Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
I can usually only manage about an hour or so of VR at a time. Any more, and either the world feels a little uncomfortable and off when I remove the headset, with a slight lingering headache, or else I run the risk of giving myself motion sickness. Normally, I just trust my internal clock to let me know when it’s time to hang up the Move controllers; lately, however, whenever I fire up the PlayStation VR, I set an alarm on my phone and place it as close by as possible at maximum volume to jar me out of the system. The reason is simple: I’ve been playing Marvel’s Iron Man VR, and holy hell, is it a lot of fun to be the metallic superhero.
As long as there have been flight-simulator games, there’s been the opportunity to experience the vicarious thrill of flying through the air, but there hasn’t been a mass-marketed opportunity to blast through the skies as a superhero prior to this that comes close to the intuitively simple and exhilarating rush that happens when you don the Iron Man suit and launch yourself into the air. The first time the face plate was superimposed over my field of vision and I fired up the thrusters, slowly rising above the California coastline, I felt a giddy, even childlike glee; here was a youthful fantasy coming true, albeit from the confines of my apartment. But that’s the weird promise of VR: If you’re willing to give yourself over to the illusion, it can be awfully immersive—especially when you’re soaring hundreds or even thousands of feet above the ground, where the digitally rendered landscape becomes remote enough to look downright plausible.
What makes Iron Man rise above (no pun intended, but hey, if the Mark-III boot fits) other attempts to incorporate flight into their gameplay is in the ease of controls and effectiveness of the steering. You fly the same way Tony Stark does: putting your arms at your sides and aiming palms at the ground, while pulling the triggers to fire up the system and push into the air. Want to go forward? Simply tilt your hands down so that your palm thrusters are firing behind instead of beneath you. It’s that easy, and that intuitive—adapting the mechanics from the way we’ve all seen Iron Man fly over the years might seem like an obvious decision, but never underestimate the way VR game design will too often opt for the more “logical” methods of operating a character, no matter how it flies in the face of the source material. Here, they clearly started with the question, “What would it be like to step into the actual suit?” and worked backward from there.
The same holds true for the weapons. Not only do you get the same targeting systems and displays we’ve seen whenever an MCU film gives you those brief shots from Tony’s point of view within the suit—the augmented reality imagery of target lock and stats surrounding and enhancing your sight lines—but the technique is almost stupidly appealing. Raise your palm in front of you to take aim at a flying drone threatening to attack and use your thumb to fire your repulsors. If you want to do that super-cool thing where Tony locks on to up to half a dozen enemies at once, and then launches his mini-missiles to blow them all up simultaneously, turn down that palm and aim your wrist instead. That’s all there is to it. You’ve got a few other moves—you can punch, but it never feels terribly practical, and there’s an awesome ground-smash maneuver—but in general, you’re firing from mid-range at your targets.
All of which is great. It is extremely fun to be Iron Man. I have dutifully avoided discussing everything else about the game—the paint-by-numbers plot (your “mystery” antagonist is obvious from very early on), the repetitive action (hope you like shooting anonymous, interchangeable drones, because that’s pretty much all you’re gonna face), the copious amounts of waiting around you do in between sequences (I thought bringing everything to a standstill to deliver exposition went out of style right around the first season of Game Of Thrones?). Honestly, there’s not that much to it. Sure, Tony’s home is full of fun little Easter eggs and opportunities for the usual goofing around in VR (I’ve made multiple protein shakes), which is nice; but overall, as a lot of reviews have noted, there’s not much to recommend the game outside of the thrill of being Iron Man. But you know what? Sometimes, that’s enough. I’m over halfway through it at present, and the sheer pleasure of flying around and firing repulsors hasn’t even remotely begun to fade. Props to the game for its length—none of that movie-length VR adventure nonsense here, I’ve played for about five hours to get past the midpoint—because I would like to keep soaring through the air and making hoary quips, please. To quote the man himself, it’s good to be king.