the far end of a pathway hanging in space. It's essentially tower defence, placing walls and turrets whilst occasionally generating units to head to the opposing base, but allows players to survey the playfield with a turn of the head - making everything more comfortably intense.
Move-wand controls work well, flicking up virtual menus to build units and towers and pointing to place them on the virtual field. Simple but engaging, it's hard to tell what Korix will offer at length, but it's an experimental step in a very interesting direction.
For me, and some of the other writers I chat to in the lobby afterwards, Statik is the real gem on show. Combining Room-like physical puzzles with the innate immersion of VR is an excellent marriage, and Statik complements it brilliantly with well-written dialogue and some great mental gymnastics.
Played with a DualShock 4, the central conceit is that your hands are trapped in one of several puzzle boxes, neatly establishing and incorporating the need to keep you hands on the controller. Twisting the DS4 around lets you look at the different sides of the box, and every button and stick manipulates a different part of these elaborate finger-traps. Imagine a puzzle from Saw with the gore-porn swapped for sardonically withering English deprecation and you're halfway there.
There's a very delicate balance to the sort of puzzles which Statik embodies - using environmental clues and rewarding experimental behaviour in tight bursts so they don't become routine but also don't frustrate with unpredictability - and Tarsier Studios manage it delightfully. I only played two of the self-contained puzzles to completion, each taking about 10 minutes, but Statik is indelibly marked on my mental release schedule. One to watch out for.
So, a well-selected and impressively varied slate of releases lies ahead for Sony's VR device, with plenty of pleasingly experimental content in the pipeline. Nonetheless, there's still a very high-budget shaped hole in the coming catalogue and a big part of me wonders if and when Sony is going to take the plunge and push forward on a AAA first-party title for the device.
Word on the grapevine has been that the Strategic Content department is focusing almost exclusively on VR games to generate this sort of content, but there's still no news of any of the really big hitters producing anything, and a combination of development time and a likely eagerness from Sony to announce means that there's probably nothing huge on the immediate horizon. Sony exercising its trademark quirkiness is always refreshing to see, particularly with the Xbox offering little in that vein to challenge it, but at some point the platform owner has to break the vicious circle of install base and content budget if it wants to push PSVR into the mainstream.
That said, Sony certainly isn't alone in that position, with neither Steam nor the Oculus store offering a killer app either. Perhaps this round of hardware is simply destined to pass without its software champion?