I think I finally know what it's like to be Iron Man. I was sweating profusely as I pulled off my PlayStation VR following an extended session with Iron Man VR last night, my stomach queasy and my hair stuck to my forehead. I imagine it's how Tony Stark must feel after spending hours baking in his big metal suit, whether or not it has air-conditioning.
Needless to say, Iron Man VR is not an easy game to stand and play for a long period of time. It's an unexpectedly dense experience; one that's filled with lengthy missions, complex controls, and complicated interactions. I had to take frequent breaks lest I become faint from exhaustion while crammed in the heavy PSVR helmet.
The flipside of all this is that Iron Man VR is cool. Really cool. It works hard to convey what it's like to be both Iron Man and Tony Stark, with surprisingly excellent results. Initially expecting a somewhat simplistic VR shoot 'em up, I was taken aback by how sophisticated it could be—sometimes to its detriment, often to its benefit. Marvel fans should take note, because it does a really amazing job of putting you in the metal boots of the eponymous hero.
Like Half-Life: Alyx earlier this year, Iron Man VR leans hard into what I would call the Total VR Experience, striving to replicate every little detail of its environment as faithfully as possible. It not only has familiar scenes like the suit flying on to Tony Stark as he tumbles through the atmosphere—a clear nod to the original Avengers film—but dumb little moments like donning Stark's trademark sunglasses. It might actually be a little too ambitious for its own good, being the diametric opposite of the relatively simple experiences that have had the most success in VR (see: Beat Saber), but I can't fault its ambition. If you want a true VR showpiece and you don't have $2000 for a high-end gaming PC and a headset, Iron Man VR is tough to beat.
At its core is a complicated but nevertheless easy-to-grasp flight model. In the films, Iron Man rises and falls using the boosters in his hands, which is replicated in Iron Man VR by miming the motion using PlayStation Move controllers. Double-tapping will send you boosting in one direction or the other, with subtle wrist movements being used to differentiate between smart missiles and repulsor shots. It all combines to create the illusion that you really are Iron Man, down to how the outline of the mask lights up as the suit activates.
The main action is bracketed with various moments designed to give the world texture and further immerse you in the role of Iron Man. The hub area between missions is a faithfully recreated vision of Stark's garage, filled with little references to the comics (I'm pretty sure I spotted Ultron, the main villain of Avengers: Age of Ultron, sitting in the corner). The suit can be customized via an interactive 3D hologram, itself a nod to the way Stark is constantly squashing, pulling, and flinging holograms in the movies. Like all VR games it can be fairly clumsy as your hand clips through solid objects and twists at unnatural angles, but it also has sequences that genuinely work, like a spooky section in a darkened Stark Tower in which ghosts flit at the corner of your vision and doors slam shut without you intending them to.
The impression I get is that the team behind Iron Man VR is intimately familiar with what works and doesn't work with virtual reality, and have designed the setpieces and interactions accordingly. When on the ground, it will use the point-and-click teleport method in order to move around the environment, but in a way that's sparing and feels relatively natural. Often, it will have you stand still while other characters move around you, talking and interacting with the environment in a way that lends a natural sense of energy to what might otherwise have been static conversations. Other times, it will have holograms pop up on all sides, overwhelming you with audio and visual feedback in a way that's difficult to replicate in a traditional story.
The overall effect is pretty neat, and it's buoyed by a surprisingly introspective story about Tony Stark's history as a weapons manufacturer—an element of his past that the movies only barely reckoned with. If there's an element of Iron Man VR that doesn't work, it's the rather boring drones who comprise the bulk of the game's enemies. The designers seem to be aware of this, as Iron Man VR constantly shakes things up with little setpieces where you're disconnecting bombs or knocking aside flying shrapnel, but the fact remains that shooting at faceless robots can get a little boring after a while. Beyond that, the quality of the environments can vary wildly, with highly detailed interiors clashing with skyscrapers that wouldn't be out of place in Superman 64.
I think the hardest part of playing Iron Man VR, impressive as it was, was the stifling nature of donning the PSVR for a long period of time. That's not the fault of the designers necessarily, but it does beg the question of just how far you want to go in creating this extremely dense interactive experience, with multi-part missions that can take more than 30 minutes to complete. Iron Man VR feels like an amazing amusement park ride that just keeps going, leaving you feeling dazed and a little ill when it finally comes to an end.
Nevertheless, it's also a sign of growing maturity for VR. Where VR games mainly consisted of simplistic tech demos back in 2016, Iron Man VR is as sophisticated as any traditional release, with complex but natural interactions that show off the strengths of the platform. At its best, Iron Man VR conveys a soaring sense of freedom and joy while zooming through its multi-level obstacle courses, wholly in control of Tony Stark's iconic red and gold suit. If this is indeed a sign of things to come, then the promised VR future may be more exciting than I initially supposed.