Helping to establish the PlayStation VR as the legitimate contender to bring virtual reality to the masses, Rocksteady Studios’ Batman: Arkham VR has been positioned as a showcase title for the new system since it was unveiled back at E3 2016. The trailer didn’t show us anything at all in terms of actual gameplay footage, but as we’ve seen for ourselves during a demo, the tease left us with a ferocious appetite for more. Mark Hamil’s unmistakable voice as the Joker, in particular, asks us “what happens when we become what we pretend to be, when illusion becomes the new reality?”
That’s exactly what happens in Batman: Arkham VR, as we take on the roll of the fabled caped crusader. By now, we know how virtual reality can seemingly transport us to this new, alternate reality – one that gives us the opportunity of living our fantasies of becoming the Batman. While Rocksteady Studios has validated itself thanks in part to its Arkham trilogy, this transition to VR is undoubtedly going to be scrutinized moreover for its new gameplay.
Rocksteady Studios’ famed Arkham series is known for its deep story-lines, bridging many of the caped crusaders’ allies and enemies into the stable, but for Arkham VR, it’s a small fraction that doesn’t necessarily have a defined path. We won’t spoil all of the tidbits here, mainly because Arkham VR doesn’t have a whole lot of substance with definitive endings.
Rather, the story in Arkham VR take us on a quick roller coaster ride from that moment when Bruce is scared for life when his parents are murdered in front of him, to yet another murder of a close friend that has our hero figuring out the culprit. It’s light and straight to the point, far from the sometimes convoluted, intermingling stories we get in the Arkham trilogy games.
This is due to the game being relatively short, which has the story moving along rather quickly. Unfortunately, there’s really no satisfying ending here, but we suppose that Arkham VR is more apt to teasing potentially what we can expect in the future with the series when it comes to the gameplay mechanics.
The Arkham series has always been known for its polished graphics, often appearing gritty to match Gotham’s reputation of being a crime ridden city. You won’t be disappointed here with the transition to virtual reality with Batman: Arkham VR, just because the same gritty tone we’re accustomed to seeing in the series is evident throughout the game.
Honestly, though, the graphics here is a smidgen below the quality we got from the last Arkham game, but it’s still quite convincing for VR. Given how the PS VR’s display maxes out at 1080p resolution and the extra power needed to create VR worlds, you don’t get nearly the same amount of details traditionally produced by the series. Essentially, it means that you won’t see strands of hair on characters, but it’s still quite impressive for VR.
Anyone familiar with the series will instantly recognize Arkham VR’s tone, emulating what we know and love. Sure, there are instances when there are graphical collisions, such as when we put our disembodied hands “through” or “into” another character, but they’re all expected given the nature of VR.
For those who have played the previous Arkham games, they’re probably expecting the same frenetic action heading into the game, but that’s far from the case – and boy will it come as a shock to those expecting it. Instead, Arkham VR plays more to the detective qualities of the caped crusader, rather than the head smashing combos that puts fear into our hero’s enemies.
First of all, the entire game is seen and played through the first person perspective of our hero – giving us more of an intimate experience that we haven’t seen before in the series. Arguably the best part of the game itself is early on in the experience when we’re at Wayne manor getting into the suit, and subsequently putting on the mask. This whole sequence literally makes us feel like we’re THE Batman, despite having disembodied hands.
The cool part, too, is the fact that we also get the chance to wield some of the caped crusader’s weapons and gadgets, which are attached to our utility belt. There are three in particular that we get to use, which is a small fraction of what the Arkham series is known for providing. Even though it’s more of a tease, it’s still nonetheless pretty captivating being able to wield them in VR.
The first is the grappling hook, a tool that’s reserved largely for retrieving far distant objects or “teleporting” to different sections within a scene. Secondly, the batarangs are arguably the weapons used in the game that are used to dispose of enemies and activate levers or other switches. It’s nearly impossible to miss a target, just because of the auto-aim. And finally, the environmental scanner is merely there to scan otherwise “invisible” targets.
Given how we have full articulation of Batman’s fists throughout the game, one would believe there would be some sort of fighting gameplay. Sadly, there’s none of that whatsoever. Fists won’t get our hero anywhere in this game, but rather, it’s using those detective skills at work that pushes forward most of the gameplay. The environmental scanner is probably the most widely used gadget in the game, allowing us to do things such as scan for fingerprints, sniff out shard fragments from a dead body, and uncover injuries sustained in an altercation.
Sure, it’s cool that we have full use of these weapons and gadgets, but we’re left yearning for more interaction. And that’s the same sentiment we have with the entire game as a whole, seeing that we’re left with that empty feeling of being deprived of action. At one point when we believed we were going to get into some heavy action against Penguin’s henchman, but we merely used our scanner to just target them and have the batplane take care of them.
The PlayStation VR’s shortcomings with the VR experience is exemplified here with Arkham VR. Due to the lack of room scaling, it means that we’re confined to a very narrow play area, so it means that we’re not forced to walk too far away from the center position. When it comes to navigating our here, it’s done in the same manner as some other games that use the “teleportation” method – to probably eliminate motion sickness. It works well for this title, seeing that we barely felt nauseous or woozy during the game.
Becoming the Batman is a wonderful prospect at the beginning, but as we progress in the game, we found ourselves fooling around more in front of a mirror to see our caped crusader’s dance moves. Thanks to how we have full articulation of his arms and hands, every meticulous motion is executed in the VR world. This, of course, allows us to interact with certain things in close proximity – such as levers/switches, picking up objects, and even seeing Penguin’s face up-close and personal.
The VR experience here is quite convincing, but not without some hiccups. Despite the smooth and responsive actions of our movements in the game, the PS VR’s tracking with the PlayStation Camera is still plagued whenever the line of sight is blocked – whether that’s due to the controllers or our hands getting in the way of LEDs, or when we try to look at the area behind us. There are instances when the inconsistent tracking becomes bothersome, such as when our disembodied hands float away and disappear, or that slight jarring motion when the VR world “shifts” due to the missed tracking.
Thankfully it’s not a frequent occurrence, so it’s not entirely too distracting when it pertains to the overall experience. At the end of the day, Batman: Arkham VR makes us feel more like a sleuth on an investigation, rather than the take no-prisoner persona of what we’ve come to expect with the Dark Knight in the series.
Before we dove into it, we were envisioning Batman: Arkham VR as being a full translation of the Arkham series into the virtual reality world. Turns out, though, that’s far from the case because of the slower pacing. Fists and brawn don’t get us anywhere, but rather, we’re taken on a mystery solving investigation that has the caped crusader acting more like a law abiding young James Gordon than a broken down vigilante hell bent on dishing out the pain.
We’d like to end it by saying that this IS NOT a game, especially when we’re able to get through the entire thing in about an hour – a far cry from the involved investment given to the series typically. This is instead an insightful “experience” that potentially gives us a glimpse of the kind of direction that virtual reality will have on the future of the series.
Normally, the Arkham series is known for its extensive fighting sequences, vast exploration, and comprehensive storyline, but when there are still limitations with what VR can do, it makes perfect sense why Batman: Arkham VR turned out the way it did. Maybe we’ll see these sequences incorporated into the traditional gameplay, just to break up the pacing we’re typically accustomed to having? The investigative sequences in this experience are particularly intimate, and is something we feel would only enhance the usual experience we get from the games.
All told, this is a tease of what’s possible. The only missing piece here that would’ve solidified its package is just the action. Then again, the $20 cost makes it worthwhile to step into the shoes of the Batman – so you can say that’s the consolation.