E3 2016: Batman: Arkham VR Hits Hard with Nostalgia and Immersion

Batman: Arkham VR was one of the big surprises from Sony's press conference, and a look inside Batman's iconic cowl makes for an undeniably appealing package--even if its current incarnation is fairly thin.

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In a year with a dearth of surprises, Batman: Arkham VR was one of Sony's powerhouse reveals. The PSVR experience appears to be much more of a tech demo than a full-fledged Arkham game so far, but putting us in the shoes of one of the world's most iconic superheroes is a smart and undeniably appealing way to illustrate what makes VR so special: the ability to lose oneself not just in a virtual world, but in a virtual identity as well.

The demo used dual PlayStation Move controllers to emulate the sensation of hand movements. A remarkably well-rendered Alfred spoke directly to me and handed me a key, which opened a locked piano. Striking a few keys opened an elevator, complete with a bizarre dropping sensation, to begin the process of suiting up as the Dark Knight. First came the chest shield (which apparently represented the entire suit), then the gauntlets, and finally the cowl.

It's difficult to overstate the sensation of physically putting Batman's iconic mask over your head. It's incredibly satisfying, even knowing as I did from watching others that the game is pulling a small cheat by having the helmet quickly clip out of frame, away from the field of VR field of view. And it wasn't the last time the demo leveraged the strength of Batman's more famous qualities to deliver a giddy thrill.

The demo accented the point by lowering a mirror, so you could see yourself as Batman in a very direct way. Or, if you're like me, you can do a silly dance to see if his gauntlets will move to your motions in the reflection. (They did.)

Once suited up, it came time to equip Batman's gadgets. The first two, his grappling hook and scanner, were fairly basic point-and-click moments, after which I had to holster them onto my hips. The third was the batarang, and like the helmet, it hit me hard. The Move buttons imitated the feeling of pinching the bat-branded blade between my fingers, and I was able to manipulate it and look at it from different angles. I know it's childish to get caught up in such a simple gesture--I recognize that on an intellectual level--but something about the immersive quality overrode that cynicism with simple joy.

After a few tosses of my trusty batarang, the elevator began to lower again, this time into the Batcave. The ride was slow and lumbering, giving me several moments to soak in the sights and sounds: bats flittering across the expanse, a waterfall in the distance, and a score that invoked the classic trumpet cues of The Animated Series without quite matching it directly. Then, the demo ended--I removed my VR headset and the Batman cowl along with it. There was more to see, I had been briefly prompted to begin another computer sequence, but this particular build seemed made to stop then and there.

A second play option was called "World's Greatest Detective." It involved reconstructing a crime scene, and while I didn't select that option, I did watch it through enough times to understand the gist. It's essentially what we've come to expect from the Arkham series' crime scene recreations. It's easy to see how Arkham VR could tell a whole story, from suiting up to solving a notorious murder. I'll be very curious to see just how narratively rounded the package is when it launches in October.

Even in that incomplete state, though, it captures something special about virtual reality. The Arkham games were rightly lauded for understanding the character in a more coherent way than games had ever achieved before. Batman: Arkham VR may represent the next logical step: from understanding the character and his fantasy world to understanding what's so appealing about being the character, and delivering it with a spiritual fidelity that hasn't been possible until now.


This Batman: Arkham VR preview was based on a pre-release PSVR demo of the game at an event where transportation and accommodations were provided by Sony.

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