Most VR games are fine sitting down, but this one recommends standing. Confident from my demo at EGX, I’m ready to don the cape and cowl, standing vigilant with a Move controller in each hand. I press “Start.”
Spoiler Warning: This article contains spoilers for the first two acts of Batman: Arkham VR.
After a movie-esque title screen, the scene fades in. My smile immediately slips away, and I tense. This is an alleyway. Martha Wayne is consoling me. My mind and voice both shout out, “Oh no. No no no. I do not want to be here. Nope.” The scene continues. A shadow emerges from the corner, followed by its hulking host. He brandishes a revolver aggressively at Thomas Wayne. Thomas complies calmly, first with his wallet and then Martha’s pearls. Martha instructs me to stay behind her, and I comply without thinking. I realise that I only reach up to her waist, trapped in a child’s frame and perspective.
Joe Chill becomes impatient and agitated, gunning Thomas down. The form of Martha then falls away. I look to my left and right at them. They are unobscured; their corpses are right there within arm’s reach. Joe Chill is now staring at me. He approaches, towering over me. I can’t help but physically recoil, stopped by the edge of the sofa in my living room. I’m not taking in what he’s saying; I’m too freaked out by how close he really feels.
The nightmare ends, and I’m at the piano safely within Wayne Manor. Ah, familiar territory: the EGX demo. There are a few more things to play with this time–global postcards with lip smack signatures, a table diorama of Gotham City, and Martha’s old music box. I tinker a little, growing comfortable with the experience again. I play keys on the piano and the descent into the Bat Cave begins. I suit up once more, have a play with the utilities at my disposal; the feeling is elation.
I reach the bottom of the cave elevator and am seated at a console. More goodies to play with–a centrifuge, blood samples, blood analyser, a hard drive. The samples reveal people are infected with Joker’s blood. I pick up the hard drive and insert it into the console. My face falls again as the screen comes to life: a video of Jason Todd held hostage by the Joker. Alfred asks me not to view it again, not to open old wounds. I agree, but nope, not this time. I pull out the hard drive quickly and the video snaps away.
Alfred has bad news. He can’t get a hold of Robin (Tim Drake) or Nightwing (Dick Grayson). I grapple to another section of the cave and use the suit trackers to locate them. Tim’s location is unknown, but we locate Dick. I leave the cave, opting for the Batmobile.
Another alley. I descend from the fire escape and find him, slumped against a wall and beaten to death. He feels so close, like I should reach out for him. I am prompted by myself (Kevin Conroy’s Batman) to analyse him using the tool on my left side. A scan reveals a broken neck; it was snapped. Further analysis reveals three key wounds before the killing blow.
Sensors in Nightwing’s suit allow me to know his exact range of motion in the moments leading up to his death. I now have to replay his final fight, pinpointing the moments his injuries occurred. I am stood only a foot or so from Dick as the orange projection of his assailant beats the living hell out of him. Dick tries to escape up, but his own nightstick is thrown at him and he falls, plummeting back to the pavement. The assailant pulls him up from behind, wraps his arms around his neck. Poising his hands on Dick’s face, he quickly jerks and Dick goes lifeless.
At this point, I am not listening to my (Batman’s) own monologue. I need a break; I need out. I exit back to the menu and the VR comes off, pulling me away from the grime of Gotham. I am left feeling uneasy and unsettled, but not from motion sickness.
From a technical point of view, Batman: Arkham VR is breathtaking. The attention to detail–the little touches and the realistic textures–really sells it. On the main menu even, I wanted to reach out and grab the railing there to steady myself as I looked down from atop of a building and down at the bustling streets below. The style is that of the other Arkham games in the series–gritty, detailed, but not too photorealistic.
Venture your gaze downwards and you will see your equipment at your sides and your batarangs on your belt buckle. You have to reach down to grab them in order to utilise them. During my initial demo at EGX, I struggled to grab the batarangs and had to bend down to grab them from “my” waist. It had been calibrated for people taller than I. In my own living room, however, we were able to make adjustments and I did not experience this issue. Batman’s waistline was mine, my height was his. It wasn’t long before I was pulling batarangs off in quick succession for target practice without looking.
I have yet to try the game sitting down and with a traditional controller, but standing and using the Move controllers feels intuitive and really immerses you. The controls took no time to work out and immediately just felt like extensions of my own hands. I know I’m not the only one who was petting things playfully, spinning the globe vigorously, chucking baratangs at Alfred (oops), or dancing in front of the mirror and fist-bumping my own Bat-reflection.
What really caught me was how there everything feels. We’ve heard the touts before about how immersive VR is, so I will spare you on that. It really is something that you cannot express in words. No matter how much you’ve watched someone else play or viewed footage on a regular TV, you just won’t get it. I didn’t until I actually tried it and realised that there was a valid reason that some people were freaking out or just flabbergasted past cohesive sentences.
[pullquote]What Batman: Arkham VR has highlighted for me is how different content feels between a safe 2D television screen and a 3D immersive experience[/pullquote]But the “there-ness” of VR in graphical and technological terms was not that only thing that has caught my attention. What Batman: Arkham VR has highlighted for me is how different content feels between a safe 2D television screen and a 3D immersive experience. The Batman: Arkham games have never been scary to me. Sure, some things are a bit creepy and some of the storylines can be dark. But the feeling between 2D viewing and 3D immersion is incomparable. It’s like the difference between watching something unfold on the news from a helicopter viewpoint versus watching it happen to the person standing next to you only a few feet away. As such, what was a commonly-known origin story for Bruce became a harrowing nightmare, stuck in the shoes of a child as tragedy was thrust upon him. Nightwing’s murder was not a detective mini-game, but the horror of watching the last moments of your adopted son’s life unfold and swiftly end before your very eyes.
Batman: Arkham VR is a smooth, intuitive use of VR technology. The graphic fidelity is superb and the gritty realistic art style makes you feel like you are breathing in Gotham. What it really brings to the table for me, however, is the personal involvement of its more mature storyline and content, bridging past the desensitisation of 2D safety and putting us in a place of danger we had forgotten was there. Will everyone be ready for this type of storytelling, where you no longer feel safe and must watch grisly events unfold right by you or even to you? I don’t think so, honestly. For some, they will be able to see past this and enjoy the story from a new, more intimate perspective. For others, this new viewpoint will prove too unsettling, disturbing even.
An American specimen (subspecies: Michigander), now under research in the United Kingdom. Subject appears to sustain itself on video games and webcomics. Favourite flavours are fantasy and sci-fi, with a slice of life on the side.