If you were coming into Sony’s recent Iron Man VR game expecting something on the level of what it and Insomniac did with Marvel’s Spider-Man, you’re probably going to be disappointed with its by-the-numbers tale. But while its story itself doesn’t particularly soar as high as the Iron Avenger, the game itself manages to use the comics to do some pretty neat things with what VR gaming is currently able to do.
Developed by Camouflaj—which already brought another superhero to virtual reality in the form of Batman: Arkham VR—for Sony’s PSVR headset, Iron Man VR presents a new take on Tony Stark. This game is entirely separate from either his comics history or the long shadow cast by the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Robert Downey Jr., but the story told will definitely feel a bit more familiar to moviegoers even if it is meant to be a different take. Set relatively early on in Stark’s (played by Josh Keaton, better known for voicing Peter Parker in the excellent Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon) career as Iron Man, Iron Man VR sees Tony give up his war profiteering ways, officially shuttering Stark Industries’ weapons development programs and dedicating himself to shutting down what’s left now that he has formally declared himself “Iron Man.”
Naturally, Tony has some skeletons in his closest that come shambling back out pretty sharply after this, or rather, ghosts from his past—most literally in the form of the villain Ghost (Chantelle Barry). She shows up using upgraded remnants of Stark Industries’ shuttered military drone program to wreak havoc across the world and target Tony for all the damage his previous warmongering business did.
You spend the next eight or so hours flying around the world as Iron Man, chasing Ghost and trying to figure out who she really is and why she hates Tony so much, with brief help from Pepper Potts (voice-acting legend and Commander Shepard of our hearts, Jennifer Hale) and an always disgruntled Nick Fury (Ike Amadi). But you’ll primarily hunt Ghost with the help of two of Tony’s A.I. assistants, Friday and the new-to-the-game Gunsmith (Leila Birch and Josh Keaton, respectively). Tony built Gunsmith as a digital clone of himself to help create new weapon designs for Stark Industries, and the Actual Tony ceremoniously shuts it down at the start of the game, rudely dumping this sentient being in a box and shoving it away in a drawer. But that’s Tony Stark for you.
It’s... fine? It’s fine. Iron Man VR’s story is basic and predictable, familiar enough with the trappings of the MCU and the Iron Man movies while being just distanced enough that it really does feel like a clunkier rendition of ideas we’ve seen executed much better before. This is especially true when it comes to Ghost, given that this is loosely based on the Ava Starr version we saw Hannah John-Kamen play in Ant-Man and the Wasp—who was in turn based on the male comic character who was a C-tier Iron Man villain—but brings nothing new here.
Gunsmith is pretty much the only “new” thing Iron Man VR brings to the table (although digital clones of Tony aren’t exactly new as a concept in the comics, either!), and even then, it’s predictably used. Spoilers: The A.I. asshole version of Tony created specifically to design weapons for him, who is very miffed at the idea of his boss shutting it down against its will and stopping making weapons altogether, has something to do with the mysterious return of these weapons in a personal vendetta against Tony. Shocking, I know.
As predictable as its narrative is, Iron Man VR itself is pretty fun to play, even if it outlasts its welcome by the time you’re wrapping up. As cliché as it is to say it, VR is the perfect window into actually getting a gaming experience that makes you feel like you’re stepping into one of Tony’s many, many Iron Man suits. Even if it is frustratingly split between rote moments where he wanders around his home and workspace between missions where you do all the typical sort of VR interactions (look, press this button, open this drawer, clumsily pick up this glass, isn’t this exciting because you’re using your actual haaaaands?), the moments when you do take to the skies to blast Ghost’s enhanced Stark drones are—pardon the pun—a blast, giving you freeform control to fly around and repulsor beam your way through fun, if likewise unvaried, shooting galleries.
But for all the middling sameness that pervades much of Iron Man VR beyond that initial thrill of pew-pewing with your hands—and it doing something instead of you just looking like a twerp—the smartest thing the game does is uses comics fiction to manipulate what we know are current limitations about VR hardware and VR gaming in general. Case in point are its three intangible characters: Ghost, Friday, and the Gunsmith.
This trio quickly becomes Tony’s main foil (Pepper gets hospitalized early on after an attack on Tony’s private jet, but you still hear from her pretty regularly), and it makes sense: manipulating things with your hands and looking around? That’s still magical-feeling no matter how many hours you’ve sunk into a headset. Physically getting around in virtual reality is still a pretty miserable task. In Iron Man VR’s case, when you’re not in flight, picking a spot in an environment you want to move to, clicking, and “teleporting” to it as the screen briefly fades to black to stop you from feeling queasy is just one example. But all three of these characters deftly help make that feel a little less clunky just by the inherent nature of the way they work.
Ghost’s powerset as fading in and out of tangibility makes for some genuinely good scare moments that would feel hokey in a normal video game, but are made more effective when you’re trapped inside Tony’s virtual helmet, and her ability to virtually hop around whatever environment you’re viewing her in actively encourages you to likewise examine your perspective of that space, looking all around you to keep an eye on her. It’s likewise for both the Gunsmith and Friday—their nature as holographic beings means they too naturally flit in and out of existence, passing through solid objects, teleporting across spaces.
The scenes in which they dump plot on you as you prepare to suit up for the next mission are rendered infinitely less clunky than they would be if it was simply Pepper or Fury or anyone else having to be animated as physically walking around. They compensate for the fact that you, as the player, are actually like them in that you can pop about at the press of a button. It keeps things dynamic but is a surprisingly deft and sensible way of using the source material to cover up what is currently a “flaw” inherent to the medium. It’s a small thing, but a cool thing nonetheless.
Consumer VR has come a long way in recent years, and from things like Vader Immortal and Half-Life Alyx, we’re starting to see just want developers can really do now that a general basis of tech and game design in the field has been established. Iron Man VR as a comic book adventure itself might not be the most engrossing narrative, but the way it takes Tony Stark’s world and bends it around some of those VR game mechanics feels perfect for the character. He might get a little bored of it at times, but Mr. Stark himself would be pretty bemused at the ingenuity or working within the limitations of technology.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our Instagram @io9dotcom.