Iron Man VR may be easy to initially dismiss because of the reactionary negative response to the deluge of crappy licensed video games over the past few decades. Even the last two abysmal Iron Man games fall into that camp. But we’re living in a post-Spider-Man world where the prospect of a good Marvel video game is not only a distant dream, but a reality. And in Iron Man VR’s case, a virtual reality. Virtual reality is also still somewhat of a cursed phrase, given that the medium is still trying to be more than shooting galleries and voyeuristic “interactive” anime porn. Iron Man VR is none of the latter and more than the former, as it looks to be a promising fusion of the license and technology surrounding it.
Almost anyone can understand the fundamentals of Iron Man VR because we all know how Iron Man flies and shoots: arms to your side and palms out, respectively. This language is made possible by the ubiquity of the Marvel films and works out in the game’s favor as the mandatory motion controls can properly mimic those behaviors.
It’s easy to grasp but it has a bit of a learning curve. Jetting around requires that you are always thinking of where your hands are pointing and what direction each is propelling you in. It’s an intuitive control method that makes sense but will require some mental readjustment since Iron Man flies horizontally and you’ll be standing vertically. Iron Man VR also ensures that you have to physically turn around a lot to hit targets behind you, which is something you’ll have to remind yourself to do as you learn the ropes. Rewiring your brain to take advantage of the 360 degrees around you is a bit complicated but if offers the game more depth and has the controls to back it up.
Iron Man VR Preview | Tony Hawk to Tony Stark
Like Iron Man in the first movie, you’re not going to be able to jet around with precision even with auto-targeting and some invisible bumpers that subtly guide you. But instead of being an impediment to its momentum, it appears to offer up a decent challenge to overcome since the controls feel good; it’s just up to you to improve. Director and Camouflaj studio founder Ryan Payton said during our interview that was by design as the team was influenced by the Tony Hawk skating games that gave players a mechanic that took practice to get better at.
“The core of the game has always been about mapping the full 360 and going wherever you want to go, flying naturally to the Move controllers and really letting the player and the fantasy of Iron Man lead the design,” he said. “In other words, what we don’t want to do is design a game where we were teaching the player how to be Iron Man. It’s more about the player knows what Iron Man does and we give them the tools to be Iron Man. That, to me, has always been a different way of thinking about design.”
The game will even have optional content specifically designed for hardcore Iron Man wannabes. Payton described that the team made a bunch of these side missions “for fun” but also to test players and see how the community rises to the challenge. While he didn’t go into detail, these will include timed objectives and courses full of enemies. He admitted that they weren’t for everyone but are “really fun [for people that want] to people fully embrace that Iron Man fantasy and try to do some crazy things because that’s what Tony Stark would do anyway.”
Iron Man VR Preview | Suiting up
Weapons are another part of the Iron Man fantasy and follows the example set by the flying. Shooting the default hand cannons is tricky as putting one palm out to fire means you’ll need to focus on both soaring around and hitting your target. The beams can’t be spammed either, meaning you’ll need to have some restraint when firing. Auto-locking does help, but it is up to you to get the cursor near the target. Again, it controls well but takes getting used to.
This kind of design doesn’t mean the game lacks more traditional upgrades too. While the demo only had traditional hand cannons, Payton was adamant in stating that progression would be a “big part” of the game as well. This includes ballistic weapons, which he was more than happy to tease.
“The weapons that you’re going to have available to you are not just the repulsors,” he said. “We have a whole variety of repulsors that we will be showing off at a later date but we also have more ballistic-heavy weapons as well, which I am super excited to show off how we are doing it. The way the mechanic works is such a great idea.”
Upgrades seem small but prove a larger point about the game. VR games have a stigma of being small experiences that almost feel like elongated demos over actual, beefy video games. This lone mission had the structure of a “real” video game level too, as it Iron Man chasing the falling plane while also fixing it and shooting down enemy drones. Payton and his team were insistent from the start on proving that this could be a more expansive title worthy of the types of features other traditional experiences have.
“Very early on in development when we first started talking to Marvel about making Iron Man VR, it was all about Iron Man in VR is a perfect pairing and let’s not do something experimental,” he said. “Let’s do a real game that’s exclusive to PSVR. That’s where we started. So we didn’t start small and get big. We started with big ideas. With the IP comes a lot of responsibility.”
Iron Man VR Preview | Phony Stark
Part of making this a bigger game is the story and is where the Tony Stark half of the Iron Man experience comes into play. Ghost (which you might know as the villain from the recent Ant-Man and the Wasp film) is invading Stark’s life for some unknown reason, hacking the plane he’s on and bringing it down. Cutscenes not only let you interact with objects within arm’s reach, but are also fully voiced, placing you in Stark’s expensive shoes as he talks to Pepper Potts and his AI, Friday.
The voice acting was serviceable yet ultimately uninteresting as it doesn’t come close to matching Robert Downey Jr.’s slick wit and pitch perfect delivery. It’s a bit of an unfair comparison but it’s impossible not to draw a line between them and similarly impossible to not be disappointed. Perhaps he’ll just need time and context of the full game to come into his own. And, given the character-driven nature of comic-based media, he’ll need to for the sake of the narrative.
Iron Man VR’s plot may have a shaky foundation but its mechanics appear to be on more solid ground, which is ironic, given how those mechanics involve flying. Speeding through the skies at 250 miles per hour while twisting around and shooting sounds nauseating yet it wasn’t. Instead, this small slice of the game felt closer to a fantasy that the character was meant to evoke in a medium almost designed to realize that fantasy. After adapting to the intuitive but unique controls, Iron Man VR looked like it was beginning to take shape as the Iron Man game we probably should have gotten by now.