'Iron Man VR' has moments of brilliance, but shows the limits of PSVR

When it all comes together, it's a sensation.

PlayStation, YouTube

Iron Man should be the best hero to transition from comics to VR. His own interactions with his suit touch on augmented reality controls, steering a powerful avatar in sync with Stark’s movements. So, just like me, with a pair of digital wands with colorful balls on the end.

Iron Man VR is also PlayStation VR’s biggest exclusive release for a while. Sony prepped an Iron Man VR bundle that includes all the PSVR hardware and a pair of Move controllers (still in short supply in stores) -- it seems to think it’s already going to be a hit. But this isn’t Half Life: Alyx, and it’s not Marvel’s Spider-Man either.

Combining Marvel intellectual property with virtual reality is a tall order, but when you first blast off and fly across land and sea, it’s one hell of a feeling. At the start of the game, you’re guided through the suit’s abilities with some holographic flying lessons around Tony Stark’s multimillion-dollar estate. You fly just like Iron Man does, pointing your hands down to blast up, forward, back or sideways. Arch your hand, and your repulsor rays are immediately ready, just a trigger squeeze away.

After some practice, it all starts to come together beautifully. You fly one-handed, blasting drones with the other, you dash up to a robot and punch it away, launching high into the air again to avoid being fired on. It all sounded gimmicky, yes, but there are moments where the control system sings.

To help you see where you’re going, the Move controller buttons (it doesn’t work with the DualShock 4) rotate your perspective, making it easier to track enemies and line up your attacks. It feels like you’re Iron Man and it feels good.

For a while.

Iron Man VR made me feel queasy if I played for longer than 20 minutes. The multi-axis movement is more aggressive than most virtual reality titles, so that’s probably the cause. I had to take regular breaks to pace myself. The last time this has happened to me was during the now-notorious Resident Evil 7 demo at E3 a few years ago -- an issue Capcom managed to fix for the retail game. Now, you might have a stronger constitution, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

While you can custom load Tony with weapons, you’ll end up relying on load-outs that you’re most competent with — the repulsor beams and heat-seeking missiles — and largely avoid melee attacks. These never quite fit in with Iron Man VR, whether that’s because he’s got so many long to mid-range attacks, or because it’s disorientating and nausea-inducing to fly around punching flying robots in VR.

The campaign story beats will sound familiar to anyone who’s watched a couple of the movies or followed the comics. Stark is getting out of the weapons business, and focusing on his bona fide superhero-ing.

Ghosts from his past (the villain-of-the-week is literally called Ghost) are here to remind him that it isn’t always easy to move on. The unimaginative antagonist is a good example at how obvious and flat the campaign story is. Most of the beats are predictable, and there are far too many static exposition monologues. (Maybe they could have been layered over more relaxed flying sections?)

Iron Man VR
PlayStation, YouTube

Worse still, it’s not as if Ghost even matters --  you’ll be fighting drones and robots for most (pretty much 90 percent) of the game. Forget the idea of going toe-to-toe with Marvel villains like in Marvel’s Spider-Man. On top of that, there are also only a handful of drone models, and none of them are particularly elaborate looking, either. It’s where the game begins to fall short.

The same can be said for several of the levels. Whether it’s beige canyons and cityscapes that look like they were made for a PS2 game, barring the introductory plane fight and Tony’s own coastal mansion, most environments are pretty dull to look at and often just as dull to fly around. It’s waves of drones, augmented-reality lever-pulling, chase scene and repeat. Don’t be tricked by the visual fidelity of early screenshots and trailers. It’s all noticeably rougher inside the PlayStation VR headset.

The antagonist, Ghost, is a good example of how obvious and flat the campaign story is. Most of the beats are predictable, and there are far too many static exposition monologues. Maybe they could have been layered over more relaxed flying sections? I think they spoil who’s actually pulling the strings in one of the first loading screen text blurbs.

This slow plod is exacerbated by load times and those transition screens, and it’s particularly jarring in PSVR, which often leaves you staring at an entirely blank canvas for over ten seconds, trapped. And this is in addition to separate load screens. It’s another sign that the PSVR, launched back in 2016, is reaching its limits. Or that the PS4 is just old. (It is.)

The Move controllers also don’t offer the degree of tracking you might get from other, newer, VR setups, and the whole Iron Man VR experience demands standing up to play for most of it. It’s hard to fly with your arms shot out at your sides when you’re sat on the couch. You try it.

These frustrations stack on top of each other. Some of the weapon gestures are really unwieldy once you’re trying to combine them with flying.

Face your palm outwards to attack with low-power, high-speed beams, or you can launch a barrage of missiles by tilting your wrist down. But aiming outstretched can sometimes get painful. Flitting between the two, which the game pushes you toward, and, as I’ve already mentioned, I avoided using the melee punch attacks wherever possible. Combined, these all wrench you out of the Iron Man dream, and trap you in an occasionally sloppy VR shooter.

Outside of the shooting, you control Tony Stark without the suit, teleporting around his mansion and garage to fit out your suit for the next fight / hear more about the bad guys. His house is filled with easter eggs and cute touches. There are books and magazines to browse and even an arcade game to play. Inside your VR game.

Chasing a plane as it crashes turned out to be one of the more thrilling early set-pieces.

I was surprised that the more constrained, on-the-rails parts were some of my favorite moments, better designed around the controls and the VR format. There were fewer dizzying turns and flight paths, and more frenzied attacks and considered movements. Despite these control criticisms, I still admire the ambition of Iron Man VR. At times, it’s incredibly impressive -- sensational even --  I just wish it gave me more to do with all this freedom.

I haven’t quite finished the game, but I already think several chunks of this twelve-chapter game could have been shrunk or cut without much lost. I wish the team had limited themselves to a shorter game (Iron Man VR should last you eight hours or so). Maybe it should have been somewhere between what we got and, say, the 90-minute Batman Arkham VR, which is a little too short.

Iron Man VR is longer, yes, but unfortunately, it won’t hold your interest long enough to warrant investing in a PSVR headset and a pair of Move controllers.