A tour of PlayStation VR's least playable shovelware

There are some decent VR experiences out there. These are not among them.

So I had this idea. If I was the only person I knew with a PlayStation VR headset, I could be that guy who did all the PlayStation VR games reviews. It would pay for itself. And while I was a year late on getting all the stuff (while watching all my PS VR owning friends sell their units on eBay for… some reason) I finally got around to it just recently.

Now I have a version of VR in my house that doesn’t take up the space or expense of an HTC Vive but also can’t do any of the things I would want to do with an HTC Vive. For anyone that doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the competing VR platforms at this point, that’s just to say that I shelled out cash for the most Beginner’s Guide version of a home virtual reality set-up, and so far I’ve been met with a catalogue of equally meandering titles.

The PS VR store is not exactly flooded with games at this point. But what it does have, in spades, is weird shovelware and tech demos and (much to my surprise) bizarre quick-hits that are actually ads for movies. It’s the wild west of nothing being wild or, for that matter, having directionality.

I have done one big VR review here at ZAM. It’s for The Inpatient which is a kinda secret prequel to the Until Dawn horror game on PS4. I loved the game but also found the VR design choices more maddening than the actual madhouse I was trapped within. Both before and after taking on that full length (two hour) title, I really dived into the PS VR store.

There are some companies and creators out there taking really exciting chances with VR. There are also some games designed to have the appearance of games and when you blow on them they fall over. And there are an overwhelming number of things I downloaded that I can barely remember experiencing. There is a lot of “sponsored content” that just confuses the hell out of me.

This article gives you a look into what I experienced there, and I think gives a fairly accurate representation of what exists in this space.

Spider-Man: Homecoming PSVR Experience

The review of this game could be copy-pasted into five other titles. This is a 15-minute (tops) dive into the world of a super-hero character from a major film franchise which allows you to explore a very limited location and to interact with a few of their super-hero skill sets. The voices from the Hollywood Blockbuster are involved and there is a genuine sense of childlike glee when you fire off a series of their go-to super-powers.

The game, puzzlingly, introduces you to a few systems that seem like they’re part of a much bigger game world (which will include exploration and puzzle solving) and then the game cuts to black and promotes the DVD release date of the film it ties into. At, again, the six-minute mark.

If this VR “experience” instead of “game” were described as such, it would be less of A Thing. Also, it’s clear that there was a more expanded set of gameplay mechanics developed for this; probably for a larger title or a tech demo for said game that was inevitably scrapped. There were a set of controls I was introduced to pre-game that I felt overwhelmed by -- I would end up using each of these functions exactly once. The end result is less of an advertisement and more of a frustrating tease for what could have been. Here is the entire six minute experience. I got 10 out of it just by being very bad at it.

Joshua Bell VR Experience

World famous violinist Joshua Bell performs Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 1 with pianist in an empty recording space. You stand in one spot and have a full 360-degree view of the room for two and a half minutes.

That’s it. That’s the Joshua Bell VR Experience. I knew nothing about what Josua or Bells or an Experience was before heading into this, but I was still disappointed.

At least use VR to give me a music video to experience. Just a dude pluckin’ on Brahms is… I mean, it seems like we’re wasting the tech here. And in fact, that moved from a sorta joke into positively my main criticism here: Sony used a proprietary video capture technique on this video that it hands down the highest quality real world footage to be found on the PSVR platform. And then Sony used it to show two dudes who don’t move and then, in the back, a record room full of other non-moving dudes watching the main two not moving dudes. At least give us a rock band or a singer who wants to cross the stage.

Ghostbusters: Now Hiring

Unlike everything on this list, Ghostbusters hit me right in the feels. There’s some magic about the IP and its ability to send me back to being a child, no matter how many awful think-pieces I’ve read about how this modern Ghostbusters ruins childhoods.

This VR experience has two distinct chapters: one set in the firehouse and one involving chasing down a ghost. There’s everything you need to make a full game here, including proton packs and trap throwing and even depositing ghosts into the containment unit in the basement. The animated ghosts are genuinely scary, except for the helpful ghost who guides you in your work (voiced by Patton Oswalt) whose comedy chops are a delight.

It’s a better mix of horror and jokes than a PSVR deserves, and I think if I had this as a kid (even at 20 minutes of gameplay) it would have blown my tiny brain. I feel jealous of kids who get to grow up with this. I’m not jealous of anything else here, but oh boy do I love the promise on display.

The Illusionist Experience: Andres Iniesta

I’m going the let the PlayStation Store explain what it thinks this is:

“This is the first coalescenece of VR technology and the football kingdom. 'The Illusionist-Andres Iniesta' is the first VR football documentary in the world developed by 'Desports'. Three months of following Andres Iniesta -The captain of F.C. Barcelona. Analyzing his super skills closely. Sharing the life experience of this football legend. All of these are in the 'The Illusionist-Andres Iniesta' VR documentary.”

So, it’s a documentary about soccer? It’s a one-minute long trailer that also features my first VR English subtitles (difficult to manage) and it goes from footage of a stadium to a guy’s bedroom. The guy says his name. It’s Andres Iniesta. That’s the end of it. I think this is the trailer for a VR documentary but that’s nothing to indicate that this wasn’t the entire thing, so I’m lost. If it was indeed the world’s first VR football documentary, then congratulations: you truly were the first and absolutely nothing else.

Air Force Special Ops: Nightfall

*Cracks knuckles*

The Air Force -- the actual United States Air Force -- released this propaganda/recruitment game for free called Special Ops: Nightfall. It shows you, the impressionable teenager, how much fun jumping out of airplanes can be, and how our best offensive against enemy terrorist combatants is you having fun jumping out of airplanes.

Also, you need to fly through arbitrary mid-air check-points a la Pilotwings. This is also fun, the Air Force would like you to know. It’s less fun to accidentally collide mid-air with one of your Fightin’ Buddies, but it is still pretty fun.

The Air Force also forgot to figure out how video gamers interact with a PS VR unit before building this game, because it requires you to look down while falling, but at an angle that the PS VR cannot handle. This leads to a lot of fun with random loading screens or failing missions for looking wrong with your clumsy head and neck. If jumping out of the plane ever gets less fun, you can try jumping out of the same plane at night -- the titular Nightfall -- and trying to find the same Pilotwings checkpoints except with a night vision filter over the already impossible-to-view landscape. If you thought you were going to play either of these two (!) varied levels without also getting recruitment speeches from active service Air Force officers, though, boy howdy did you downloading the wrong free game from Uncle Sam.

In all seriousness: this is pretttttttty gross. If the ESRB is keen to put labels on games with possible microtransactions, it should probably have a warning for when your government is hoping to indoctrinate you. Just like a fun, friendly heads up.

DreamWorks Voltron VR Chronicles

The review of this game could be copy-pasted into five other titles. This is a 15 minute (tops) dive into the world of a super-hero character from a major film franchise which allows you to explore a very limited location and to interact with a few of their super-hero skill sets. The voices from the Hollywood Blockbuster are involved and there is a genuine sense of childlike glee when you fire off a series of their go-to super-powers.

The game, puzzlingly, introduces you to a few systems that seem like they’re part of a much bigger game world (which will include exploration and puzzle solving) and then the game cuts to black and promotes the DVD release date of the film it ties into. At, again, the 10 to 15-minute mark.

If this VR “experience” instead of “game” were described as such, it would be less of A Thing. Also, it’s clear that there was a more expanded set of gameplay mechanics developed for this; probably for a larger title or a tech demo for said game that was inevitably scrapped. There were a set of controls I was introduced to pre-game that I felt overwhelmed by -- I would end up using each of these functions exactly once. The end result is less of an advertisement and more of a frustrating tease for what could have been.

(Brock I’m not paying you by the word I swear to god why do you do this to me. -ed)

Snatch VR Heist Experience

Did you know that Rupert Grint has starred in two seasons of a TV show on Crackle based on the Guy Ritchie film from 2000? Neither did I. But here we are.

Limey Wizard Boy and his friends are trapped in a room with you where you need to crack a safe. A bunch of Sherlock style visualizations appear as they attempt to solve ridiculously obvious riddles. You stand in the middle of the room and can turn in circles while various characters from the show monologue at you. It’s an effective introduction to the characters from the show and I admit (begrudgingly) I’m going to watch an episode of this at some point. In that way: success, I guess?

That said, the “experience” part of this is laughable. There is no interactive element until the last seconds of the game, when suddenly you engage in the single worst lockpicking mini-game I’ve ever seen. And then there’s an explosion. OK. I… sure? This was an ad and mostly billed itself as such and Lesser Potter was there doing accents so this is fine.

Justice League VR

God, this is upsetting.

Again, this is an ad for a movie, but more than anything else in PSVR, this betrays its origins as something more-than. The premise of the game is taken from Batman Vs Superman, where Bruce has files on every member of the League that he stole from Mark Zuckerberg. (I’m fairly positive I’m remembering that film correctly.) From the OS of the Batcomputer, you pull up each member of the team and live out three solid minutes of Batman testing their powers to better understand… whatever. Who cares? You get three solid minutes as each of the best DC heroes.

So what does that game do with that? Superman flies through a canyon laser blasting moth men in a run that’s more Star Wars: Rebel Assault than ‘Supes. Wonder Woman has a Wii style Parademon battle where you use a sword and a shield to try not to die. The Flash runs through a train tunnel at what feels like an appropriate Flash speed, which is genuinely cool and feels more like an immersive later-day Saint’s Row than anything else. But, as this is more ad than game, running through innumerable trains and walls won’t really kill you.

Cyborg has a minigame about standing in one place and constantly firing lasers at aliens and it feels like someone programmed this by falling asleep on a keyboard. Aquaman is exactly Superman’s level except underwater and ends in your fighting a fish. I wish I was making that up. I dunno, it’s just like… a really angry fish.

The studio built more than enough to do interesting things with these characters, and then just stopped and charged me $10. It’s a let-down but it mirrors the effort in the film perfectly.

I do not know if PSVR is worth it to you, or to anyone. I’m struggling to explain it to my wife, and to myself. There are so many higher production games, of course, like DOOM VR or Skyrim VR and they’ve got… some things going on for them, despite being weirdly unfun versions of their monoscopic origins. I rarely hate my experience in VR, but there’s so little here that offers me an experience worth even telling a friend about later -- it makes it clear that I’m not making the best use of my time.