PS VR2 and Horizon Call of the Mountain Made Me a VR Believer

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This past Thursday, the rare opportunity to try out PlayStation VR2 at Sony Interactive Entertainment’s local headquarters in Mississauga to dive into Sony’s new hardware. While I may not have the space at home to indulge in VR, I was excited to go hands-on with the new tech and see how things are looking in the run-up to launch. Combined with the stunning visuals and gameplay of Horizon Call of the Mountain, and the new innovations of the new PS VR2 headset, the outing convinced me of the value in Sony’s new headset, provided you can afford it.

Representing Sony’s sophomore VR effort, PS VR2 has a laundry list of obvious improvements over its predecessor, including a wireless, split controller that finally does away with the original PS VR’s antiquated PS Move wands and functions more on par with those found in competing headset offerings such as the Valve Index and the Oculus/Meta Quest.

It features a built-in array of cameras and a six-axis (not Sixaxis) motion sensing system across both the HMD and controllers that allow the PS VR2 headset to perform the crucial task of keeping track of one’s head and hands in 3D space without having to rely on an externally mounted camera such as the PlayStation 4 camera or satellite sensors. The cumbersome breakout box and jumble of wires of the original PS VR are gone, replaced with a single, lightweight, tangle-resistant 4.5-metre USB-C cable running from the front of the PlayStation 5 to the headset.

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Most importantly, the HMD’s OLED panel displays content in 4K HDR at 90 Hz to 120 Hz, at a resolution of 2000×2040 per eye and 110-degree field of view, enabling the PS VR2 to deliver convincing VR experiences at an unparalleled level of fidelity.

That last sentence was indeed a mouthful of numbers, but all it really means is that PS VR2 is capable of creating genuine VR experiences approaching the same visual production values and technical performance as today’s triple-A, non-VR games; in other words, PS VR2 games won’t be “lesser-than” experiences that are hamstrung by hardware limitations or get cut extra slack simply because they are built for VR, which is exactly what the Horizon Call of the Mountain demo was on offer to demonstrate.

“PS VR2 has a laundry list of obvious improvements over its predecessor…”

One of the things that I remember most vividly about the original PS VR headset was how surprisingly comfortable it felt on my head despite its size. The PS VR2 continues this tradition with an even lighter, slimmed-down form factor and much-improved airflow.

PS VR2 felt extremely comfortable on my head, even with my prescription glasses on, and once I had finished tweaking the necessary measurements of both my eye scope and head size and locked them in using the adjustment dial on the back of the rear-mounted headband, I quickly forgot that I was even wearing it. Neither the goggles nor my glasses ever fogged up or got hot and sweaty during the session.

In fact, during the entire 45 minutes of pure hands-on gameplay that I was given to enjoy Horizon Call of the Mountain, the only thing on my head that felt somewhat unstable was the PULSE 3D Wireless Headset for PlayStation 5 that I was provided to wear overtop of it.

While the PULSE 3D provided an excellent level of immersion via Sony’s patented Tempest 3D Audio, the added bulk of its earcups made it more prone to slipping off during sudden or repeated head movements. Of course, users can opt to use a different PS5-compatible wireless headset or even wired headsets via the PS VR2’s built-in 3.5mm jack and still enjoy all the benefits of Tempest 3D.

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The initial setup of the game offered a brief peek behind the curtain at a couple of the demo’s less obvious implementations of PS VR2’s latest features, namely its Eye Tracking and See-Through Cameras. Once the HMD was properly fitted to my head, calibrating the headset’s built-in IR cameras for Eye Tracking was effortless and revealed a fast and accurate response that allowed for navigation of the game’s menus by moving my eyes alone, magically focusing on whichever menu tile I looked at with the same if not more precision than if I had used a controller.

Also, at the mere press of a button on the headset, I was able to switch from the game to a black-and-white See-Through view that allowed me to see my physical surroundings in high fidelity without the need to take the headset off.

This mode was especially handy for checking in with the Sony Reps that were in the room with me and allowed me to reposition myself if I was getting too close to the edge of the active play area, which can be adjusted and viewed via the See-Through camera interface in real-time. When players approach a boundary of the play area during gameplay, a grid wall representing the barrier will materialize along with an audio cue to warn the player to back up, so they don’t stumble over nearby furniture or, even worse, into their TV unit.

Narrative-wise, the Horizon Call of the Mountain demo reveals little beyond that which we already know; players will take control of Ryas, a former member of the Shadow Carja tribe (an enemy faction in 2017’s original Horizon Zero Dawn) who has been forcibly enlisted to assist in a perilous expedition to atone for his past wrongdoings.

The game opens up with the “river ride” sequence featuring the giant “Tallneck” machine that by now anyone following the progress of PS VR2 or Horizon, in general, has probably watched ad nauseum, but the experience truly takes on a whole new level of grandeur when one is “in” it, sitting in the boat as your fellow human captors stand menacingly over you or the Tallneck narrowly misses crushing your boat and all of its passengers underfoot.

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It goes without saying that an “opportunity” soon arises that separates Ryas from his watchers, and before you know it, players will uncover a hunter bow and a quiver of arrows, at which point the story largely falls away temporarily to allow pure gameplay to take centre stage.

To be honest, it took me a while longer than expected to get used to the “size” of Horizon Call of the Mountain’s world as well as my basic navigation within it. Everything in PS VR2 simply feels “bigger,” and while the experience is definitely immersive, it often proved a little confusing to judge one’s distance from objects when trying to interact with them. My general rule of thumb quickly became, “if you’re close enough to an object to grab it in real life, take one big VR step closer, or you’ll just grab empty air”.

Speaking of stepping, walking and running forward in the game (at least in Gesture Controls mode) is achieved by holding down both the Square and X buttons on the PS VR2 Sense controllers and simulating a walking movement with one’s arms while backing up is performed by holding the same buttons and making a “push back” or “rowing back” gesture. I

t’s effective once you get used to it but also feels awkward due to the split controls that see longtime neighbours Square and X now living separate lives on the left and right VR2 Sense controllers, respectively (the same can be said for Triangle and Circle, which now reside directly above them, again respectively).

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I’d often forget to hold down both buttons, resulting in my actual arms spinning their wheels in space while Ryas stood motionless, or I’d successfully walk up to an object or tool, excited to grab it in my hands only to swipe at empty space due to the earlier visual disconnect I mentioned. Hilariously, my body would instinctively tip forward onto my toes to try and get closer to the virtual object, which accomplished nothing in the game but resulted in some entertaining near-stumbles in real life. Ah, c’est la VR.

However, when I was close enough to interact with things, the VR magic began. If the legends are to be believed, Ryas is a master at climbing, and just about any time I saw a ladder, rope or conspicuous-looking dusty white outcropping in a rockface, I eagerly took to scaling them as if I were Nathan Drake himself.

Grabbing onto and transitioning between handholds by holding down and/or releasing each controller’s adaptive triggers came naturally and was aided immensely by the haptic feedback of the VR2 Sense controllers, which punctuated each successful grab with a subtle but solid vibration. Once I learned that Ryas could even use crevices to gain footing (i.e. with his hands), I was able to make short work of most of the demo’s climbing challenges on the first try.

That is, except when I foolishly looked down and caught a vertigo-inducing glimpse at just how high I actually was or made the fatal mistake of trying to grip smaller handholds with both hands, which the demo strangely did not allow. Releasing said supports with one hand without already having the other securely on a completely separate one would instantly result in Ryas falling to his death, even if gripping the object two-handed was possible in real life.

Thankfully, I never encountered a climb in the demo that was too difficult to reattempt after a respawn, and I was able to get past such pitfalls easily the second time once I understood where I went wrong.

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What delighted me more than climbing, however, were the many varied interactions I could have with found objects in the environment that had little, if any, bearing on the story’s progression. For example, when I came across a large, two-handed mallet and a huge, suspended metal gong, I was able to toss the mallet into the air, grab the shaft with a wide grip in both hands and swing it to sound the gong, and then discard it as if performing an epic mic drop.

Another time I found a brush and a selection of paints and managed to write my initials on a cave wall. And upon finding an abandoned plate of fruit at a campsite, I picked up an apple and raised it close to my face, which prompted Ryas to take bites out of it until I lowered it, leaving only the core to toss away. Coincidentally, this mechanic is how players eat and regenerate Ryas’ health in the game).

By comparison, the means by which archery in Horizon Call of the Mountain utilizes the PS VR2 Sense controllers are, for the most part, an evolutionary iteration on what many past VR games that employ bow and arrow gameplay have offered, but it’s easily the best implementation of the mechanic that I’ve experienced.

Assuming that one is right-handed (players can choose which hand is their dominant hand during game setup), reaching behind one’s back and pulling the trigger on the Left VR2 Sense controller while performing a forward “drawing out” gesture will pull out Ryas’ bow while doing the same with the Right controller will prompt Ryas to draw an arrow from his quiver.

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Then by keeping both triggers held down and imitating the action of drawing the bow, players can notch the arrow and draw back the string with the Right VR2 Sense while aiming at the target with the Left VR2 Sense, sans aim reticle. Haptic feedback in the controllers allows players to convincingly feel the resistive tension of the bowstring, as well as the near-cathartic release of letting loose the trigger upon firing the arrow.

Eventually, players will have to do battle with one of Horizon’s weaker machine enemies, a Watcher, and although the encounter essentially boils down to a one-on-one fight in a circular arena, the combat is actually tougher than it initially appears due to the added physicality that VR usually demands. 

Players must use a newly-learned dodge gesture (holding down X while swiping to the right) to avoid taking damage as well as master the art of drawing, aiming and firing their arrows at the Watcher’s weak point during the short window between attacks. I have no doubts that future encounters in the game will be more complex, but personally, I felt like a champion when I narrowly defeated the machine with only a sliver of health remaining, a hard-fought victory I had won in part by using my own vision.

“I still left the PS VR2 demo with my mind blown…”

With the end of the Watcher boss fight, so concluded my demo of Horizon Call of the Mountain, as well as my first hands-on with the PS VR2 hardware.  I’d be lying if I said the experience had been perfect; there were a number of times when I would either get stuck on objects or in place because of the aforementioned requirement of holding down two face buttons just to walk forward, and sometimes I’d even move towards to a deadly precipice when I meant to move away from it if I performed the “step back” gesture incorrectly.

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The VR2 Sense controllers’ reliance on face buttons and sticks also results in a lot of awkward starting and stopping, at least in the case of Horizon Call of the Mountain, as the layout of said inputs often demand that players take their thumbs off one button or stick to then flick, press or hold down another.

For example, the simple act of rotating Ryas to his left or right to ultimately move in a desired direction is exclusively tied to the Right Analog-stick, so players can’t turn at the same time that they are walking or running. To be fair, though, this seems to be more an issue of well-worn first-person conventions lightly butting heads with Sony’s very unconventional, nascent VR2 hardware. Such concerns could (and likely will) be addressed in a future Horizon Call of the Mountain software update.

These and other truly minor grumblings aside, however, I still left the PS VR2 demo with my mind blown, my brain simultaneously considering all the experiences and possibilities that PS VR2 can potentially bring to console gaming, as well as wondering what other unique VR adventures still await me in Horizon Call of the Mountain.

How I’ll manage to afford my own PS VR2 unit is another journey entirely; for the time being, I might have to borrow my close friend’s PS5 and PSVR when he and his family are out of country on vacation, but when there’s a will (and even the faintest possibility of Half Life: Alyx coming to the platform) there’s a way.

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