I have to admit: I’ve grown very weary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe of late. I loved Marvel films early on, when they were just big, fun superhero action flicks, with maybe a cameo or an easter egg at most. But then the whole cinematic universe kicked off, and with some noteworthy exceptions (Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, and the Tom Holland Spider-Mans) each film just became an exercise in fitting into an increasingly convoluted web of lore, at the expense of the stories and characters supposed to be at the heart of that.
Which brings us to Iron Man VR. Judging from the demo, this will be a welcome return to a pre-Cinematic Universe era of Marvel storytelling, and that’s such a delightful thing. Admittedly, the demo only spans a tutorial mission, but there isn’t so much as a mention of the Avengers, SHIELD, or even Jim Rhodey Rhodes. It still draws heavily from the Marvel films in terms of visual style and characterisation—and Josh Keaton does his best Robert Downey Jr. impression in his role as Tony Stark—but it seems very much like its own self-contained thing, with none of the MCU baggage.
Right from the outset, Iron Man VR leans heavily into the wish fulfilment that it knows it has to be. “You are Iron Man”, it seems to shout, as you load up the game and the helmet’s iconic HUD pops into view. Before long, you’ve been shown the ropes of piloting the suit, and you’re soaring over the waters and cliffs outside Stark’s mansion (and, in a nice touch, flying straight through the opening credits). Games like Eagle Flight have already proven how perfectly flying and virtual reality go together; throw in some superhero antics, and you’ve got the makings of something exhilarating.
Repulsor blast target practice takes that to another extreme. We’ve all come out of the cinema aiming our palms at things and firing off imaginary blasts of energy (well, the people who would be interested in Iron Man VR all have, at any rate). Now you get to do that for real—or at least, as close to real as anyone’s likely to get any time soon.
But it’s not all about the action. Even something as simple as opening the Iron Man suit-containing briefcase, when doing so involves physically mimicking those movements with your own hands, adds to the feeling that you are Tony Stark. So too does a fun little moment where, in the middle of trademark back-and-forth between Tony and an exasperated Pepper Potts, you get to choose what quip you want to throw back. Dialogue choices aren’t exactly novel, but it certainly adds to the whole feeling of being Tony Stark.
After the tutorial, the demo drops you into the first mission of the main game, which sees the Stark Industries plane under attack by a mysterious hacker and a swarm of drones. Naturally, you suit up and jump out of the plan to fend off the attack, but when enemies do start firing back, the Iron Man VR demo starts to show some cracks, particularly when it comes to the controls.
Combat relies a lot on being able to dodge enemy attacks, but the more precise flight techniques needed to do that effectively take a lot of getting used to. In my time with the demo, I never really got the hang of quickly changing trajectory (even after learning that there’s a “stop” button the game doesn’t tell you about). So much of the game seems designed around dodging enemy attacks, but the flight controls make it difficult to actually do that. To complicate things further, turning is snap-based and mapped to buttons—presumably to address motion sickness, but in the heat of action and flying full speed, I found it disorienting more than anything else. I can’t help but wonder if an Eagle Flight-style control scheme where you tilt your head to turn would have worked better.
I also found the auxiliary weapons a bit too fiddly to be worth the effort. In addition to the standard repulsor blasts, the Iron Man VR demo gives you a flying punch and a wrist-mounted missile launcher. Both involve doing the gestures you’d expect—a punching motion to punch; pointing your wrist forward to aim the missiles—but I couldn’t get either to come out consistently enough to be worth trying to use. I assume it’d get easier with practice, but I do wish there were buttons for them, as an alternative input option.
I can only hope that, with the scope of a full game to get better acquainted with the control scheme and nuances of flying an metal superhero suit, Iron Man VR itself will fare better. In every other respect, the demo points feels like the perfect sort of VR superhero wish fulfilment, so it’d be a shame if combat held that back. But even so, it still feels like a welcome return to the simplicity of the pre-MCU era of Marvel movies, and that’s enough to get me on board.