‘Iron Man VR’ review: another ace up PlayStation VR’s sleeve of excellent exclusives

A surprisingly ambitious superhero simulator which shows PlayStation VR’s enduring potential

Tony Stark is utterly insufferable in Iron Man VR. You might view this as an authentic reflection of his comic book personality, and fair enough, but there’s only so much brainless banter that I can stomach before I end up disassociated from a protagonist.

Even when a burning 747 is minutes away from crashing into a civilian district, he’s cool as a cucumber, quipping about how his rescue of Pepper means he is acting as her “connecting flight”. No matter about the thousands of people that may die as a result of this set piece, eh Tony? Cut to black and straight into the next chapter, we’ve got a game to play, damn it!

At least in the movies, you get to see Robert Downey Jr. emote and reckon with his persona of bullish bravado, revealing the soft core underneath. This makes it easy to empathise with Tony’s pivotal arc, as he goes from warmongering plutocrat to the cool caring uncle of The Avengers.

Iron Man VR’s narrative pulls on these very threads to try and make you care about the man who has everything, but when you’ve been grafted wholesale into a lavish meatsack with three possible emotions, it feels disjointed due to the ambition of the game’s wider narrative, which is surprisingly serious.

Iron Man VR sets up an admirably accusatory stage to unravel Stark’s narcissistic personality and past wrongdoings, but then ultimately disappoints by letting him get away with all of it, stifling the game’s most interesting plot threads in favour of this man’s… glaring lack of self-awareness and groan-worthy quips. I’m not saying games can’t be funny and serious – Iron Man VR just fails to create balance. The Tony Stark you play as at the start is the very same unbothered man in the post-game.

Iron Man VR
Iron Man VR. Image: Camouflaj / Sony Interactive Entertainment

His consistently aloof tone would work well if the writers were playing it safe, but the story is far from it – it’s really all about a compelling villain who is trying to make Stark reckon with his hawkish past. Ghost seeks justice after Stark Industries weapons were used on both sides of muddy conflicts around the world for profit – she manipulates and commandeers the very drones that have caused countless civilian casualties, turning them on their creator.

It’s shockingly well done, especially in the confines of VR – there are some killer twists and turns, including a few levels that feel more like something from a horror game than a superhero power fantasy – comparisons could be made to the iconic Scarecrow encounters in the Batman Arkham games.

The developers do a great job of fleshing out the rest of the cast and putting Iron Man in exciting combat situations, but even with the probing emotional baggage, the game never really lets Stark feel the consequences of his actions. His emotional range is so limited that it actively hurts the well-written plot. I have no idea why Pepper or any of his AI cronies put up with him – if I was F.R.I.D.A.Y., I’d go rampant.

But in the end, Tony Stark is just the boring bloke behind the mask that his far more interesting friends have to put up with. It’s good fun, but it’s also clearly a missed opportunity to create a memorable take on typecast Tony. Iron Man VR is a proper popcorn thrill ride and one of the best mini-narratives available in PlayStation VR – just don’t expect its most interesting plot threads to actually pay off and you’re golden.

Iron Man VR
Iron Man VR. Image: Camouflaj / Sony Interactive Entertainment

Actually playing as Iron Man though? Bloody hell have they nailed it! The moment where it all fell into place for me was naturally when I was hurtling towards my doom. As the clouds started to clear, parts of Tony’s armour flew at my body, clicking into place against my virtual limbs and creating a satisfying haptic thud in my palms. I was ready to jet off and save the day, my excitement propelled into the stratosphere by the game’s soaring score. Then we cut to a long loading screen. Argh!

When we return, the game’s overlay simulates Iron Man’s boot sequence, revealing the cloudburst through the eye slats in his armour – it’s gorgeous to watch, and as I’m awarded control, I remember my training and push my palms behind me, carefully using each hand as a directional propellor to levitate through the clouds. The momentum is just perfect, and once you get the hang of the double-tap boost, you can carve through the sky with relative ease. To shoot you tap the face buttons, peppering enemies with a crunchy salvo of pain, flicking your wrist to seamlessly swap to auxiliary bombs and missiles.

There’s also Tony’s rocket punch attacks, which propel you towards combat drones for a close-quarters paddling. When it all comes together, it’s bliss, and you truly get to become Iron Man like never before. I was smiling like an absolute fool during many of the game’s opening levels, and later getting a satisfying sweat on figuring out how best to deal with the game’s tricky clusters of enemies. Regardless, when we’re dealing with an ancient set of peripherals, there is also an inevitable pang of disappointment.

Iron Man VR
Iron Man VR. Image: Camouflaj / Sony Interactive Entertainment

Iron Man VR feels dreamy to control, but you can tell that the ancient PlayStation Move controllers (from 2009!) are holding it back somewhat. The main thing missing is an analogue stick, standard for most modern virtual reality kits, which would allow for proper smooth turning.

I’m well-versed in VR, so I switched off the vignettes and made turning “smooth” in the settings, but it still doesn’t feel like you’re directly monitoring your turn speed as you have to click a button to swivel each time – it’s jarring. The aforementioned loading screens are also quite unfortunate – they really take the wind out of some of the game’s most anticipated moments. It’d be great to see this game come to Steam VR so I can feel the full analogue Iron Man freedom on another headset, and spend less time checking my phone in between cutscenes.

However, the fact that I’m so excited to see it on other platforms is testament to what Camoflaj has managed on this hardware. Sony’s PlayStation VR has always been the underdog from a technical perspective, but time after time developers have come along and really innovated within the space, despite the limitations.

Tetris Effect, Astro Bot, Blood and Truth and now Iron Man VR, which stands alongside its exclusive colleagues comfortably due to the way it stands out amidst a market full of passionless prototypes. You can tell the developers spent a lot of time making the world believable, dropping in fun minigames and interactive objects, focusing hard on character models, animations and asset detail to make the experience feel refined.

There were a few maps like Shanghai that felt a little half-baked and lo-fi in comparison to the rest, but in truth, it never really mattered because the core gameplay was so much fun that I didn’t care about the set dressing.

Iron Man VR is out now on PlayStation VR.

Our Verdict

Iron Man VR provides yet another excellent reason to pick up Sony’s HMD, which remains a relatively accessible entry point for Virtual Reality. You’ll be pleased to know that it’s not just a gimmicky two- to three- hour-long experience – it runs for about 10 or so hours, and after that there are a series of endurance, flight and combat challenges to dig into, with research points to earn in old missions to upgrade your suit at the hub. You certainly get more than enough bang for your buck here.

There’s relatively little filler, too – some of the bits where you play as Tony wandering around a lifeless space in his pyjamas do cloy, but for the most part you’ll be flying around in the super suit… and there’s nothing quite like it. I was inspired after a few chapters to switch on the fan in my living room so the air would hit my legs and simulate D.I.Y flight – that’s how awesome Iron Man VR feels! This marks another big win for PlayStation VR even so late in its life cycle, even in spite of the few frustrating setbacks that hold it back from true greatness.

Pros

  • Masterful momentum-based flight lets you embody Iron Man
  • A surprisingly ambitious story in which the side characters and villains outshine the protagonist
  • Long enough to justify its price tag, with plenty of re-playability to boot

Cons

  • Inevitably held back by the lack of an analogue stick & the old school peripherals
  • Tony Stark’s arc feels like a missed opportunity
Advertisement

More Gaming Stories: