At this year’s IFA tech trade show in Berlin, I was lucky enough to try a demo on Sony Playstation’s Virtual Reality headset, Project Morpheus. Sitting down, I was led through a description of the headset itself, which has been designed to minimise motion sickness (it runs at 120 frames per second and has been specially developed with low latency). As someone who gets ill from sitting backwards on a train, I was the perfect test subject for that.
I did think it was a bit strange that the Morpheus has a 5.7-inch screen with full HD resolution, ie 1920 x 1080. That puts it on par with a lot of mid-high end smartphones – yet Sony just launched the world’s first 4K mobile device, which also has a 5.7-inch screen. Given that one of the only justifications for 4K smartphone screens is VR because you have it so near your eyes (you really can’t tell otherwise on a screen that small), we were confused as to why they’d kept the resolution to just 1080p. That said, it did look fantastic.
Specs aside, the Project Morpheus headset looks cool and futuristic, exactly what you want your VR headset to look like. The headset is surprisingly light, and it’s adjustable in order to ensure that you get as close a fit as possible for a fully immersive experience. When I first put the headset on, I was still able to see the floor if I glanced down, and frankly I was unimpressed; it’s just a close up screen. However, when it was tightened against my face like it should be, and the noise cancelling headphones were placed over my ears, what was happening in the demo felt closer and more real to me than what was happening outside of it. The headset was paired with two of the Playstation Move controllers, placed into my wildly grasping hands. And I was ready to go.
The demo itself was of a game called The London Heist Getaway, a first person shooter. It’s fairly surreal as the demo starts up and you find yourself sitting in the front passenger seat of a van with someone to your right speaking to you. The field of vision seemed quite representative of how you would see in life, with perhaps slightly less periphery. It took me a moment to realise that I didn’t have an analogue stick and that I was essentially the camera, able to move my head to see more of what was happening in the game. Turning my head to the right I saw the speaker, apparently my heist partner. If I’m completely honest I didn’t really listen to the exposition he was giving me, instead spending my time lifting the move controllers so that I could look at my hands, using them to reach out and touch things on the dashboard of the van. Utterly surreal.
I’m quite glad that no one filmed me whilst I enjoyed this demo, considering I probably looked like a total moron, mouth gaping open, lifting my hands up, and then jumping violently as another van crashed into the one I was a passenger in. This is where the gameplay came in. It’s sensible that Playstation give you so much time in the demo just to look around you and take the experience in, because I wouldn’t have been ready for any immediate action. Throwing a gun on the dashboard in front of me, my partner invited me to start shooting at the men on motorbikes and vans who were ambushing us with guns of their own. It took me a moment to grab the gun, watching my pixelated hand flail uselessly until I remembered to pull the grab trigger.
Then it became remarkably easy. With an experience so immersive and new, it makes sense to keep the gameplay itself simple, or it could become easy to feel overwhelmed. Holding the gun in your left hand, you simply move your arm to aim and press the trigger to fire. With your right hand you can reach into the back of ammunition beside you, bring the controllers together and hear a satisfying click as you reload. After one or two minutes, your action becomes fluid and easy (apart from the moment where I accidentally grabbed a drink can instead of ammunition and had to shake it out of my grasp). The demo was also visually fluid; not once did the gameplay jerk or stutter, even if I moved my head sharply, the picture quality was clear, and I didn’t feel like I’d just ridden a rollercoaster when it was over.
The one thing that felt quite strange was taking the headset off and remembering that I was in a loud room, filled with people. With headphones, this is a particularly isolating gaming experience, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The possibilities for first person action games and RPGs with immersive worlds or deep stories are expanding; this is the technology to take player investment one step further.
As someone who doesn’t really enjoy the first person playing experience, Morpheus is the thing that could actually make it fun. Typically I find first person gameplay irritating, feeling my physical distance from the screen renders the camera effect pointless. There’s something about playing a first person game that feels like reading a second person narrative. It’s just not as immersive and immediate as it wants to be. That’s not the case with Project Morpheus; it’s able to make you feel more like you actually are the character you’re playing than a first person camera perspective does. Undoubtedly this is because everything but the game is extinguished, even your sense of yourself as a body outside of the game is slightly lost. It’s so easy to forget there’s a real reality.
Project Morpheus doesn’t have a set price yet, but it is expected to be released to the public at the start of 2016. I’ve been intermittently hesitant about VR’s ability to forge a long lasting place in gaming, but I have to admit after this, I’m really excited for the future of games.
Main Image: © Sony