Maybe it’s time for the virtual reality world to give up on the prospect of licensed superheroes.
The best game in the subgenre (faint praise) is 2016’s brief-and-cute Batman Arkham spinoff, which let early PlayStation VR users play with gadgets and do little else. The worst example is the 2018 Oculus exclusive Marvel Powers United, a dumbed-down, wave-based brawler with little payoff for its superpowers.
And the biggest disappointment of them all—by a margin as big as Tony Stark’s ego—is this week’s Iron Man VR. This PlayStation VR exclusive admittedly tries to deliver something new in the VR genre, but it’s too hung up on its ambition to concede that maybe, just maybe, it was never a good fit for PSVR’s inherent limits.
Stark dropoff from high expectations
The sales pitch seems simple: put on a headset, pick up some controllers, and blast through the sky as Iron Man. (There’s a plot that takes series hero Tony Stark across the world, but rest assured, we’re nowhere near Avengers film caliber here.) We had tested the game’s preview version at press events last year, and at the time, we were intrigued by its “blast off using your hands” mechanic. Players must hold a PlayStation Move wand in each hand, then aim their palms the same way suited hero Tony Stark does. Imagine a thrust of flame coming out of your palms, then hold them facing out, and you’ll blast forward, backward, and up.
The opening prologue tutorial is the same as that demo, and at first blush, it’s a treat to fly through, thanks to this palm-aiming system working as a smooth, not-too-disorienting way to blast through a mostly straightforward flight path. Now that I have the final game, however, I can’t get through the prologue mission without noticing a few quirks. First is the lack of easy lateral movement. The game allows you to dash laterally, but this move is meager, perhaps due to that kind of motion typically triggering motion sickness within VR. In general, to finely manage your movement, you must tap small “face” buttons on the PlayStation Move wand to turn in 45-degree “snap” increments, or spin around entirely if you’ve blasted too far. That kind of system works fine when you’re walking in VR (like in Half-Life: Alyx), but it’s trickier when you’re carrying mid-air momentum while making those turns, and trickier still when those buttons are on the funky PlayStation Move wand’s face, instead of a more logical joystick option.
Speaking of joysticks: if you’d like a controller option to manage this movement model instead, you’re out of luck. Iron Man VR only works with PlayStation Move wands, which lack joysticks, and you need two of them. It’s one of a handful of PSVR games with such a requirement, along with the hugely popular Beat Saber.
Even with those issues, the opening flying sequence is designed to weave players through a simple path with a few brief interruptions to shoot lasers. You attack enemies by aiming your palm at foes, then tapping a “shoot” button instead of the “throttle” trigger to blast lasers. In the prologue, this is a rare interruption, the kind where you can pause your flying throttle, move your hands to aim and shoot, then go back to aiming your palms as a rocket boost.
Palms up, palms down, palms all around
Sadly, this potentially simple formula gets cocked up by a rapid rise in control requirements. The game’s missions typically ask you to juggle two things: fly to specific points in large cityscapes, and (simultaneously) contend with waves of enemies in all directions—usually flying drones but sometimes ground vehicles. Once enemies begin piling on, Stark is upgraded with more attack options: the aforementioned lasers, a punch, and a series of auto-targeting rocket launchers. (Upgrades modify these to some extent, but that’s the basic core of it.)
Those launchers require that you aim a hand at enemies, palm down, until your reticule changes shape. Then highlight a few enemies—but only if they’re in an annoyingly close radius—to lock on and shoot a slew of missiles. Sounds clever, right? Aim with the palm up to shoot lasers; aim with the palm down to shoot missiles. However, during frantic firefights on “normal” difficulty, enemies show up in such severe, 360-degree waves that you can’t expect to survive without holding both of your hands out and shooting non-stop attacks… and each weapon type runs out of ammunition at a ridiculous rate, even after spending in-game currency to upgrade your ammo capacity. So you’ll constantly switch from palm-out to palm-down attacks, back and forth, which makes your aiming reticule bounce all over the place (all while your helmet’s UI explodes with warning arrows in every direction, along with a tiny, hard-to-read radar display in PSVR’s blurry periphery).
Worse, this happens while enemies blast you with wave after wave of auto-targeting weaponry, which means you’ll also need to frequently spare one of your hands to aim your thrusters. And while you can trigger a lateral dodge “boost” move to avoid certain attacks, your ability to both dodge and generally position yourself will require juggling four moves that are all assigned to the PlayStation Move’s face buttons: turn left, turn right, hover, and charge punch. Without a neater “strafe” command for sideways flight, you’re stuck with this awkward button juggle, and that makes it nigh impossible to keep foes centered in your view for easier aiming and foe management.
By the way, the punch requires holding one of the face buttons down for a second until a green “charged” light appears, then thrusting your fist in a punch motion. Why this functionality has to be attached to a button is unclear; I would have appreciated the game simply recognizing punch motions with some sort of auto-charge meter. It would free my brain up during VR combat a bit, and I could use all the brain bandwidth I can spare in this game’s battles.
“Wii elbow” has nothing on “Iron Man VR wrist”
The above system is arguably going to be a matter of taste. I personally detest it, because it asks players to manage their motion and attack with an identical mechanic (as if Halo made you move and aim with the left-hand joystick). Had the developers at Camouflaj made a single hand’s attacks more powerful, or require far fewer waits for reloads, I might concede that there’s a path to “moving with one hand, attacking with the other.” Even then, there’s the matter of awkwardly managing rotation and other functions with face buttons, as opposed to a joystick… which, again, PlayStation Move wands don’t have.
By the time I got used to the controls, I was still annoyed by their lack of precision, and I found myself experiencing the most severe wrist pain I’ve encountered in a VR game. The wrist-twisting requirements to keep my combat-filled, hand-driven flight in check were bad enough that I had to take significant breaks between the game’s 12 missions (a few of which either don’t contain combat or repeat prior missions’ locales with a rehash of the game’s tiny selection of foes).
Should you read all of that and believe this is still your kind of game, Iron Man VR has another nasty surprise for you: a seemingly endless barrage of loading screens and lengthy, overwrought narrative sequences. Every single time you switch from one interior location to the next, you can expect a loading screen as short as one minute and as long as two minutes. Camouflaj is particularly cruel in making its players move from one interior, dialogue-only location to the next multiple times in a single mission, then subjecting them to atrocious loading screens between each. Sadly, the dialogue and voice-acting quality are, at best, comparable to straight-to-DVD superhero cartoons, so you’ll spend a lot of time waiting for a hackneyed, predictable plot.
I appreciate Camouflaj’s attempt to map a six-degree movement system to PlayStation Move’s wands and create a unique take on VR flight. But based on my frustration and physical pain, I believe that the promise of the game’s prologue mission should have been mapped to an entirely different gameplay experience. That opinion isn’t helped by the game’s blurry, low-fidelity worlds somehow rendering at a consistently slow frame rate, which will spell doom for anyone who doesn’t already have a stomach for particularly intense VR content.
You’re going to need one seriously iron stomach to withstand Iron Man VR‘s lows, and they don’t come with any payoff in terms of addictive action or satisfying comic-book storytelling. I’d hoped for more from what appears to be the last major PSVR game for PlayStation 4, but sadly, my expectations turned out to be virtual, not real.