AUSTIN, Texas—In some ways, I’m the worst candidate among the Ars Technica gaming braintrust to see the world premiere of Iron Man VR, a video game slated to release on PlayStation VR at the end of this year. I’ve never used a PSVR, let alone each VR headset between the expensive HTC Vive and the home-built Nintendo Labo VR. And I’m an inconsistent Marvel movie follower at best. If we don’t count the early 2000s Spider-Man trilogy, Black Panther is my only MCU reference point.
But maybe that actually makes me the best candidate to fake as Tony Stark through a bulky headset. There’s no veneer of VR snobbery to rely on. Instead, I had simple questions: is this fun? Would I do it again, and for longer?
After a 20 minute flight test with a representative from the developers at Camouflaj (the studio behind the upcoming PSVR game) nearby, I can still confidently say that the old X-Men co-op arcade machine is my favorite Marvel game of all time. always. But I’d definitely be flying around in Iron Man’s ruby armor some more soon, which is probably good news for millions of VR and Marvel novices who might be intrigued by the possibility of becoming their own Iron Person in the living room.
The right mechanics
One of the first things you see at startup Iron Man VR is a series of wish fulfillment. A start-up screen, in which your face is mirrored inwards the helmet, starts up slowly and comes to life. It immediately reminded me that Iron Man probably lends itself better to VR than other Marvel heroes. It already has a built-in heads-up display (HUD), which constantly gives in-game tips, such as indicators of enemies out of your line of sight or prompts to take a certain action (“Hold button to extinguish the flames”, for example) .
Iron Man also flies via tools, not superhuman abilities, so holding controllers or VR wands doesn’t feel out of place. I tested the game with a pair of PlayStation Move wands, which asked me to move up, down, forward, or backward by placing my hands palm-down at my sides and pressing a button. (Just like Stark, I’m sure.) If you need to go faster, press your buttons twice to turn on the turbo boost. Flying like Superman can feel unnatural (using a controller instead of just raising my arms and jumping forward), but here it only took me a few moments to grasp the basics. The same goes for shooting enemies: palms out and press the button, then palms down for a quick charge.
After reading a wealth of VR stories about facial pain and pretty much induced nausea, I have to admit I’m a little nervous. But the PSVR hardware was as comfortable as everyone says, and I only made myself dizzy once (I got a turbo boost and turned 360 degrees to find the next learning target). That was definitely a user error and in no way caused by the software or the images.
On reflection, the tutorial itself would probably have been enough to impress me. After a short hand-positioning calibration, Iron Man VR takes you to the scenic clifftop vistas of Stark HQ. Here, the game teaches you how to travel through an obstacle course of coastal rock formations and fine-tune your shooting skills with a series of targets. Going through this experience for the first time is as satisfying as I imagine the feeling of being left lying around in the Spider Man PS4 was on traditional TVs.
Hey, I saved the day (for now)!
Sony and Camouflaj’s healthy 20 minute demo consisted of that game guide, a cutscene, and a “level” to work through. As Camoflauj’s representative noted, Iron Man VR won’t be a simulator or experience when it’s released “in 2019”. This will be a traditional game with a single-player story campaign, albeit exclusively in VR.
So I left Stark HQ and threw myself headfirst into the single-player campaign. The lead voice actor is definitely Downey-esque – sounding similar and certainly just as funny. While flying in his AI-Friday-controlled plane, you learn Stark who has just been named Pepper Potts CEO through the media without telling her first (oops). you get a few Mass effect-like dialogue wheels and a few possibilities to interact with the environment. For example, open the briefcase in front of you – place your hands, hold the button – and, voila, there’s the suit in all its glory, including holographic pop-ups. But things kick into playable gear after a pair of Stark Industries military drones buzzed uncomfortably close to the plane on Friday.
We don’t make those anymore, Stark notes, but apparently someone nefariously hacked into the fleet remotely. The in-cabin TVs quickly turn static before a veiled figure threatens you and Stark Industries in general. One of the drones will start firing into the side of your plane. The resulting hole is a problem in itself, but the damage seems to send the plane down – and your suit-packed suitcase has been sucked into the clouds.
The demo level starts here and you dodge debris while Friday reminds you of your suit piece by piece. Once armored, it’s time to go. Take out the drones, keep an eye on the plane so you can put out fires or fix external disturbances, and make sure Pepper lands that thing or gets to safety.
As a VR novice, I immediately thought this was going to end badly. But slowly and surely I found myself getting better at dodging incoming attacks (use your thrusters, idiot, don’t just move your head) and use both hands to bring down swarms of oncoming drones. During the firefight, Friday and Pepper remain in communication through your HUD. They give you clues as to where the plane is taking damage and how quickly you can get there to fix it.
Each associated action becomes more intuitive than the last: fly to where your HUD glows, move your hands to take the correct action (press the button to shoot or hold things). I finally took a lot of damage when the level’s two heavy ones came out (boosted drones with Punch Out-y mechanics; make them fire, dodge, counter before their shields are back up). But in the end I managed to save the day with ~30 percent of the function still intact.
Although I’m a rare gamer these days, I immediately bought the sales pitch of this demo: a first-person adventure like Iron Man in theory with a full campaign. That’s already more intriguing than the disappointing Oculus-exclusive 2018 game, Marvel Powers United VR, which my VR-loving Ars colleagues tell me was button-pure and uninspiring. Here the actions felt intuitive; the graphics kept me immersed. And while I saw the possibility that things might feel a little repetitive – can you build enough levels, enemies and fly-then-shoot diversity to keep things mechanically engaging? — even that isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker for modern games. Hello† Assassin’s Creed!
This 20 minute(ish) demo definitely didn’t satisfy me, and I would have loved (and physically had) moved forward to see how things got a little more complicated from then on. If Marvel and Camouflaj successfully build on this clever level and villain design that challenges your basic skills in new ways; an original Iron Man story that can satisfactorily contextualize your actions (word is super villain Ghost will lurk in this adventure) – then PSVR probably has a new contender for the title of “VR game that will immediately give you a rookie would show.”
Whether that’s enough to take headsets off the shelves is another question, but that probably shouldn’t rest on a single set of shoulders. Even Iron Man’s.
Listing image by Sony/Camouflaj/Marvel