“I am not Iron Man,” I mutter to myself after crashing into a wall for the umpteenth time while waving my arms around. But it’s not for a lack of effort.
Iron Man VR is a game with a simple premise: putting players inside the famous metal suit of Marvel’s Armored Avenger, letting you fly around and battle supervillains with laser blasts and gadgets galore. It’s also the first real console title from Camouflaj, which had previously developed the high-profile mobile game, République, back in 2013 (which has since been ported to PC, Xbox One, PlayStation, and a variety of VR platforms).
It’s the sort of idea that’s uniquely suited to virtual reality. What better way to capture a hero who’s most famous for their helmet and wrist-mounted weaponry than the headset and motion controllers of VR?
Unfortunately, while Iron Man VR has moments where it really captures what it might be like to suit up as Iron Man himself, it’s held back by finicky controls, repetitive levels, and gameplay that just isn’t that much fun to play for very long.
While early trailers might give the impression that Iron Man VR is a gussied-up on-rails shooter, the reality is that Camouflaj has given players nearly complete freedom to soar through the skies as Iron Man. Using a pair of PlayStation Move controllers, you use the two triggers to control your repulsors in a unique style of VR flight. Angle them with your palms facing behind you, and you’ll fly forward; shove forward, and you’ll stop then fly backward. Steering is done through a combination of angling your thrusters and by aiming with your head. Since players are standing vertically the whole time, it’s still not quite analogous to the soaring Iron Man flight in the films or comics, but it’s as close as you can probably get with a VR setup.
It also runs into a few limitations due to the nature of VR. The first is that the PS VR is a tethered headset, so players can only do limited turns. More drastic maneuvering has to be done with button presses that jump the camera either 45 or 180 degrees so they don’t yank the cables out. It’s also just plain difficult, at least at the start. While Camouflaj liberally peppers the game with speed gauntlets to help players adjust in the early levels, there’s a steep learning curve. (Some of the developer times in those flight challenges seem frankly impossible to me to beat, although I have no doubt players will.)
It also requires that players basically remain standing the entire time they play. While Camouflaj does note that the game can be played seated, the fact that you’re pointing your hands behind you a lot of the time means that it’s nearly impossible to play on a couch. I had more success moving to a folding chair in the middle of my living room that I could reach behind, but the game still struggled to track my hands as well.
I didn’t suffer from any motion sickness while playing, but I tend to personally handle VR movement well. If you’re new to the genre or have a particular sensitivity to nausea, the quick turning movement might not be to your liking.
Flying is only part of the equation, though. The other half is combat, which requires players to balance how they play since Iron Man uses the same repulsors to fly as he does to shoot blasters. It’s a constant juggling act: do you hover in place, making yourself a bigger target to unleash more firepower? Or boost away with both thrusters?
Iron Man actually has two main weapon types: quick-firing repulsors and secondary weapons, both bound to the same button. Hold up your hands palm out, and you’ll use repulsor blasts; tilt your palm down, and your wrist-mounted secondary weapon will pop up. It’s one of Iron Man VR’s best touches, and it did the best job at capturing the character. Lastly, players can also throw rocket-powered punches by holding down a controller button to smash nearby enemies.
There’s a customization system, too, where players can unlock “research points” to add new gear to their armor or swap out their weapons. But all of those options are unlocked from the start. Once I had a good setup going, the game doesn’t give much of a reason to unlock the rest. (Amusingly, there’s also a variety of different color schemes for the suits, but given that you almost never see the armor from a third-person perspective, it’s a bit of a useless feature.)
But while the pieces are all good, the issues with Iron Man VR arrive when they come together in the game, which just isn’t deep enough to support a full-blown title.
In practice, Iron Man VR is very repetitive. There’s only a handful of enemy types, whose tactics never really change. One drone will batter players with laser blasts, another will attempt to ram you, while a third has to be dodged before its shield is down. Each enemy is effectively designed to be countered by a specific weapon in your arsenal (you shoot the shooting drone, you punch the ramming drone, you ground-pound the tank), and the only variety really comes in how many the game throws at you at once.
The result is that each of the 12 levels (which are broken up into 15- to 30-minute chunks, well-suited for VR) more or less breaks down in a cycle of “defeat these identical waves of enemies using identical weapons in identical locations” until the next expository speech happens.
The game also breaks up the Iron Man action with plenty of time spent jumping around Tony’s mansion or Nick Fury’s helicarrier doing the gimmicky sorts of VR tasks that the genre had outgrown years ago. Teleporting around an open space to press a button to answer a speakerphone or put away a box of mementos just feels like padding. Those sorts of VR-y tasks make their way into the regular gameplay, too, punctuating the waves of drone fights by having players “pull” a door open, “grab” some wires, or “punch” an energy core.
Iron Man VR does try to mix things up with different locations, varying from the Shanghai skyline to a helicarrier soaring in the sky to an abandoned weapon facility. But levels repeat frequently, too; the first time spent soaring through the cliffs by Tony’s Malibu mansion is great, but by the third time the game brings it out, it starts to drag.
Some of those levels also just look bad. Part of that is due to the PlayStation VR’s lower resolution and horsepower. Some levels are better than others, but it can be rough to look at. In particular, the Shanghai level — all blocky, featureless buildings and empty pixelated roads — feels like something out of a PlayStation 2 game.
The experience is held together by an original Iron Man story, which should sound very familiar if you’ve watched an Iron Man movie (or read a comic book) in the past few years. Tony Stark has retired from making weapons, but a villain from his past — in this case, the hacker villain Ghost — wants to hold him accountable for the destruction his former misdeeds caused.
Various classic Iron Man characters show up, including Tony himself, Pepper Potts, Tony’s AI Friday, Nick Fury (all looking like off-brand versions of their big-screen counterparts), along with a new character, a holographic copy of Tony named Gunsmith that helps players design upgrades and serves as a “devil” on Tony’s shoulder to the more positive Friday during missions. (Gunsmith also solves the VR problem of never getting to see Tony’s face during gameplay by giving players a second “Tony Stark” to interact with.)
The biggest problems with Iron Man VR, however, are the truly terrible load times — at least on the standard PS4 that I was playing on. I routinely spent 10–20 seconds staring at a pitch-black screen just to load the loading screen, which can take up to another full minute to load into the actual level. That waiting is made even worse by the fact that you’re stuck wearing a VR headset and standing in your living room the entire time.
There are a lot of good ideas in Iron Man VR. But between the rough controls, repetitive gameplay, and lackluster graphics, it’s the sort of thing that feels like it would have been better suited to a shorter, more polished experience. It can make you feel like Iron Man at times — but that’s not enough to carry a full-length game.
Iron Man VR is out exclusively for the PlayStation 4 on July 3rd for $39.99. (A PS VR headset, two PlayStation Move controllers, and a PlayStation 4 camera are required to play.)
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