One of the more exciting announcements at Sony's press conference was Batman: Arkham VR, a virtual reality experience set in Rocksteady's Batman universe. Not long after the event, I had a chance to give it a shot. This is actually being developed internally at Rocksteady; it's not a spin-off made at an external studio. In an interview with Geoff Keighley, Rocksteady described Batman: Arkham VR as a roughly 60-minute murder mystery that's meant to emphasise the "world's greatest detective" angle of the character.
It's not clear where it's set in the timeline, either. In Keighley's interview, Rocksteady said it's "woven" into the previous games, but declined to say whether it takes place before, during or after the events of Arkham Knight. One of the demos I had a chance to play, however, might have a big hint about that...
The first section has you hanging around Wayne Manor. After speaking with Alfred, you open a secret door to the Batcave by tapping on a nearby piano. Though Arkham VR will ultimately be playable with a controller, this version was hooked up to Move controllers to simulate your left and right hand. It was neat.
In the Batcave, you're quickly equipped with access to batarangs, a grappling hook and Batman's fancy forensic scanner to examine your surroundings. To use them, you have to physically move the Move controller close to your chest or sides. In my experience, motion controllers are key to VR, and having to digitally grab the batarang and fling it around the room is very fun.
That bit ends pretty quickly, though, and you're ushered off to what I'm guessing is the meat of Arkham VR: Breaking down a crime scene.
Warning: There are spoilers for Arkham VR ahead.
Batman arrives to find Dick Grayson, AKA Nightwing, dead. His neck has been snapped, and his body sits lifeless up against the wall. It's unclear what happened, and it's your job to reconstruct that, so you can track the killer.
(Given that Nightwing was alive at the end of Arkham Knight, including its DLC, I'm suspecting this takes place after that game...?)
Since it's still early days for VR, developers are still experimenting with how to let players move around. One of the more common approaches — and how Arkham VR is handling it — is to have pre-set areas players can shift over to. Around the crime scene, there are little icons that represent movement points.
This section is where your forensic scanner comes into play, and the way it works with the Move controller is clever. As you hold up the scanner, if you tilt the Move around, you can scrub through the reconstructed scene to try and pull out details about what happened. In this case, Batman's trying to pinpoint the various moments Nightwing was injured in a fight — when he broke his jaw, his ribs and eventually his neck. To do this, you gently tilt the controller, as if you were turning the dial on a video player, to shift through time. When it looks like something important happened — say, when Nightwing takes a punch to the jaw — you can stop it, scan deeper and return to watch the fight continue.
The fight takes place all around you, forcing you to look in front, behind and above you to take it in. It's surprisingly intimate, and given how rough Arkham fights already feel when the camera is pulled back, it's not surprising VR lends a sense of brutality that's borderline disturbing. (This is especially true when Nightwing's neck is snapped, and you can watch it over and over and over.)
This approach to a VR spin-off — identifying a gameplay mechanic that can be enhanced by VR, rather than forcing existing gameplay onto it — is hopefully a sign of things to come. Given that Arkham VR is coming this October for PlayStation VR's launch, I'm not surprised it's a shorter experience, but if Rocksteady can deliver an hour of moments like this, it will be worth playing.