When I covered VR for a living, more often than not, needless empathy-peddling things would cross my desk. They nearly always felt empty and exploitative; working against their earnest goals of spotlighting plights around the world. It always reminded me that VR is at its best when it's unburdened by the promise of empathy: when it's on the lone basis of letting you do cool, seemingly-impossible shit. Shit like being a superhero.
I don't have any special affinity for Marvel, honestly, aside from Spider-Man. But I've always been the smallest of the small. I'm 5'1", which in normal human size, is incredibly short. My partner shoots upwards of six feet, meaning that standing next to him, I'm practically an ant. In Marvel Powers United VR, I was finally given the ability to be tall. I towered over everyone around me, literally. And I could wave to them too, even if I was a puke green to boot.
Yesterday I had the chance to play Marvel Powers United VR, a new VR project developed by Sanzaru Games in collaboration with Oculus and Marvel. It's a passion project that formed from the simplest dream: 'What would it be like to take a walk in your favorite superhero's shoes?' Probably something like the following, I suppose.
"For me, being able to be Rocket [Raccoon from Guardians of the Galaxy] for example, in pictures you see him and he's small," said Omar Woodley, a designer for Sanzaru Games, the developers behind Marvel Powers United VR. "But until you actually experience that scale that you're shrunken down into in the game, and you see someone as big as Hulk next to you. [Where] you're in his body, you see his furry hands, his furry nose, and then you see Hulk looking at you. It's a completely different experience. It's something that feels pretty amazing."
I played a couple rounds of Marvel Powers United VR, which from a broader scope is a fairly standard 3D beat-'em-up otherwise. My first round was as the mean, green Hulk, the other time as the adorably tiny Rocket. (Two opposites, fittingly.) The two characters played drastically differently from one another. The Hulk was melee focused; he had the ability to make powerful leaps, to pick up and throw enemies, and Thunderclap, of course. Meanwhile Rocket was a small, yet not to be underestimated ally. He's outfitted with a jetpack (where in a literal blink, you're up in the air above everyone else), gadgets, and guns.
Hulk, even with his immense height and weight, felt far more natural to play than Rocket. With Rocket's guns, the game felt like any other VR shooter (except with analog-controlled movement, not being on rails like some other VR shooters). With Hulk's fists, swinging punches felt, well, almost natural. Even with his superhero strength.
At the time of this writing, there are four heroes announced for the VR game: The Incredible Hulk, Rocket Raccoon, Captain Marvel, and recently announced this morning, Deadpool. For the game's eventual launch, a dozen characters will be among the swappable ranks, in addition to other environments to battle AI-controlled enemies in (which Woodley noted they cannot talk about yet). For my demo, we pushed through the Collector's Museum on Knowhere, a part of the Guardians of the Galaxy universe (complete with Lockjaw, the big ol' bulldog from Inhumans).
The diversity among the playstyles between Marvel's many heroes was key to the development of the game, and integral to Sanzaru's goal in fulfilling that initial dream-like hope of living out a day as a superhero. "[We pulled] all these things from the comic books. [Like] Captain Marvel, she [may be] a humanoid, but she has all these energy powers and she's also strong. She's battled Iron Man in Civil War, she's battled War Machine," said Woodley. "You have to reference all these correlations, so she needs to be not necessarily as strong as Hulk, because Hulk is gonna be the strongest character out there, but she needs to be able to pick up cars and huge canisters."
The Sanzaru team underwent intense research when drafting potential heroes for the game. Even in forming a set roster, coming up with an ideal, diverse medley of heroes from Marvel's vast catalog proved to be a challenge. "Just between us [and Oculus], we created a list of a hundred characters that we wanted to be in the game," said Woodley. The game will launch with twelve initially, with updates over the game's lifespan. "A lot of the new movies have reinspired us about the content of the comics. I've been reading tons of comic books. Looking at lore, looking at forums. Referencing the movies in terms of how they represented the characters, [looking at] what they can do in comics and movies, and how it can translate into a VR experience."
Marvel Powers United VR, due for release in 2018, is part of an experimental time for VR. The Oculus Rift launched eighteen months ago, which at once feels so long ago, but also just like yesterday. The Rift's changed a lot since then too; Oculus has formed many partnerships with prolific developers, from Ready at Dawn to Sanzaru Games. They launched their Touch controllers just last December.
Right now we're in the "Summer of Rift," as Jason Rubin, Vice President of Content at Oculus, told a room of reporters yesterday. It's an era for Oculus that's dovetailed by the Rift's new "all-in-one" bundle, which includes its new-ish controllers, and is bookended by game releases like Lone Echo and Echo Arena, both releasing July 20.
Oculus is moving past its initial growing pains at this point, and ushering into a more comfortable age. With a price cut and now over 500 Touch-compatible games in the Oculus Store, the headset is finally moving forward at a comfortable place. "We never thought [the Rift] was going to be instant success," said Rubin. He emphasized the importance of this time in the Rift ecosystem; a time where developers like Sanzaru are experimenting with VR, and taking the medium to new heights.
In the meantime, just being able to Hulk Smash seemingly IRL feels like a good step forward in the world of virtual reality.