Standing in an alley, late at night and being rained on, two versions of me are looking at a the body of a young man, who has been murdered most foul and propped up against the wall. The me-who-is-not-me is very distressed, as this young man was my protege and friend. The anguish of the moment causes the me-who-is-not-me to spontaneous announce, in a gravelly voice: “Why wasn’t I here?” and similar out-loud mea culpas. It is at this point the me-who-is-actually-me, and is standing in a room being observed by two representatives from Rocksteady, bursts out laughing.
Using a first person description as if you were actually in the game is a terribly worn out way to start an article (if I ever write about Watch Dogs 2 it will begin with me standing on a hot West Coast sidewalk, the sun beating down and reflecting off the concrete and the studs on my nupunk hacker friend’s jacket, etc., etc.). When you’re talking about a VR game it’s forgivable – I’m telling you it is after having done it – because that’s kind of the whole selling point. I am playing Batman: Arkham VR, thus I am The Bat. ‘Being’ Batman is the whole selling point. They even give you cowl-shaped headphones for the demo.
Arkham VR is surprisingly successful in this regard. In the first half of the demo you suit up and learn to use Batman’s gadgets. The grapple gun and detection tool live one on each hip, and the batarangs are dispensed from the front of your belt. The fact that you can reach down and grab them or replace them with your actual physical arms, rather than swapping them out with the press of a button, is what sells it. Later, when you examine a crime scene, you can fast forward and reverse through the hologramatic reconstruction by twisting your hand around. There’s no remoteness from Batman’s actions because you’re performing them yourself. The motion tracking is impressively good, too. In the first scene you wake up at a grand piano, with Alfred arriving to be subservient and caring in a passive-aggressive way, as is his wont, and you can play the piano. Not with all five fingers and thumbs, of course, but with enough precision to pick out individual notes if you want to. You can look down at your hands and see big, manly, Batman ones. You can turn them over and look at how bruised and bloody your knuckles are from dispensing justice to hard criminals on the mean streets. There were moments of impressive spectacle, of the kind people want from VR. You descend in a lift which suddenly opens out to show you the entire Batcave from above, replete with waterfalls, bats flying past, and giant animatronic t-rex. I looked around and Batman looked around.
It does disconnect, though, at the moments where Batman is distinctly characterised as Batman, and you realise – or at least I did – that you are probably not actually Batman. When I finished the demo one of the Rocksteady reps told me, with some amusement, that I was the only person he had ever seen laughing at Nightwing’s corpse. “‘Oh, there’s my oldest friend and confidant, haha!'”, he said. But Nightwing is Batman’s oldest friend, not mine: I’ve never given much of shit about Dick Grayson, to be quite honest, and I was mostly laughing at Batman being so extra about it. Functionally I know that he was berating himself out loud for my benefit, but in the game universe he was just moaning at an empty alley for nobody’s benefit but himself, and I found this terribly amusing. This also happened at the point in the demo where you look in the mirror and, hot diggity daffodil, Batman looks back. Other people at the event bloody loved this, but I didn’t get the same thrill from it, perhaps because I was aware that I didn’t even look slightly like Batman, that I was the shortest Batman with the least square chin ever, and I started snickering again. Batman looked at me so seriously, and the more I started laughing the funnier it was that he wasn’t.
Not that any of this really made the game bad, or detracted from it. It sort of made it more fun because you can play up being Batman however you want. Eventually, while standing over Nightwing’s body, I looked to the sky and shook my gauntleted fists in the air, which meant Batman did it as well. I started going “Dick, noooooooo!” in a very dramatic way. The game uses the ‘teleport to designated points of the game area’ method of movement, which meant I was able to imagine my Batman traversed the alleyway by hopping around and humming his own theme tune, something which I am 80 per cent sure Batman probably does anyway. When I first saw Alfred I waved in his face and said “Hellooooo,” so in my game this is something Alfred actually saw his master Bruce do after waking up from passing out on a piano. I find this all equal parts hilarious and immersive. Yet other people there were free to, and did, fully embody the terrifying “SWEAR TO ME!” kind of Bats.
As it stands Batman: Arkham VR is probably the best VR game I’ve been able to play. It’s got the right balance of game mechanics and immersion, and looks good enough to trick your brain. When I was standing in a lift going down I did, for a moment, feel like the floor beneath me was moving. The problem in a wider sense is that most other VR games aren’t hitting quite the same standard; in a specific sense it’s difficult to predict how well the standard holds up over the whole Akham VR game, but for half an hour, at least, I was Batman. Maybe not the Batman Rocksteady expected, but the Batman I wanted.