For a while now, we've been a little bit sceptical about the appeal of virtual reality headsets. A lot of money's been staked by a lot of companies on something that, at least at first glance, may only have somewhat of a niche appeal. With the headsets starting at £350 (or, practically the price of an entire console), the industry has been crying out for a killer app - a game that gives VR its reason to exist, and means from the second you strap yourself in, from the second you open your eyes, and look around the world, you "get it", and suddenly, that purchase is totally justified.
Batman: Arkham VR might just be that game.
Despite being the cynical journalists that we are, Batman: Arkham VR utterly blew us away, leaving us nothing short of gobsmacked - even if, in reality, it's still something of a glorified tech demo at the moment. Intended as being an hour long detective adventure, Batman: Arkham VR sees everyone's favourite dark grey advocate plunged into a murder investigation, as partner in crime fighting Nightwish has been brutally murdered by an unknown assailant - and it's up to you to hunt them down, and deliver some bat-justice.
In demoing Arkham VR, Warner have spared no expense in trying to make sure you feel like you're becoming "The Batman". Not only do you see through his eyes, but on the day, they had a special Playstation VR set up, with headphones shaped like ears... You can only imagine how flattering this is to wear.
With the Playstation VR goggles strapped firmly into place, from the second you open your eyes, you're looking out over a totally immersive recreation of the Arkham series' Gotham City. A cool mist blows across the streets, reflections of neon lights dance across puddles, and you find yourself perched on top of a very tall building, looking down on it all. As this is VR, all you need to do to look around is to move your head, and the headset will do the rest.
A Playstation VR exclusive, Batman: Arkham VR makes use of all the Playstation technology it can, and pairs the Playstation Camera with two Playstation Move controllers to let you interact with the world. It may sound fairly complex, but it's actually totally natural, as the developer explained: "Can you do this", he said, making a gesture like pulling a trigger on a gun with his index finger, "then you can be the Batman!"
While the technology on the outside may be quite complex, in game, it all works seamlessly. The game tracks the movement of your left and right hands using the Playstation Move controllers, and your physical position using the camera - yes, you can walk around the environments (if only slightly) to explore. Totally separated from the outside world, our friendly developer's voice soon crackled over our headsets, as he began to talk us through the demo. "Are you afraid of heights", came the voice, before inviting us to step forward. In a moment that can only be described as uncanny valley, we stepped forward, and in game, we moved forward too, so we could peer over the edge, down into gritty Arkham, as our developer crackled over the headset again, with some handy advice "BATMAN ISN'T AFRAID OF HEIGHTS!". It was a surreal moment, to say the least.
The demo itself was split up into two sections - first, a section about becoming Batman, and then a more game-y section where you began to investigate the crime scene. Obviously, we can't investigate a crime as Batman before becoming Batman - and so, it was onto the first (and coolest) section of the game.
No sooner had we chosen our section than there we were in Wayne Manor, standing in an opulent room in front of a grand piano. Alfred wanders over and mumbles some stuff about Batman, blah blah blah, and then hands you a key. With no prompts, you've got to figure out what to do for yourself, but the answer is usually "whatever you'd do in real life". Stretching out your hand to reach the key, the pressing the Move's trigger to grab it, you take the key, and then turn to the grand piano you're standing in front of. Jamming the key in the hole will unlock the piano, which, in one of the game's coolest moments, is fully playable - as you can see "your" hands in game, you can play a tune using both hands - although obviously, only with one finger on each. Pretty cool, right? It only gets cooler.
No sooner have we plonked a few keys than the ground shakes beneath us, the floor opens up, and we find ourselves on a lift, descending into the Batcave. And this is one of the weirdest bits - despite the fact you're not actually moving downwards, you feel like you are. As you trundle downwards, you feel like you should try and steady yourself, even though you aren't actually moving, as there's such a real sensation of dropping, and the game starts to play with your mind. The best we can sum it up as is like the best theme park ride you've ever been on - the craziest dark ride in the world. If you've ever been on Star Tours, you'll know how weird it feels when the ship enters hyperspace, and how even though you know you aren't going faster than light, it really feels like you are. Batman: Arkham VR conjures up many of the same feelings - but in the comfort of your own room. It's insane. It's also, at least initially, kind of creepy how very close and "real" things feel - you really wouldn't want to play a scary game in VR.
Continuing your journey downwards, you soon come to a platform, where you need to get to grips with Batman's equipment (ooh er...). Picking up a Batarang, we pulled our first noob move of the session, asking how we throw the Batarang (assuming there'd be a button to press). Nope. All you need to do is hold the trigger and flick your wrist, Wii Remote style - which we somehow managed to totally cock up, dropping the Batarang pitifully on the floor. As we started to panic a bit about how we're meant to pick it up off the floor without clonking our ridiculously oversized ears, a helpful voice rang through our headset, "BATMAN DOESN'T PICK THINGS UP", and we were reminded that our Batarangs are clipped to the front of our belt. On the right, we have our bat-grappling hook, and on the left, our bat-scanner (probably not the real name, but hey, we're not Bruce Wayne, it's easy to lose track of all this technology), which will come in handy for investigating the crime scenes.
Our gadgets equipped, it was time for the final part of this chunk of the demo - crowning ourselves with the bat cowl. After picking up the famous mask, and slightly awkwardly clonking ourselves on the head with the Move controller trying to put it on our head, a mirror swung into place, showing that we were now Batman. Time to get investigating the crimes!
In a rainy street in a grotty part of Gotham, we find a body slumped up against a wall. It's
Nightwish Nightwing, and the poor boy's come a bit of a cropper at the hands of some ne'er-do-well, popping his clogs due to a nastily broken neck - along with a few other injuries. As Batman, it's up to you to figure out what happened, and track down who killed him, before bringing them to justice.
As this is a VR game, and you're playing with Playstation Move controllers, this plays out a little bit differently to your average third person adventure - or even your average Batman game. For starters, you can't move around freely - instead, you simply look where you want to go, and then press the Playstation button on the top of the Move controller to "jump" there - something the developers told us helps with motion sickness, a VR drawback they've been very keen to avoid.
Using the Bat-scanner, you take a closer look at the body, and discover there's a host of other injuries here - a broken jaw, broken ribs, and a broken arm. To try and get a better idea of what happened during the altercation, you make use of Batman's technology to play through a reconstruction. Using your left hand like a DVD remote, you can play through the reconstruction of what happened, tilting right to play, and left to rewind, as you look for the moments the damage was done. When you see his arm get broke, or ribs cracked, you press the Move button, where Batman will offer some sort of observation about what might be going on. Once you've figured out when the damage was done, Batman decides that there must have been a witness - and you then have to rewind/play through the reconstruction until you see the moment he left his fingerprints behind. Luckily for you, there's a full hand print, and so you've got a contact to chase down. The fingerprints taken, a blinding light illuminates the street, as the Batplane swoops in overhead - and after grabbing your grappling hook off your right hip, you fire up, and hook on, as the demo fades to a close.
So, that is Batman: Arkham VR - and, in all honesty, it formed one of our most memorable experiences of the show, if not with any game, ever. While VR still has a lot of questions surrounding it, Arkham VR looks set to show off the appeal in a bite-sized form. If you shell out the cash for a Playstation VR headset, it's looking like this is the game you'll want to get with it, and show all your friends, as anyone who puts the headset on will be utterly blown away.
As impressive as the demo was, though, there are still a lot of questions about Arkham VR. First, how much room is it going to take up? Full body tracking is a great idea until it comes to the practicality, as Microsoft's own motion tracking adventure, Kinect quickly discovered, falling victim to its own form of Kryptonite - the average English living room size. Due to the diminutive dimensions of most living rooms over here (compared to America), Kinect was simply impossible for many people to use - we'll have to hope Playstation VR doesn't suffer from similar issues. Then there's also the price/length combination. With Rocksteady having said the game will be roughly an hour long, the hefty £15.99 price tag soon looks very expensive indeed.
An incredible experience it may be, but will it be worth the asking price? Only time will tell - but for now, Playstation VR has an exclusive ace in its pocket that makes it look a lot more appealing.