While we’ve made great big steps in the development of VR technology over the last few years, it’s fair to say that the tech still has a long way to go. Even with the advent of the Valve Index or the PSVR2, it’s still not able to match normal gaming blow for blow in terms of quality or even immersion, counterintuitively. It’s easy to lose yourself in Tetris or Beat Saber, but not because you feel immersed in the world. Story-based games, such as Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom, still struggle to offer a completely enveloping experience. But as with the case of Half Life: Alyx and, to a lesser extent, Boneworks, atmosphere is everything in The King’s Ransom.
You play a deserter from His Majesty’s army who has come to the oily back alleys of 1920’s Birmingham to join up with the Peaky Blinders. Led by Tommy Shelby and his quick-to-anger brother Arthur, the gang is already notorious at this point, well known as the true power on the streets of Brum. Through some massive bad luck, you end up embroiled in a plot to steal Winston Churchill’s Red Box, a briefcase which just happens to contain the names of all of Britain’s currently active spies. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of factions looking for this, and getting to it first will go a long way to securing your place as a Blinder.
Anyone familiar with the TV series will likely go in with preconceived notions, and for once I’d encourage you to do so. Peaky Blinders is one of the best crime dramas of the last ten years, with Cillian Murphy, Paul Anderson and the late, greatly missed Helen McRory turning in what many consider to be career-best performances as the primary trio. It’s a powerful show, often incredibly raw in its storytelling and fearless in its execution, dealing with a myriad of issues from classism, alcoholism, PTSD, misogyny and terrorism. But it’s also a very human show, presenting flawed, emotionally-challenged characters who ultimately do what they have to in order to survive.
The King’s Ransom does what it can with the source material, which is not the damning indictment it sounds like. It’s more a comment on the limitations of the tech. Sitting opposite Tommy Shelby in the Garrison Pub feels as atmospheric as you’d want it to, with the sounds of the pub around you, a glass of the good stuff in your digital hand. And the voice work is absolutely solid throughout. But everything is working against the visuals to maintain this atmosphere.
Characters animate like an early PS3 game, their dead-eyed stares and bizarre mannerisms betraying them at every turn. You can interact with a surprising number of items from throwing darts to writing on walls or chalkboards, to, of course, using weapons and firearms, but you can’t interact directly with people. They just stand there and boggle at you while you try to poke and prod them. They sit glassy-eyed while you drop cigarettes on the carpet, spill booze everywhere as you try to pour one out, or chuck fruit at them to see what happens. While you’re engaged in a shoot out or even just moving through the environments, Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom is brilliant. But as soon as you have to interact with characters, the fact that none of it is real becomes massively apparent.
Which, of course, is hardly a fair criticism. The tech has limits that Maze Theory have done their best to overcome and in many ways they have. You can’t deny the awe you’ll feel as a fan of the show to walk into the Shelby’s betting operation, or listen to Arthur bellow obscenities a few feet away from you. Getting Cillian Murphy and Paul Anderson to sign on to this is a hell of a coup, as simply hearing the lines delivered in their voices is spectacular.
Thing is though, the game itself is overshadowed by its world. I’m not the best when it comes to handling VR, and so I appreciated the fact that I could play the whole game sitting down with teleport controls. But this meant that during shootouts, and particularly in high-intensity moments, I struggled a little with inertia. Teleport movement is a great option, but doesn’t exactly convey realism. That said, little touches work really well, such as the instant-snap reloading and being able to stow key items by letting go of them. Your journal, too, which contains all your important mission and character info, is conveniently stored in an invisible bag over your shoulder.
Like most good VR games, Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom is at its very best when it’s not leading you by the hand through slightly rote objectives. Every time it let’s stop to piss about with the environment it gets better. An early example of this is when you can sit in the very first area and okay VR darts for hours. You get nothing for it but an achievement but it made me want a full on VR darts game right away. Likewise, locations like the aforementioned Garrison Pub feel authentic, and even though you’re being talked at by a mannequin-like Cillian Murphy, you can’t deny the sheer sense of place.
Even as the story gathers pace and you move from lowly street runner to a key player in the gang, the most impressive moments are when you’re just doing VR stuff in VR. Some of the side objectives are a bit dull, and will see you ferrying info or goods to and fro through various rundown streets, none of which wow you as much as locations lifted from the show. Anytime you have to stop and listen to someone telling you what to do, it begins to lose its lustre.
For what it is, though, The King’s Ransom does a fantastic job. The limitations of the technology notwithstanding, it’s a great adventure game filled with iconic faces (sort of) and absolutely seething with menacing atmosphere. It’s just a shame that it suffers so much in visual terms and offers so little excitement outside of the main storyline. Still, it’s one of the better VR games of its genre and a total love letter to the BBC show. Bang Red Right Hand on in the background while you play, and Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom is a fan’s dream.