According to the tech mavens, it’s been the “year of VR” for several years now. But the launch of Sony’s PSVR this month — a black-and-silver headset that looks like a prototype prop for a Stormtrooper —, the medium has finally and fully emerged into the world. Its launch line-up allows you to be bodily transported into the seat of an Aston Martin Vanquish in DriveClub, a starfighter in Eve: Valkyrie or to the ledge of the GCPD rooftop looking over Gotham City in Arkham VR. The latter in particular has emerged as a glorious showcase for what VR can — and, it must be noted, cannot — do well.
You might imagine that you’ll by fluttering through the night sky, swooping over traffic before taking out one of the Joker’s goons with a sharp kick to the chest in Arkham VR. Not so. As some of the other PSVR launch titles demonstrate, motion sickness is a major pitfall in virtual reality. To avoid the problem, the Arkham VR team has chosen to focus more fully on Batman’s sleuthing skills. You move through a number of scenes (including a brief but welcome sojourn to Wayne Manor and its cavernous basement), searching for clues and reconstructing crimes, which you’re then able to wind back and forth in real time, crouching and peering to get a better look as you figure out precisely what happened.
In other words, there’s a slower pace to the drama. In one scene you find yourself leaning over a cadaver in an autopsy room, searching the body for pieces of embedded shrapnel which you must gather and piece back together to reconstruct a bomb. If this all sounds a little pedestrian in text, it is magical in VR. The sense of being present in Gotham is extraordinary: you imagine feeling every cobblestone underfoot, hearing the hum of traffic at the end of the alleyway, seeing the grime and depravation up close. While a crime boss swings upside down from a rope in front of you, spitting with anger, you can lean in to look at the lines on his brow and the hate in his eyes. You may have watched a dozen Batman films and read a thousand Batman comics, but you have never visited Gotham before. Not like this.
Rocksteady, the game’s London-based developer, is largely to thank for this. But the hardware does its part too. While Sony’s PSVR is, compared to the Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive the most underpowered of the virtual reality set, it has numerous benefits over its rivals. There’s the price, which undercuts the PC-based systems by hundreds of pounds, especially when you factor in the cost of buying a computer with the necessary processing oomph. And there’s the form factor. The PSVR enjoys by far the best product design; it’s comfortable on the head, places no pressure on the neck and can accommodate glasses with ease and style. You can spend hours in Gotham without fatigue or headache.
Not that there are hours of game to play here. Just as Arkham VR is warming up, it ends abruptly (notably, the game’s price tag reflects its brevity). This is an issue with almost all of the PSVR’s launch titles. There’s a sense that they are glorious tech demos for much larger, longer games, though perhaps that’s inevitable with the first, trembling releases in a brand new medium. Developers are still figuring out the rules and shape of this brave new world but Arkham VR will, at very least, leave you wanting more.