Virtual reality Batman game turns you into the Caped Crusader

Batman: Arkham VR for PlayStation 4 offers an impressive escape into the Batcave, giving user the feeling they’re moving through their favourite superhero’s world

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 November, 2016, 5:17pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 November, 2016, 4:58pm

I’m Batman. I’ve waited years – since the release of 1989’s Batman – to say those words and mean them. Considering that I’ve spent the bulk of my professional life writing rather than building a superhero’s physique, it seemed unlikely, save for Halloween, that such a day would come.

It has.

Virtual reality, long the stuff of science-fiction films and, more recently, cute but largely forgettable mobile phone accessories, has arrived.

Earlier this year we saw the release of the Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive, which makes it possible to put on a pair of goggles and disappear into a digital landscape – as long as you have a high-priced, top-of-the-line computer. Now with Sony’s PlayStation VR, an add-on to the PlayStation 4 so many of us already have hooked up to our TV sets, virtual reality is coming to the masses. And it’s bringing Batman along with it.

The timing couldn’t be better. Whether it’s the outcome of the political season or simply the results of October baseball, many of us this time of year may feel the need to don a headset and escape to our own private Disneyland.

So, at long last, I’m Batman.

The opening few minutes of Batman: Arkham VR, currently available only for the Playstation 4 VR, are, if not breathtaking, actually quite impressive.

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Inside the PlayStation VR headset, my apartment disappears. Gone are my parents’ old couch and my grandmother’s trusty chair. I’m standing in an iron elevator, descending into a cavern. I can look up, behind me and down, and while I know my living room floor is stable, I’m almost certain I’m actually moving.

The illusion isn’t perfect – even top-of-the-line VR graphics can sometimes be a tad fuzzy. But while my brain is smart enough to realise that I’m not actually in the Batcave, it’s also not so smart that it prevents me from acclimatising. So when I go to grab Batman’s cowl, there’s a brief, momentary surprise that it’s weightless.

Though Batman: Arkham VR ultimately feels more like a tech demo than a game – we accompany the superhero to a crime scene and essentially look around and point at objects that trigger the narrative – the title’s ability to take me completely out of my downtown Los Angeles home and place me in the dregs of Gotham City all felt very theme-park-like.

Voilà! This is the advent of the new gaming frontier – or so we’ve been told.

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The interactive community has been hyping VR now for the better part of the last five years. When San Francisco’s Game Developer’s Conference got under way in March, Palmer Luckey, the 23-year-old founder of Oculus and inventor of the Rift headset, had one message to sceptics: “You’re going to have to eat your words.”

But there are plenty of hurdles before any vowels and consonants are devoured.

For one, VR is expensive. The PlayStation VR is considered the most affordable of the lot, but bundles still run at about US$500 (HK$3,880), plus the cost of the PlayStation 4 system. Still, Sony has a huge advantage over its competitors in that more than 40 million PlayStation 4’s have already been sold, and the Rift, at about US$600 and Vive, at about US$800 require a high-end PC.

There are other challenges. We’ve entered a time in gaming when interactive experiences are more accessible than ever. Thanks to the advent of mobile devices, we can game anywhere and even catch digital Pokemon in our workplaces. Gaming is becoming broader, more open.

There’s something about VR that feels very old-school, be it the emphasis on bulky hardware or the idea of completely shutting oneself off from the real world. Not even every major game provider seems sold on VR,

Last month, for instance, Nintendo unveiled its new console, dubbed the Switch, which is centred on mobility – play it on your TV, or as a handheld, or prop it up like a mini-tablet monitor. Though a price point and release date haven’t been announced, the Switch’s core belief is the opposite of VR. It brings gaming to your world and on your terms rather than trying to forge a brand-new one.

Richard Marks, a primary architect of Sony’s PlayStation VR, knows that much of the public will still need to be won over.

“People think it’s just like having a 3D TV, and it’s different than that – it’s pretty significantly different than that,” he said. “A lot of people think, ‘I didn’t find that engaging. This probably isn’t any better.’ And then other people have tried some low-end mobile solutions that didn’t resonate with them, so they think our system is like that but costs more.”

I’ve always been a little sceptical of VR. Even those who are among the most bullish on the sector, such as game designer and researcher Jesse Schell, note that sales will be relatively modest. He predicts four million PlayStation VR headsets will be sold by the end of 2017.

But this much is true of the Sony system: It is the most accessible high-end VR headset on the market. It’s also the best looking, with bright lights lacing the visor making it appear far more inviting than a black box with wires. It’s even the most comfortable, and convenient, requiring just about a 45-minute set-up.

After living with the system at home for about a month, I’ve warmed to it, especially as a party device. Friends were taken with the jump-thrills of horror game Until Dawn: Rush of Blood. And the puzzle title Super HyperCube – imagine Tetris as a fully immersive universe – is great for quick challenges.

After the initial excitement wore off, however, I’ve been concerned at how often I will want to plug in. Whether it’s a cat to play with, emails to check or text messages to respond to, the prospect of sitting on my couch sporting a headset isn’t always an appealing one.

Content can change that, and while there are some noteworthy experiences available for the PlayStation VR, it’s early days yet.

One of the best is Job Simulator, a sarcastic riff on modern life. In the future, workplaces as we know them no longer exist, and cubicles and line cooking stations have been preserved in museum-like settings. It offers enough jokes and discoveries to kill an afternoon – throw a cup of coffee at a robot worker, for instance, or create a fake spreadsheet on an old PC to lie about company earnings.

Good too is Wayward Sky, which sprawls out before the player like a sort of digital board game, and Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is a simple, engaging bomb-defusing game that invites those not wearing a headset to play. For the more action-orientated, there’s the rush of Rez Infinite, a fast-moving shoot-’em-up with vintage vector graphics that recall the best of early ’80s gaming, only now it’s in VR.

My favourite VR experience, however, isn’t a game. It’s a movie – sort of.

Penrose Studios’ Allumette lets players loose in a starry world that sort of looks like Venice in space. We can peer into doors and around corners. A short animated story of a bond between a mother and daughter unfolds, but we feel as if we’re playing in this world as much as watching it. Look at that floating ship! Let’s lean forward and see what’s happening inside of it.

If VR as a pipe dream has been around a while, Allumette feels fresh – a hybrid of technologies and formats that unwittingly makes a strong case for exploring this expensive new tech. For what works, and will work, in this space must be different than anything we’ve yet to play or watch.

It’s too early to argue whether this new language will or won’t take hold, but Allumette makes me hopeful to learn it. And I didn’t even need a cape.