The all-out battle for game realism takes two dramatic steps forward

Battlefield 1 by Electronic Arts and the Sony PlayStation are competing for your attention. Which one offers the most immersion?

psvr s 01

Sony's PlayStation VR could be a real Black Friday lure

Credit: Sony Computer Entertainment

Gamers will be faced with a tough decision soon.

On the one hand, there’s the graphics realism of Battlefield 1, the incredible WWI first person shooter that puts you in the boots of a soldier on the front lines of combat. It is immersive because of the narrative arcs and fine attention to detail, but it is not “virtual reality” in the true sense. Electronic Arts deserves immense credit for making what I consider to be the most realistic and authentic video game ever released, one that can restore your faith in the FPS genre.

On the other hand, there’s the incredible virtual reality of the Sony PlayStation VR, which costs $400 for the main headset or $500 for the headset, the required camera, and a Move controller. (If you already own the camera and controller, you only need the headset.) The immersive games available for the PS VR, including Driveclub VR, Batman: Arkham VR, and Eve: Valkyrie, beat anything I’ve tried on the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive, transporting you to another realm that is difficult to explain until you have donned the goggles yourself.

I’ll cover both of these major advancements, which are shining technical achievements, and provide some hints about which one will likely outlast the other.

Battlefield 1

You die a lot in this game. In fact, it’s no spoiler to say you die several times even in the opening battle, and that’s the point. WWI was particularly horrific in comparison to other wars. 17 million people died, which is one reason this is a time period we would all like to forget about. Turning the gore and violence of a real war into a videogame is a difficult challenge, because you don’t want to make it all seem like the basis for entertainment. Battlefield 1 chooses to make the war as realistic as possible -- hence the frequent deaths in the introduction and the fact that you end up dying repeatedly in the multiplayer and at the end of each campaign segment, called the War Stories. It’s sobering and at times even a thoughtful treatise. Battlefield 1 doesn’t shy away from the gruesomeness of the battle field (ahem) or the multi-faceted combat.

Lars Gustavsson, the design director at DICE, told me his team wanted to dig deep into the realism and not dismiss the brutality of the events. One example of this is that, in the multiplayer, you can use a “sniper decoy” -- a human head on a stick, which is something that actually occurred in the war. Tanks are powerful, but they tended to break down, which is another example of how games have become more realistic. You need to repair them or you’ll become a sitting duck. During some battles, a storm might move in and the rain will create a muddy mess. When this happens, you, your weapons, the tanks, and everything else gets muddy.

One of the most unusual additions has to do with carrier pigeons. It’s almost jarring on one level when you stop the tank and send a pigeon off the heavens. This juxtaposition -- scorched Earth terrain, mud collecting on tanks, the gray clouds overhead, a bloody aftermath and one white pigeon flying released through an an open portal like Noah and the Ark -- is profound. Few games “go there” and try to make a point about the historical events.

Battlefield 1 uses incredibly rich graphics, so detailed on the opening level that it looks photo-realistic, like the cutscenes used to look in lesser games yet it is all a playable campaign. In the multiplayer maps, small details abound. You can ride a horse and switch to a sword, swashbuckling your way down the lien of a train track in the desert. There were times when I stopped in the middle of a deathmatch and stared at the puddles on the ground.

My favorite sequences were almost all in the air. On one multiplayer map, the dogfights will break out over the blood-soaked battlegrounds, making you feel somewhat removed from the real action and slightly immune -- right up until you take a wrong turn and crash into a blimp. I will go on record and say this is the single most realistic game I’ve played, both in how the stories are presented, the graphic realism, and the sense of “being there” in the combat arena.

Sony PlayStation VR

But hold on for a second, because there’s another way to provide realism other than high-resolution graphics and a compelling narrative. It’s a different experience, but the PlayStation VR and several of the launch titles are incredibly transportative as well.

For starters, here’s my favorite moment from the testing period this last week. You’re standing next to a $295,000 supercar with a 651 horsepower engine, the Ferrari FF. I blinked a few times behind the VR goggles. It’s so photo realistic, your job drops a little. You look around to see if anyone is watching. You click a button to open the door and climb inside. When you start the race, you can look all around the interior, glance out the window, and even check your rearview mirror by physically moving your head and looking at it to spot other drivers.

In Batman: Arkham VR, there’s this weird sense that you literally are Batman. You’re wearing the campe and masks. You can reach down to grab a batarang and throw it. When you stand on a ledge looking down at a few enemies, you feel dizzy -- not because you’re wearing VR goggles or suffering from motion sickness but because the scene is so convincing and you can see traffic moving below. You’d feel a little dizzy in the real world, too.

As a lifelong sci-fi fan, I have to say EVE: Valkyrie was my favorite VR game. Even the opening segments, flying in between asteroids and watching the credits roll, matching up with some deep-seated Star Wars fantasy. It is as close to flying in space as any of us will ever get, and for now is easily one of the most engaging entertainment experiences you can have in VR.

Many of the PS VR games are like this -- there’s one demo on the PR Worlds demo disc that takes place deep in the ocean. At first, as a cage lowered to the depths, it seemed like I was the only living being around, but then several massive stingrays float around you. Music apps, building games, even a Tetris-like clone all look and feel more immersive in VR. I missed a few of the games on the HTC Vive and the Google Tilt Brush app, but overall the PS VR is a major step forward. Plus, it’s far easier to configure -- one camera attached to your HDTV, a Move controller, and a break-out box for the goggles and you’re up and running. With the Oculus and Vive, there’s way more setup involved and fine configuration details that delay the gratification.

Conclusion

So, which one do you pick? It’s easy to say both, but few of us can afford to purchase both the standard console games and the VR games. Also, once you decide to use VR, it’s hard to go back to the old ways of 2D entertainment. My guess is that movies will skip over the 3D bandwagon and go directly to VR, creating immersive experiences unlike anything we’ve seen before. And, someday, the Battlefield series will be fully transported to VR and retain all of the high-end graphics and campaign elements, so in the end the result will be to combine what you see in Battlefield 1 with the immersion of VR. That’s going to be quite a wild ride.

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