AUSTIN, Texas—In some ways, I am the worst candidate among the Ars Technica gaming braintrust to demo the world premiere of , a video game slated to launch on PlayStation VR by the end of this year. I have never used a PSVR, let alone VR headset between the pricey HTC Vive and the build-it-yourself Nintendo Labo VR.
And I’m an inconsistent Marvel movie follower at best. If we don’t count the early 2000s Spider-Man trilogy, is my only MCU reference point.
But maybe that actually makes me the candidate to fake like Tony Stark via a bulky headset. There is 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(ish) flight test with a rep from the devs at Camouflaj (the studio behind the upcoming PSVR game) nearby, I can still confidently say the old X-Men co-op arcade cabinet remains my favorite Marvel game of all-time. But I would absolutely be down to fly around a bit more in Iron Man’s ruby-red armor soon, which is probably good news for millions of VR and Marvel novices who might be intrigued by the possibility of becoming their own living-room Iron Person.
The right mechanics
One of the first things you see upon firing up is some series wish fulfillment. A startup screen, mirroring your face inside helmet, slowly boots up and comes to life. It immediately reminded me that Iron Man probably lends himself to VR better than other Marvel heroes. He already has a built-in heads-up display (HUD), which constantly provides in-game tips like indicators of enemies outside your field of vision or prompts to take a particular action (“Hold button to extinguish the flames,” for instance).
Iron Man also flies via tools, not superhuman ability, 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, forwards, or backwards by putting my hands palm-down at my sides and pushing a button. (Just like Stark, I’m sure.) If you need to go faster, hit your buttons twice to enable the turbo boost. Flying as Superman like this might feel unnatural (leveraging a controller versus just raising my arms and lunging forward), but here I only needed a few moments to have the basic gist. The same goes for shooting enemies: palms out and hit the button, then palms down to quickly recharge.
Having read a wealth of VR stories about face pain and virtually induced nausea, I’ll admit to a bit of initial nerves. But the PSVR hardware was as comfortable as everyone says, and I only made myself dizzy once (I turbo-boosted and turned 360 degrees to find the next tutorial target). That was decidedly user-error and not in anyway caused by the software or visuals, though.
Upon reflection, the tutorial itself likely would’ve been enough to impress me. After some brief hand-positioning calibration, transports you to the scenic cliffside vistas of Stark HQ. Here, the game teaches you how to travel through an obstacle course of seaside rock formations and refine your shooting with an array of targets. Going through this experience for the first time is as satisfying as I imagine the sensation of slinging around in the PS4 was on traditional TVs.
Hey, I saved the day (for now)!
Sony and Camouflaj’s healthy 20-minute demo was comprised of that play tutorial, a cut scene, and a “level” to work through. As the Camoflauj rep noted, won’t be a simulator or experience when it releases “in 2019.” This will be a traditional game with a one-player story campaign—albeit one exclusively in VR.
So I left Stark HQ and thrust headfirst into the one-player campaign. Its lead voice actor is decidedly Downey-ish—similar sounding and certainly as quippy. While flying in his AI-Friday-controlled plane, you learn Stark just named Pepper Potts CEO via the media without telling her first (whoops). You get a few -like dialogue wheels and a couple of opportunities to interact with the environment. For example, open the briefcase in front of you—position your hands, hold the button—and, , there’s the suit in all its glory, including holographic pop-ups. But things kick into playable gear after Friday notices a few Stark Industries military drones buzzing uncomfortably close to the plane.
, Stark notes, but evidently someone nefarious has remotely hacked the fleet. The in-cabin TVs soon turn to static before a veiled figure threatens you and Stark Industries at large. One of the drones starts firing into the side of your plane. The resulting hole is a problem in its own right, but the damage seems to be sending the plane downward—and your suit-carrying briefcase has been sucked out into the clouds.
The demo level starts here, and you’re dodging debris as Friday recalls your suit to you piece by piece. Once armored up, it’s go time. Take out the drones, monitor the plane so you can put out fires or fix exterior malfunctions, and ensure that Pepper either lands that thing or gets out to safety.
As a VR novice, I immediately thought this would end poorly. But slowly and surely, I found myself getting better at dodging incoming attacks () and utilizing both hands to take down swarms of oncoming drones. Throughout the firefight, Friday and Pepper stay in communications through your HUD. They give you directions on where the plane takes on damage and how fast you better get yourself over there to fix it.
Each corresponding action becomes more intuitive than the last—fly into the spot your HUD has glowing, move your hands to take the appropriate action (hitting the button to shoot or hold things). I ended up taking of damage when the level’s two heavies came out (souped-up drones with -y mechanics; let them fire, dodge, counter before their shields are up again). But ultimately I managed to save the day with ~30 percent of function still intact.
Even though I’m an infrequent gamer these days, I immediately bought into this demo’s sales pitch: a first-person adventure as Iron Man theoretically with a full campaign. That’s already more intriguing than the disappointing Oculus-exclusive 2018 game, , which my VR-loving Ars colleagues tell me was button-mashy and uninspiring. Here, the actions felt intuitive; the graphics kept me immersed. And while I could see the potential for things to perhaps feel a little repetitive—can you build enough levels, enemies, and fly-then-shoot diversity to keep things engaging mechanically?—even that isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker for modern games. ,
This 20-minute(ish) demo definitely did not satiate me, and I would’ve (and physically could’ve) happily moved forward to see how everything got a bit more complicated from there. If Marvel and Camouflaj build on this successfully—clever level and villain design that challenges your basic abilities in new ways; an original Iron Man story that can contextualize your actions in a satisfying way (word is supervillain Ghost will be lurking in this adventure)—then PSVR likely has a new contender for the title of “VR game you’d immediately show to a rookie.”
Whether that’s enough to move headsets off shelves is another question, but that likely shouldn’t rest on any singular set of shoulders. Even Iron Man’s.