The latest Marvel superhero exclusive for the PlayStation 4 is a VR game where you are Iron Man.
It’s easy to argue that Sony’s success this generation hasn’t been because of what they’ve done but because of what they haven’t done. Avoiding any mistakes, while standing back and letting Microsoft make plenty, has been the secret of the PlayStation 4’s success. On the more proactive side of the equation though Sony’s first party games have been especially good this generation. And yet their most laudable achievement has been to push VR, something which is probably much less profitable, and far less certain to have long-term benefits, than anything else they do.
PlayStation VR has been around for almost four years now and while Sony has made relatively few games themselves, they have ensured a steady flow of indie titles for the headset. But now, as we wait to see what their next gen VR plans might be, they’ve gone to the unexpected length of using what is one of the biggest licences in the entertainment industry on a game that the majority of fans will probably never get the chance to play.
The nature of Sony’s relationship with Marvel has never been made clear and while this has the same branding as Marvel’s Spider-Man it doesn’t seem to be set in the same universe. Oscorp is referenced a couple of times, and there are name drops for things like Hulk and the Savage Land, but this is solely an Iron Man game, heavily inspired by, but not canon with, the movies. And despite a few technical issues it’s really very good.
Iron Man has appeared in a few solo games over the years, but none of note, as until the movies he was a second-tier hero and really just part of the furniture when it came to the traditional Avengers roster. Until now, the best representation of movie Iron Man has been the flying mech suits in Anthem, which would’ve been a great basis for a third person game. But the minute you hear this is a VR title it’s obvious what the inspiration was: the parts of the movies where you see Tony Stark talking away in the Iron Man helmet, with all the holographic displays around him.
The game’s control system demands you use two PlayStation Move controllers – there’s no option for the DualShock at all – which immediately had us worried, given their lack of precision. But they work a lot better than we expected and the controls are kind of genius, in that the developers have worked back from how Iron Man flies in the films and made it so that you move by holding the controllers down by your side and jet yourself around simply by titling your wrist and directing yourself with the thruster coming out of the palm of each hand.
Although it does mean you have to stand up all the time, this allows for some surprising subtle movements, regardless of whether you’re using free look or not, and means that to use your weapons all you need to do is raise your hands and aim. You’ve got repulsor blasts in your hands, a unibeam in your chest, and a variety of unlockable secondary weapons on your wrist, that range from an armour-piercing missile to what is essentially a shotgun.
Despite all the 3D movement, which is much more complex than most normal games, we didn’t have a second’s problem with nausea. And while the action stages are basically just high-tech shooting galleries the freedom of movement and inherent coolness of being Iron Man never gets old, even when the game starts reusing level maps and enemy encounters to pad out its six to eight hour running time.
But this isn’t just a straight shooter and a lot of effort is made to show Tony Stark outside of the suit, interacting with Pepper and two holographic AIs – who act as a little devil and angel sitting on your shoulders, personifying the two extremes of Tony’s personality. There are quite a few sequences where you’re not fighting at all but just talking or solving simple puzzles and saving people. So there’s a good attempt to show Iron Man as an actual superhero and not just a video game shoot ‘em-up character.
The dialogue for all this goes overboard with the Marvel style quips, with almost every sentence ending with an attempt at a joke. The hit rate is very low but it’s never as obnoxious as it could’ve been and there are a few good gags in there (the one about what to give the man who has everything made us laugh out loud) and the voice actor does a very creditable interpretation of Robert Downey Jr’s performance.
One of the problems with Iron Man as a character though is that he has a laughably poor rogue’s gallery, and that’s one area where this game struggles. Ghost is the main antagonist and while she’s a cross between her comic book self (where the character is male) and her appearance in Ant-Man and The Wasp she spends most of the game just taunting you as a hologram. Another Iron Man villain, who hasn’t been in the movies yet, also shows up but he’s also intangible for a lot of the time and never seems much of a threat.
The bigger issue though is that the only other things you ever fight are mindless drones, which not only don’t talk but are just represented as boring geometrical shapes. On a visual level they’re bizarrely unimaginative enemies to fight and we have no idea why they’re like that, other than maybe the developer wanted to keep the polygon count down and the frame rate up.
We’re going to guess that is the reason, as the graphics suddenly get a lot better during the slower sequences, when the game doesn’t have to worry about frame rate, and yet can be distractingly bad in levels where all you do is fight. The map used for Singapore, for example, is especially bad and looks like you’re flying around a bunch of painted cardboard boxes.
Arguably the biggest technical problem though is the load times, which are horrendous. If you thought waiting a minute or more for a game to load was bad when you’re sat in front of your TV it’s a hundred times worse in VR, where even dying and restarting can take a good 20 seconds or so.
Almost all of Iron Man VR’s issues stem from the technical limitations of the PlayStation 4 and its headset. But while the enemy variety is definitely a problem the way the game embraces the Iron Man mythos, and really makes you feel like Tony Stark himself, is at least as good as Spider-Man. Frankly, we’re now far more interested in seeing a next gen sequel to this than we are old web-head.
Marvel’s Iron Man VR review summary
In Short: An impressively ambitious, and consistently enjoyable, VR action game that embraces all aspects of the Iron Man character and is only let down by technical limitations.
Pros: Great use of VR in terms of realising the character, with great attention to detail and an excellent control system. Fun combat and surprisingly good storytelling, even with all the dad jokes.
Cons: The drone enemies are extremely dull to look at and combat encounters do get very repetitious. Appalling load times.
Formats: PlayStation VR
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Camouflaj and Darkwind Media
Release Date: 3rd July 2020
Age Rating: 12
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