Returnal, a PlayStation 5 action game about dancing with death at an inescapable time-loop space rave, is a visual delight. It’s also an aural one. And at no time is that more apparent than when you play with a pair of 3D audio headphones.
Let me put it this way: Before I picked up Returnal, I rarely if ever played games with headphones. Now, I can’t play Returnal without them.
Sony touted detailed, strongly directional “Tempest” 3D audio support as a key selling point of the PS5. The PS5-specific headset that launched alongside the system, the Pulse 3D, was supposedly tuned to get the most out of “Tempest 3D AudioTech’s” “custom engine for 3D audio,” not to mention match the PS5’s Star Wars stormtrooper aesthetic. That’s what I’ve been using to play Returnal, and it’s been very, very good.
Note, however, you don’t need a fancy Pulse 3D to try out PS5’s 3D audio; most any USB headset, or analogue headphones plugged into your DualSense, will suffice. Just make sure you have 3D sound enabled by heading to your settings, popping open the Sound menu, and scrolling to the “audio output” submenu. If you have an appropriate headset plugged in you’ll be able to turn on 3D audio, as well as choose from one of five audio presets to find which sounds best to your ears.
I’ve previously tested this tech out with various PS5 games, like Outriders. People Can Fly’s loot-shooter features some typical directional audio that makes for some neat moments, and certainly better situational awareness in fights. But the overall experience didn’t exactly convert me to the gospel of 3D headphone audio.
Returnal, on the other hand, is legit mind-blowing.
Walking through Atropos, Returnal’s exoplanetary setting, with headphone 3D audio enabled is an exercise in steeling your nerves, at least if you’re a horror baby like me. You can’t exactly identify what the sounds are, but you know where they are. (Everywhere.) Turrets pop out of the ground with the unsettling growl of a car starting. Flying tentacle space monsters could very well be flying bears, primed to eat you, based purely on their roars. It helps you pinpoint their location without even thinking.
At various points, Returnal drops you into first-person interludes set in a 20th-century house. Much like the Resident Evil Village demo from January, footsteps take centre stage: You can hear stomping upstairs above you, really above you, much like you would with upstairs neighbours who just refuse to take their damn shoes off. And, of course, there’s the rain, which sounds as good as it feels, aka, “like actual real rain.” It all contributes to the sense that, yes, Atropos is nothing like the real world, but it sure sounds like a real place.
These effects aren’t just ear candy. They also offer tangible gameplay benefits. Enemies that pop up behind you do so with an audio cue — say, a screech, or an otherworldly robotic thrum. If you’re listening via 3D audio, it actually sounds like these enemies are behind you. (Returnal’s infuriating bats are a whole lot easier to deal with when they don’t blindside you.) You can technically hear all this stuff through your TV’s speakers, but such a setup does not compare to the situational awareness you get by hearing it with pinpoint, easily discernible directionality.
Earlier this month, Loic Couthier, audio lead for Returnal, told PlayStation Blog how the PS5’s Tempest 3D audio engine enhanced the playing experience. For instance, apparently enemies outside of your field of view are given auditory priority, so you’ll hear them over the enemies you can actually see. This all works through a sort of technological echolocation. (How do you like it, bats?!) Even in terms of your weaponry, when you pull the right trigger, invisible audio “rays” will discharge from your weapon. Then, as PlayStation Blog puts it, “when those rays hit an obstacle, be it a wall or other physical shape, a unique reflection sound is played back at you.”
But the brilliance of Returnal’s audio, as Couthier noted, is that “most of the time, you use it without knowing.” You don’t fully register all these little things until you revert to standard stereo audio output, such as from your TV speakers. Then, you realise what you’re missing. And shortly after that, you can no longer play without it. I sure can’t.
It’s taken me a while to determine if “Tempest 3D AudioTech” is the real deal, or just more of the same, another marketing gimmick. Even though 3D audio has been around for ages, I’ve never really been enamoured with the whole headset thing, finding the benefits never really worth the tradeoff of tuning out my surroundings. But Returnal opened my ears, and I’m eager to hear what else this tech can do.