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Entering a tattered and eerily abandoned 1920s pub, Cillian Murphy beckons me over for a covert chat. As he lights a cigarette and hands me a whisky, he leans over the table conspiratorially, sombrely filling me in on a chilling London-based plot threatening to down the Shelby family. The only problem is, I’m repeatedly lobbing a pint glass at his head.
Welcome to the latest licensed foray into the weird and wonderful world of virtual reality – Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom. When you’re not rudely assaulting your gang mates in The Garrison Pub, Peaky Blinders VR has you roaming early 20th century Birmingham and London’s grey and uninviting streets, picking up letters, cocking your Glock, and meeting its colourful cast of scowling rapscallions.
Part PS2-feeling licensed adventure, part well-realised VR playground, The King’s Ransom is a curious and ambitious beast. Developed by Maze Theory, the team responsible for 2019’s Doctor Who VR game, their second collaboration with the BBC sees them recruit two of the series’ bigger stars into the fold.
With the aforementioned Cillian Murphy reprising his role as Tommy Shelby and Paul Anderson returning as Tommy’s brooding brother, Arthur, The King’s Ransom is clearly striving for ye olde geeza authenticity.
While you may not know it initially, there’s a larger plot at play here. Put in the tattered tweed flat cap of a mute protagonist, players are ultimately on the hunt for Churchill’s Red Box: a briefcase containing the whereabouts of British agents stationed along the globe. As you step off the van into gloomy Brum, however, there’s no sign of such a grandiose objective. Instead, you soon find yourself caught up in the minutiae of Peaky Blinders’ grim post-WW1 drama.
Using a mix of the analogue stick and the VR-standard of the teleport cursor to hop around Birmingham’s deserted streets, strutting into the criminal underworld on the Oculus Quest 2 feels remarkably smooth. Like many games on the platform, everything looks slightly like an up-rezzed Wii game, but the framerate was solid, ensuring that moving around felt comfortable enough during my extended demo – no Pukey blinders here.
It helps that The King’s Ransom eases you into the Shelby life. Initially, you play errand boy, delivering messages to different shady characters as you learn about the growing political unease bubbling up around the city. It’s a far cry from delivering on the badass gangster fantasy that the story is desperately framing you to be.
Yet it’s the thoughtful VR implementation of these well-worn game mechanics that keep it from being a complete snore fest. Pulling out a book from your shoulder in order to see objectives, for example, is a nice touch – as is the now standard manual clip-changing reload of your ye olde pistol – and moments like this amuse, even if the MMO-lite fetch quests do little to sell the fantasy.
Like with most virtual reality experiences, The King’s Ransom is at its best when it lets you simply muck about. For its first hour or so, you rarely get to use your ye olde pistol. Instead, you get to doodle on chalkboards, pick up crates, repair vintage radios and generally destroy whatever carefully cared-for homes you find yourself snooping around in. It’s this kind of sandbox-y farce that makes VR so immersive, and from my time with it, it’s an area that The King’s Ransom excels in.
Once you get to them, gun fights fare better, borrowing Half Life Alyx’s manual clip reloading. Another early action scene is less exciting, tasking players to duck and weave their way through a Victorian house as bullets ricochet over their heads. Catching a few stray bullets, my poor (now swiss-cheesed-rendered) avatar eventually made his way to four DIY-looking explosives, whacking out some pliers and slowly defusing the selection of incredibly patient bombs.
“For its first hour or so, you rarely get to use your ye olde pistol. Instead, you get to doodle on chalkboards, pick up crates, repair vintage radios and generally destroy”
Then the errands come back with a vengeance. After being sent from house to house, shuffling crates and gathering up some more letters for your lazy criminal mates, the demo finally culminates in an enjoyable firefight across a half-raised bridge, with solid shooting seeing you lay to waste members of the pesky rival gang plotting your downfall: The Winter’s Children. It’s a good finale to the oddly paced demo, ending my gangster adventure with a bang before I return to my higher-rez reality.
Say what you want about the show, but Peaky Blinders is undeniably a cultural phenomenon. From its Nick Cave-written theme song to an admirable array of homegrown acting talent, it’s a series that single handed-ly brought the WW1 haircut back in fashion. It’s surprising then, that it’s taken this long to turn the TV hit into a real-time action video game. Having played a fraction of the full game, it’s hard to say what awaits players around the next cobbled corner. Yet for headset-owning Peaky Blinder fans, there’s certainly some familiar fun to be had in The King’s Ransom.
Still, I came away from my demo with some wider existential questions about VR. As the Oculus Rift approaches its 11th anniversary, it’s hard not to feel like this kind of throwaway entertainment has all been experienced before. While throwing fans into their favourite fictional worlds will always be a great fit for the medium, for those who see “by the order of the Peaky Blinders!” as the geeza equivalent of ‘live laugh love’, The King’s Ransom feels like more of a curio than an essential.