THE WASHINGTON POST – A couple of years ago, I was on a panel when the topic of Virtual Reality came up. A fellow panelist predicted that VR would go the way of 3D television. I countered that it’s still too early to make such a claim since the tech is, relatively speaking, in its infancy. It seemed obvious to me that there was so much room for improvement on the hardware side that it was premature to predict the medium’s extinction. I still feel that way, particularly after playing Iron Man VR – a piece of light entertainment that has a number of favorable qualities but which is fundamentally hobbled by technical limitations.
Iron Man VR casts players into the role of Tony Stark, the famed industrialist popularised by Marvel Comics who created his own flying suit of armor to fight back against villains of various stripes. At the start, Tony is celebrating what he hopes to be a new stage in his life as his company phases out weapons manufacturing to focus exclusively on clean energy. Before he has much time to settle into his new life, he is ambushed on his private jet by a drone designed by his own company. After narrowly preventing disaster by donning his Iron Man suit and fending off the drone strike he is taunted by Ghost, a masked woman, who promises to wreak havoc on his life on behalf of the people who suffered collateral damage from the arms produced and sold by Tony’s company.
Using the PlayStation Move controllers, which serve as your hands in the game, you can squeeze the triggers to fire the miniature jet engines embedded in Iron Man’s gauntlets to whisk through the air. By extending your hands behind you, and double-clicking on the triggers you can boost forward and steer by looking in the direction you wish to go. Pressing the Move button (the central top button on the Move controller) and holding the controllers upward fires your main weapon, repulsors, while holding the controllers flat and pressing the Move button fires your secondary weapons, such as lock-on missiles.
In between combat missions, you can tinker with your suit by crafting new components. Armor, weapons, and cosmetic upgrades can be swapped in and out. And you can also make changes to your hand thrusters to accelerate faster, reach a higher top speed, etc.
Most combat missions involve fighting against an array of drones – both ground and airborne varieties. Combat is a 360-degree affair and it’s here where the PSVR’s technical limitations really come into play. Although you can turn and fire behind you, doing so sometimes results in the PlayStation camera mistracking the controllers. Plus, if you end up facing away from the camera (which is certainly easy to do in a game with 360-degree fighting) you’ll often be greeted with a sign pointing you to turn and face in the direction of the camera. Iron Man VR is spotted with numerous such immersion-breaking moments.
Virtual reality at its best allows you to lose yourself in the game for any extended period of time. I found it hard to do so in Iron Man VR because of the game’s real-world requirements. In addition to facing the camera, you must stay positioned in a narrow circle on the floor or you will be greeted with a sign telling you to step back into the circle. To avoid tangling the cords of the headset and my headphone I had to curb the impulse to spin around to shoot drones.
Flying in the game is certainly a high point, and the movement never bothered me (though I’m not particularly prone to motion sickness). But even at the game’s best, immersion-breaking moments are always around the bend. For instance, at one point, on a stage that takes place in Shanghai, I struggled to remove a power core from a machine before an explosion. As I did so, I watched helplessly as the game registered that I placed my hand around the component but failed to recognise me yanking it out. The result was a necessary do over and more haltering animations before I finally completed what should have been a simple task. Moreover, during numerous scripted moments where Iron Man’s arms popped into view, I was reminded of the disjunction between where my elbow was positioned in and outside of the game world. By contrast, the developers at Valve wisely decided not to give arms to the protagonist of its VR title, Half-Life: Alyx, because, at present, it’s difficult to ensure that players’ arms align with their avatars.
If you’re not into fighting drones and performing flight and combat challenges – i.e. time trials – then Iron Man VR may feel like a pretty narrow game in terms of what it offers. Personally, I think it’s best played in small doses as an arcade experience rather than as a marathon-beckoning, single-player game. Nonetheless, the dialogue and the voice acting deserve some credit. Josh Keaton does a fine job as the voice of Tony Stark, the laid back billionaire who always has a quip at the ready. And the rest of the cast seems to have fun with the effervescent script.
Iron Man VR would benefit immensely from a wireless headset, better tracking, and more variety to its action scenarios. As it stands, the game feels like a decent test run for something better in the future.