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Sony’s PlayStation VR2 headset sits on a podium alongside two PlayStation VR2 Sense controllers Photo: Matt Leone/Polygon

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PlayStation VR2 is making me fall in love with VR again

Hands-on with four games on Sony’s new virtual reality headset

Matt Leone has written about games for three decades, focusing on behind-the-scenes coverage of the industry, including books on Final Fantasy 7 and Street Fighter 2.

Once Oculus went wireless with its Quest headset in 2019, it seemed like there was no going back. For years, everyone had been talking about what a hassle cords were for VR and how they would inevitably disappear one day, once the tech got figured out. And here was Oculus ahead of schedule, figuring it out.

Sure, the games looked a generation or two out of date compared to those on Valve Index or Oculus Rift S, or even PlayStation VR, but that felt like a fair trade-off for something that didn’t make you feel like you were on a leash. Almost immediately, I switched over and started using Quest more or less exclusively for VR.

I wasn’t alone. Quest took off, becoming the most popular headset line and delivering highly convenient, decent quality VR to millions of people.

After trying PlayStation VR2 recently, I’m reminded of what we’ve been missing.

Last week, I tried Sony’s new headset for the first time and was caught off guard by how stunning two of its marquee games, Horizon Call of the Mountain and Resident Evil Village, looked. They didn’t rely on particles or stylized art direction; they looked like AAA console games that just happened to be in VR. The past few years of playing Quest had recalibrated my expectations for how VR games should appear, and it was great to see games pushing forward visually once again without requiring an elaborate setup.

I’m still not especially thrilled about going back to a tethered headset, but with Sony’s backing and games this pretty, it’s instantly tempting.

A photograph shows the inside of Sony’s PlayStation VR2 headset and the adjustment knob on the back Photo: Matt Leone/Polygon

The headset

At Sony’s press event, I had a chance to play around with the PSVR2 hardware and try four game demos. Overwhelmingly, the thing that jumped out is that the hardware feels like the original PSVR brought up to date. Sony’s not rocking the boat or shifting plans around like others have been known to do; it’s continuing on the same path it began six years ago.

The headset itself looks a bit different this time around — studded with cameras and cut with sharper edges to match the look of the PlayStation 5 hardware — but it feels familiar, with the same sort of slider, padding, flexibility, and weight distribution we got on the original PlayStation VR.

The key benefits come with the raw power and visual tricks, like foveated rendering (where the hardware only fully renders the areas you’re looking at), that help the graphics look high-end — it’s certainly impressive that it can replicate a game like Resident Evil Village with minimal drop-off from the console version — and a variety of quality-of-life changes.

For example, there’s now a button underneath the front of the device that you can press at any time to switch to a see-through view using the inside-out cameras built into the headset. This allows you to pause a game to talk to someone in the room, or pick up your controllers without having to take the headset off and then readjust it when you put it back on again.

It’s also nice that Sony has simplified the wires involved in the setup. While you do have to deal with a cord sticking out the back, it’s now a single cord that plugs into the the PS5 rather than a mess of cables. If you use wired headphones, it’s still a bit of a jumble to take those off, then take the headset off, while figuring out what to do with two controllers, but it’s progress. The lack of a need for a PlayStation Camera further simplifies the setup, thanks to the cameras in the headset.

Those cameras also make it possible for the system to track your movements more precisely and comprehensively. On the original PSVR, having a single camera in a fixed position meant that games struggled when they asked players to turn to the side or look behind them. Now, since the tracking comes from the headset, as long as you keep the controllers in front of you, you can look anywhere without issue. Old news on other platforms, but a welcome addition here.

Similarly, Sony’s PlayStation VR2 Sense controllers bring the interface up to date, looking and feeling very much like the controllers included with Quest and Quest 2, with handles encased in plastic rings to help with tracking and the ability to register a touch of a button rather than a press. Again, they work well and make for a crucial upgrade, but will feel familiar to those who have kept up with other hardware.

Fold in the haptic feedback and adaptive triggers in the controllers, the vibrations in the headset, and the built-in eye tracking, and Sony’s device includes a number of ways to mess with players, along with a few elements that set it apart from the competition.

But Sony’s event wasn’t just about the hardware. In fact, very little of it was — most of it was centered around four game demos.

The player aims a bow and arrow at a Watcher in a brown, open area Image: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Horizon Call of the Mountain

One of the most beautiful games I’ve seen in VR, Call of the Mountain feels like a visual showcase for Sony’s new headset. Leaves, wind, fire, explosions, and giant robots fill the sky as you make your way through a new Horizon story.

While the game takes place in the same universe as Horizon Zero Dawn and Forbidden West, it’s a different sort of experience. For one thing, instead of controlling series star Aloy, you play as Ryas, “a disgraced former Carja soldier searching for redemption,” according to Sony. For another, you play in first person, so you primarily see Ryas via a pair of disembodied hands as you climb, swim, use your bow and arrow, and otherwise interact with the world around you.

The game will clock in at around six or seven hours, according to the developers, and combat will primarily consist of shooting arrows rather than the wild melee acrobatics seen in earlier games. But if the giant Thunderjaw battle I played in the press event demo is any indication, those fights should give off many of the same endorphins.

Compared to the other games on display, Call of the Mountain seemed like the one most custom-built for the new headset, with nice touches like headset vibration and using eye tracking to control the game’s menus.

Lady D looks at the player in Resident Evil Village Image: Capcom

Resident Evil Village

The 9-foot-6-inch big boss Lady Dimitrescu is the sort of stunt-casting spectacle VR developers build entire games around, so it worked out well that Capcom had her queued up for Resident Evil Village’s VR mode, which will consist of the game’s primary campaign and is “currently in development exclusively” for PSVR2, according to Capcom.

In a short demo on display at the event, Lady D was the clear standout, talking to you while you dangle from the ceiling of a room with hooks through your hands, giving you a close-up look at just how giant and intimidating she is — and how much more detailed she looks compared to the character models in Resident Evil 7 on PSVR or Resident Evil 4 on Quest.

Capcom reps say the VR mode will feature small balance tweaks and a number of small interface adjustments (like the ability to hold both of your hands up to block) but no significant content changes from the original campaign.

Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge — Enhanced Edition

Combine Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge and its Last Call follow-up into one package, smooth out the design so the two feel like a single game, sprinkle in some upgraded visuals and you have the Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy’s — Edge Enhanced Edition, coming exclusively to PSVR2.

Similar to ILMxLAB’s Vader Immortal series, the game has a light sort of theme-park, toy-box feel to it, which is perhaps appropriate given the title. The demo at Sony’s press event consisted of some discussion and minigames in a bar setting, followed by a short outdoor shootout, but this feels like the kind of game that is built for longer play sessions, so it was hard to get a perfect sense of it in a short sample.

The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners - Chapter 2: Retribution

The last game on display may have been the most disturbing, which is saying something considering there’s a Resident Evil game on this list. But Walking Dead’s melee attacks take something out of you up close in VR, and whether you read that as praise or criticism may well determine whether you should play the game.

As a beginner, I found myself struggling to find weapons and ammo and reload while being hounded by zombies, which I’m sure was by design to amp up the fear of it all, but seemed a bit overwhelming, so here’s hoping the full game ramps things up in a more gradual way.

Falling back in

As with any new piece of game hardware, the software support will matter more than the hardware itself ever will. And thus far, it seems like Sony’s on the right track there, with a good mix of genres and licenses, though it’s still early. Horizon looks much more substantial than most of the big license spinoff games we saw for PSVR1, and while these four games are all tied to big brands, Sony announced yesterday that Quest favorite dungeon crawler Demeo is coming to PSVR2 as well.

The big question at this point is what the next wave of software will look like. Will we see a new synesthesia light show from Enhance? Something jubilant from Team Asobi? Another cinematic ride from London Studio? As those cards fall into place, we’ll get a much clearer idea of what to expect from PSVR2. But on a hardware level, it’s hard not to like what Sony’s shown so far.