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What it's like being Batman in virtual reality

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Put on the bat-eared cowl

The first part of Batman Arkham VR is the best kind of VR experience. At E3 2016, I became Batman. Yes, the Batman — the one I picture in my head when I think about the Dark Knight, the one from developer Rocksteady Studios' Arkham series. That experience reminded me what I love about VR ... and also what I don't love. Here's how it happened.

ACT I: PLAYING DRESS-UP

I was talking to Alfred (he's my butler and kind of my substitute father — long story — and a little taller than I expected, standing there in front of me), and he was all like, "Something's wrong, Master Bruce," so I tapped a few keys on a piano, which opened up this portal, and I descended into a secret room under my house, which is a mansion (I'm super rich BTW). As I descended in my very expensive secret elevator, a machine appeared from the darkness around me, so I hit some buttons, and there was a batsuit, so I put it on because when you see a batsuit, you wear that batsuit. At that point I was mostly dressed, so I used my hands and picked up a cowl (it's got bat ears, and it hides most of my face from the bad guys) and pulled it over my head. Then I looked in a mirror that the machine was kind enough to extend from its metal arms, and saw Batman staring back at me.

I leaned left and right, and my reflection mirrored my actions. I moved closer, and so did Batman. I cocked my head like a dog, and the Dark Knight did the same. I had little choice but to conclude that I was, in fact, the Caped Crusader. (Also I giggled, which is something that Batman never does, as a rule. My reflection didn't giggle. My bad.)

For the next 20 minutes or so, I explored a crime scene. I scanned things with high-tech gadgets attached to my utility belt. I watched terrible things happen to someone I love, and I assumed personal responsibility for everything that went wrong.

Look: If that's not Batman, then I'm not Bruce Wayne, orphaned billionaire playboy.

ACT II: THE WORLD'S GREATEST DETECTIVE

I was sold on the concept about three seconds after Batman Arkham VR made its debut at the E3 2016 PlayStation press conference.

Of course, this is exactly how I was supposed to feel. There would be time to actually, you know, think about my feelings later. In that moment, I just wanted to play as Batman in VR. Because I am absurdly lucky, that's what I got to do the next day.

And here's the thing about that: It was good, but it also reminded me that VR is often not so good.

If you've played an Arkham game before, you're familiar with Detective Mode, where the World's Greatest Detective looks for clues around, well, grisly murders, mostly. Batman Arkham VR is the story of one such murder. But this is VR, so instead of pressing buttons on a controller and watching things on my TV, I took a scanner off my utility belt and pressed a button in my hand to activate a magical device that more or less worked like a flashlight. I twisted my wrist to fast-forward and rewind time, looking for the precise moments where I could find clues. And because I was Batman, I found all three of them.

It was cool. I liked it. But it's not really a huge improvement over what I did in Arkham City, for example. It's a good way to use VR and it's also no big improvement over using an analog stick. It felt, ultimately, like a novelty.

The first part of Batman Arkham VR is the best kind of VR experience.

It got weird when I had to move around. Thing is ... I couldn't. That's the kind of thing that can kill immersion as fast as Joker kills his henchmen.

Everything that preceded the moment where I had to move around the crime scene made me feel as if I was really there. Not just kind of there. Not controlling some character on a screen 6 feet away. I was Batman (did I mention that?), and I was solving a crime. But at one point, I had to move maybe 15 feet to my right and up a staircase to get a new vantage point on the tragedy. Here in the real world, I couldn't do that. So in virtual reality, I was reduced to looking to my left, seeing a glowing PlayStation Move controller in the distance and pressing a button that warped me to my destination.

This isn't an uncommon way of handing movement in VR at the moment, of course. Either Batman's feet are going to be bolted to the ground, or the Caped Crusader can only move a foot or two in any direction. Neither sounds like a great option. And it's hardly a given that everybody who buys Batman Arkham VR will have several feet around them in which to move freely, so it makes sense that VR developers like Rocksteady would build systems that fit the biggest percentage of players. Unfortunately, the solution that Rocksteady devised had the unintended consequence of making me think, "Hello! I'm in a video game!"

To be fair, it was fleeting. It was over as quickly as I pressed the button. But it was so jarring and incongruous that it betrayed the rest of the experience.

dave batman

ACT III: MAKING SENSE OF IT ALL

The first part of Batman Arkham VR is the best kind of VR experience.

I've spent my fair share of time in virtual reality, and the first few minutes in a new game are often the best. VR isn't new to me anymore, but it's still a novelty, and a damned cool one at that. Realizing that putting on a mask requires that I actually have to pull it over my head is the kind of thing that makes VR so fun. Little moments like that would be cutscenes (if they were anything at all) in other games, but in VR they can make me feel, if only for a moment, like I am ... well, Batman.

To be clear: I loved playing dress-up. I loved pulling the cowl over my face because, yep, that's exactly what Batman has to do, and I never really thought about that until the moment I had to do it, too. I loved staring into the mirror. I can imagine loving those things in exactly no other context than VR.

But only a few minutes later, I did something that Batman would never do. I became a magical warping ... thing.

I'm told that Batman Arkham VR is an hour and a half to two hours long. It's designed to be played more than once, so you might get twice that much out of it if you want to go back and uncover all of its secrets. I want to do that again — and probably one more time, just for good measure.

The Joker is still out there and someone I love is dead. Justice needs to be served, and I need to do my part. After all, I'm Batman.