Steve Hogarty on the VR headsets to level up your gaming
Virtual reality has hit the mainstream, thanks, in large part, to Facebook’s parent company, Meta, and its push to make the Metaverse a thing. But even if the thought of living inside Mark Zuckerberg’s simulated reality leaves you feeling cold, the world of VR headsets goes way beyond the stuffy, corporate realm of virtual Zoom meetings with disembodied colleagues.
VR has its roots in gaming and entertainment. The HTC Vive, Valve Index and Meta Quest Pro are all geared towards PC gaming as well as enterprise-level use. Meanwhile, Sony has the new PlayStation VR2, a gaming headset accessory designed solely to be used with the PlayStation 5.
But it’s the Meta Quest 2 that remains the most accessible and affordable VR headset. It doesn’t require any specialist knowledge to set up, so anyone can slip it on and start playing right away, and you don’t have to plug it into an expensive gaming PC to experience it.
We’ve taken that level of basic accessibility into account when rounding up our pick of the best VR headsets you can buy, but what the Meta Quest 2 gains in simplicity, it loses in performance and fidelity. If you have a decent PC and a bigger budget, there are better and more powerful VR headsets out there.
How we tested
We tested these VR headsets in our homes (which are smaller than our offices, unsurprisingly), so, among other things, these headsets are rated by how comfortable they are to use in confined spaces. With the exception of the self-contained Meta Quest 2, we tested each headset while tethered to a gaming PC running on a 12th-generation Intel CPU and an RTX 3080 graphics card.
We used SteamVR as our main games platform, and tested games such as Job Simulator, Superhot VR, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, and Half-Life: Alyx. The PS VR2 was tested with a PlayStation 5 console with Horizon Call of the Mountain, Resident Evil Village and more.
Meta Quest 2: £399, Argos
The Meta Quest 2 is not the most technically advanced virtual reality headset out there, but it’s the first genuinely user-friendly one. You don’t need an expensive gaming PC to plug it into (though you’ve got the option), and there are no snaking cables to trip over. Instead, you just slip it on, grab hold of the controllers, and are immediately immersed in a believable 3D space.
A tutorial teaches you the basics of picking up and interacting with virtual objects, using your virtual hands, while sensors and cameras embedded in the headset can track your physical location in the room and translate your movements at 1:1 scale in the game world. The Guardian system is particularly clever too, prompting you to trace out your playing area with the controllers beforehand, then warning you in-game if you’re about to accidentally walk face-first into your living room wall.
The Meta Quest 2 no longer needs a Facebook account to work, which was one of our biggest problems with the device at launch. If you want a VR experience without the fuss, there’s no better entry point than the Meta Quest 2.
Valve Index: £919, Steampowered
Valve’s betting the house on the future of gaming being virtual, producing its very own VR headset to power its ambitious SteamVR games and experiences. The Valve Index is one of the most expensive gaming VR headsets around, and, like the HTC Vive Pro 2, it requires tethering to a gaming PC to work.
It also requires you to mount a pair of base stations in either corner of the room, to track your position in real time, though these are the same base stations found in the HTC Vive range. That means if you’ve already got an HTC device, you can continue using your base stations and upgrade your headset, your controllers, or both, without overspending.
The display is sharp and responsive at 120Hz, but the controllers are what really set the Valve Index apart from other VR headsets in this list. They can track the movement of your individual fingers with unnerving precision, which not only allows for a greater degree of control within virtual worlds but creates an unbeatable sense of immersion. As ridiculous as it sounds, simply wiggling the fingers of our virtual hand in front of our virtual face dupes our monkey brain into thinking we’re somewhere we’re not.
HTC Vive Pro 2: £1,399, Vive
The HTC Vive Pro 2 requires considerably more setting-up than the self-contained Meta Quest 2. Firstly, the headset needs to be tethered to a powerful gaming PC or laptop. You also need to mount a pair of Rubik’s-cube-sized sensors in opposite corners of your room, which scan the play area continuously to track your location in 3D space.
For premium VR gaming, the benefits of this type of setup outweigh the inconvenience. The HTC Vive Pro 2 provides an incredibly realistic experience, with a refresh rate of up to 120Hz and the highest resolution-per-eye of any of the headsets we’ve tested. Lower-resolution VR headsets produce a “screen door effect”, which happens when your eyes can make out individual pixels in the display. At higher resolutions, this effect is diminished, and in the Vive Pro 2 the effect is barely noticeable.
In games, the impact is impressive. In Half-Life: Alyx, you can make out more detail in the world around you. Distant objects have more definition, and the world feels more real. Hold a tin of virtual food up to your face and you can make out the ingredients list. The sense of immersion is boosted even further by the accuracy of hand- and body-tracking and the wide field of
view, which all leads to a substantially less janky gaming experience.
The full Vive Pro 2 kit doesn’t come cheap, but with access to a rich and growing library of PC VR games behind it, this is the headset of choice for those who want the most immersive gaming experience possible.
PS VR2: £529.99, Playstation
The PlayStation VR2 is Sony’s second-generation VR headset and follows 2016’s far clunkier and more cumbersome PS VR, which needed half a dozen cables, separate controllers and an external camera accessory before you could use it. This version is a vast improvement. It’s streamlined and plugs into a PS5 with a single USB-C cable, making it easier to pick up and play on a whim.
It uses two bright and high-contrast OLED displays running at 120 frames per second for a highly realistic VR experience, while the included sense controllers allow you to reach out and grab objects, push buttons, shoot guns and interact with the world using your hands. Haptic feedback in the controllers and the headset push the immersion even further, while eye-tracking tech means games can tell where you’re looking (and when your eyes are closed) at any given moment.
The main downside is that is needs a PlayStation 5 console to work, making it more than twice as expensive than some standalone headsets. There are also too few unique and exclusive games at launch. But for gamers already invested in the latest Sony console, and eager to be part of the company’s latest VR experiment, there’s no better choice of headset.
HTC Vive Cosmos Elite: £699, Amazon
The original HTC Vive Cosmos was launched to rival the nowdiscontinued Oculus Rift S, and was intended to be a cheaper and more user-friendly headset for those who simply wanted to plug in and start playing VR games immediately. Unlike the more expensive HTC Vive Pro 2, it didn’t require any external base stations, which meant that while setting up the headset was a breeze, tracking accuracy suffered. Hand movements occasionally wouldn’t register properly, so what you saw in the game sometimes didn’t reflect what your limbs were doing in the real world.
To address these issues, the newest Cosmos Elite reintroduced the need for base stations, while retaining some of the best features of its budget-friendly predecessor. It’s a light and versatile headset with a convenient flip-up design that makes it
easier to wear and remove, and it’s compatible with existing base stations and controllers. These improvements bring the Cosmos Elite much closer in line with the HTC Vive Pro, though the latter headset still offers much-improved resolutions and viewing angles over the leaner, cheaper Cosmos Elite.
That makes the Cosmos Elite headset a worthy upgrade from an older HTC Vive if you’ve already got the base station accessories. But new users who’ll need to shell out for the full kit should consider the more premium HTC Vive Pro 2 if they can afford it.
Despite being relatively underpowered, compared with traditional PC-tethered gaming headsets, the Meta Quest 2 is a genuine breakthrough for the technology. Not only does it look smart, with no protruding cables or messy wiring to worry about, it’s straightforward enough to set up that even the most tech-averse users will be able to experience VR within minutes of opening the box.
For more serious gaming and professional applications, the HTC Vive Pro 2 is the most technically advanced VR experience in our round-up, with the highest resolution and refresh rate of any headset we’ve tested.
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