PUBLISHER: Sony Interactive Entertainment
REVIEWED ON: PlayStation 4 (Slim) with PSVR from a copy purchased by the author.
Iron Man is a character that’s been around for over a half a century, but despite being a founding Avenger, it wasn’t until the release of 2008’s Marvel’s Iron Man that the character graduated to the A-list. Suddenly, a character that was wildly unknown to the public was the figure head for one of the largest cinematic endeavors in film history, and the helmet worn by Tony Stark could be found on everything from t-shirts to backpacks and lunchboxes. Given Iron Man’s mainstream popularity, it has been surprising that this hasn’t translated to a video game series worthy of his newfound fame. The Armored Avenger has appeared as a part of an ensemble cast, and even headlined a few titles, but until this year the best game with the word “Iron Man” in the marquis has been a Game Boy Advance exclusive released all the way back in 2002.
Last year it was revealed that Iron Man would once again headline his own game, this time a virtual reality title exclusive to the PlayStation VR platform from developer Camouflaj. Though the platform in which it’s on keeps it from reaching the same quality bar of another Sony exclusive, Marvel’s Spider-Man, Marvel’s Iron Man VR manages to capture the feeling of stepping into the iron boots of Tony Stark like no game before it and is truly a landmark superhero game that simply cannot be missed.
As it was with Marvel’s Spider-Man before it, Marvel’s Iron Man VR forgoes an origin story for the character and opens with Tony Stark already having given up his life as a weapons manufacturer, instead using his vast resources to change the world both with his company and his armor clad alter ego.When specters of his past begin to catch up with him in the form of a new eerie super villain aptly named Ghost, and the reappearance of an AI program dubbed “Gunsmith”, a digital reminder of a past life, Tony Stark has to project the world and those he holds dear against the weapons he created, all the while trying to battle the inner demons that threaten to drag him back into dangerous habits.
The story penned for Marvel’s Iron Man VR is a classic Iron Man tale, forcing Tony Stark to confront his past sins while simultaneously combating his impulsive personality, and it’s one that’s told very well. Much of this has to do with the performance of actor Josh Keaton, playing the dual role of Tony Stark/Iron Man and the “Gunsmith” AI. As Tony, Keaton foregoes trying to do an impression of Robert Downey Jr. – though he does bring plenty of charm and charisma to the role – and takes more inspiration from the no nonsense Tony seen in the second half of Marvel’s Iron Man who’s laser focused on his mission of cleaning up his messes. It’s frankly refreshing to see the character portrayed this way, and it helps to give Marvel’s Iron Man VR’s star a distinct identity. Keaton is allocated a decent amount of screen time to dive into the darker side of Tony’s personality with “Gunsmith”, the devil on his shoulder to the more analytical angel AI “Friday” played by Leila Birch.
What makes all of this work so well is the power of the VR platform. There are breaks in the action while cut sequences play out, but the audience is always an active participant as the player is Tony. When you’re having a one-on-one meeting with Nick Fury, you’re staring him square in the eye, and by simply turning your head to the left, you’ll catch a worried glimpse on the face of Pepper Potts when you’re planning to do something she’s unsure about. More so a villain with a similar powered suit as Tony, the character of Ghost is a perfect fit for the perspective from the game is told, with the character popping up unexpectedly in your hud, or sending a chill down your spine knowing that she’s around somewhere but you just can’t see her. As Ghost had her life turned upside by Stark weapons, she’s also a very relatable antagonist despite doing some horrific acts through the course of the game.
To describe the act of playing Marvel’s Iron Man VR is to simply point to the portion of Marvel’s Iron Man where Tony blasts off with the newly completed Mark-II armor for the first time. Placing the PlayStation Move controllers by your side and pulling the triggers sends you rocketing upwards, more than likely with a massive smile on your face. Doubling as Iron Man’s hands, you steer using a combination of moving your “hands” and head to adjust Iron Man’s direction. Like Tony himself, don’t expect to be brilliant at flying right away, but with an hour or two under your belt, you’ll slowly begin to feel like you are Iron Man. For those with not quite as much space, there are helpful tools that allow for finer steering, like the ability to shift your perspective slightly to the right or left by hitting buttons on either Move controller. You can adjust the degree of the angle in the options menu to make things feel just right, and there’s also a helpful maneuver where you can turn one-hundred-and-eighty degrees by hitting the two turn buttons at the same time. This is especially helpful when battling Ghost’s drone army.
Just like flight, combat controls are similarly mapped to motion gestures. Raising your hand upright allows you to fire Iron Man’s trademark repulsor, while tilting your wrist downwards grants access to a number of secondary weapons like a shotgun-esque blast, cluster bombs and smart missiles that allow you to target multiple enemies. Holding a button on either controller charges a rocket punch for either close quarters combat against flying enemies or to send you crashing down on earth, opening ground-based enemies to bonus attacks. Eventually you’ll also be able to unleash a devastating Unibeam blast which charges as you fight enemies that’s best spent in times of crisis. There’s a lot of tools at your disposal, and when you combine flying and fighting at the same time, it can feel like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. The way Camouflaj mapped the functions to the Move controllers is highly intuitive, and this also translates into how new wrinkles to the formula are rolled out across the eight or so hour campaign.
The normal stage enemies are few in number in Marvel’s Iron Man VR, made up of about six or so flying drone enemies and a tank, but each serve a purpose in getting you comfortable with your move set: smaller enemies can be felled fairly easily with your repulsor; charging enemies are perfect to test your punches on while faster enemies that shield themselves teach you to boost around the arena quickly. Each threat is introduced at a terrific pace, allowing you to build up your skills accordingly such that when each type is thrown at you together, you never feel overwhelmed. Despite the low number of enemies, battles rarely feel stale or routine as there’s always some new objective thrown at you like having to protect massive turrets, magnetizing objects that need to be escorted which eliminate a hand for flight and tracing a power line to a node you have to destroy to name a few.
Marvel’s Iron Man VR only boasts two villains from the comics: Ghost and Living Laser. Living Laser doesn’t stick around as long as Ghost does but introduces some thrilling flight stages where you have to thread the needle through some dangerous laser grids. Ghost on the other hand will test your skills in both flight and combat, forcing you to exercise every skill in your repertoire as you chase her down while avoiding deadly scythes like something out of Konami’s Castlevania. To speak of one of the best Ghost encounters would spoil something that occurs deep in the game that you’ll want to experience for yourself.
Between bouts of flying and fighting, you’re given the opportunity to explore Tony’s palatial Malibu estate. Here movement is reduced to teleporting around to various stations like most VR experiences, including Batman: Arkham VR, but it’s still nonetheless highly enjoyable. You can distract yourself trying to get a high score in an arcade basketball game or perform virtual pull ups and curls, but the reason you’ll want to put in the effort to explore Tony’s abode is because it’s packed full of Easter Eggs for those who look for them, including hints at a connection to Insomniac’s Marvel’s Spider-Man. These can be found through a tablet that holds informative headlines and a podcast hosted by Tony’s cousin, Morgan, that you’ll want to check in on frequently.
There’s a lot to do in Marvel’s Iron Man VR, far more than what’s presented in a lot of VR games, especially those exclusive to the PlayStation VR platform. The story will take you all over the world, from Tony’s home to China and the skies above a S.H.I.E.L.D helicarrier just to name a few. Completing missions swiftly while taking as little damage as possible rewards you with points, five in a total for a mission, that’s the currency you’ll use to upgrade your armor. This gives you plenty of incentive to replay missions or take on optional races and combat challenges. You can take some comfort in knowing that there’s ample chances to earn the necessary points you need to build out your armor, so don’t feel pressured to beat yourself up trying to get five-star scores right away You may very well end up using one load out for the entire game, but how one player chooses to build their armor can easily be vastly different from another, so the variety of upgrades is quite welcome.
When Marvel’s Iron Man VR works, the world around you disappears, but something that frankly is holding this title back from sheer excellence is the PlayStation VR platform. Camouflaj did the best they possibly could with the tools they were given, and most of the time things work ideally, but there are times when they don’t. You’re meant to play Marvel’s Iron Man VR with the ability to move in full three-hundred-and-sixty degrees of range – there’s even an on-screen warning if you get wrapped in your cable – but when the Move controls disappear from the view of the tracking camera, Iron Man’s arm morphs into a Mr. Fantastic noodle arm that completely deflates the immersion on top of throwing off your aim. There’s also the Shanghai, China stage that features buildings that wouldn’t be out of place on a console game from a few generations ago that comes complete with an Arkahm like lore reason as to why the streets are empty. Marvel’s Iron Man VR also suffers from some lengthy load times that at times can make trying bonus missions or replaying story missions a chore. If you’re physical capable, Marvel’s Iron Man VR is best experienced standing – though you can play through the game sitting also – and the nicest thing that can be said about the loading screens is that they give you an opportunity to rest your feet.
Issues with the tech that runs it aside, Marvel’s Iron Man VR is another excellent chapter in what could very well be a developing Marvel video game universe that does for the character of Iron Man what Insomniac’s title did for Spider-Man. VR immerses you into the world of Iron Man like no other game has done before and is an absolute perfect fit for the character, especially when combined with expertly crafted mechanics and a story that honors the legacy of one of Marvel’s biggest heroes. Given the state of the world, it’s understandable that many will not be able to afford to buy a PSVR package to play Marvel’s Iron Man VR, but if you have the means to play this title, don’t miss out on what can easily be considered one of the best comic book games ever made. With PlayStation 5’s release creeping up, here’s hoping that a next-generation VR suite will allow Camouflaj to envision an even better title if they’re given the opportunity.
Marvel’s Iron Man VR is available now for PlayStation 4 (PlayStation VR required).