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If you have an Apple Vision Pro, Marvel's 'What…If?' is a must download - and it's free

So, there's a giant genie in my living room. That's not weird at all.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

If you ever wondered what it would feel like to be a hero inside the Marvel Cinematic Universe, have I got something for you! Last week, I told you that Marvel, Disney, and ILM announced What…If? An Immersive Story for the Apple Vision Pro.

I'm sure you know who Disney and Marvel are. ILM is Industrial Light & Magic, the iconic special effects house behind such minor films as Star Wars, Raiders, the Jurassic Park series, and, of course, Howard the Duck. Seriously, take a minute to read through the ILM filmography for the past 50 years and nearly every major blockbuster was touched by ILM's magic.

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This had me really intrigued. What happens when you take the storytelling skills of Marvel and Disney, add ILM's technical prowess, and mix it all together into a brand new piece of entertainment for the most exclusive screen on the planet: the Apple Vision Pro?

Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

I had a chance to play through the entire game/story. TL;DR: The experience was special. If you have an Apple Vision Pro, this is a must-download, especially since it's available free.

I was curious, though, why Disney and Marvel, companies who crave ginormous audiences would skip the better-selling and far less expensive Meta Quest devices and target this solely at the Vision Pro.

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I asked Shereif M. Fattouh, executive producer at ILM Immersive, and he told me, "We were really focused on maximizing the capabilities of Vision Pro, which is now bringing characters and worlds to life in a new way." He continued, "Our teams were blown away when we saw the clarity of the passthrough camera for the first time, and the reliability of the hand tracking that Vision Pro has and its ability to comp your real-world hands into a full VR environment."

I have to agree. There really was an eight-foot-tall fifth-dimensional being floating in my living room.

Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

I should note that these screenshots do not do the experience justice. The dude floating in front of me was animated, yes, but he was also there, looking as real as the TV behind him.

Also, kudos to Disney for allowing screenshots. Most entertainment assets on the Vision Pro prevent taking screenshots, which makes showing you what the device can do far more difficult.

The story

What…If? is a Disney+ TV series that takes the stories of the MCU and turns them on their side. It's kind of an alternate history version of the Marvel superheroes. What the Apple Vision Pro version does is tell a series of smaller stories, also with alternate histories.

Warning: there are some very minor spoilers coming up. I did my best to avoid major plot points, but if you don't want to know anything about what this is about, you might want to skip down to the overall impressions section.

They accomplish this through a fusion of mixed reality and virtual reality. The story starts in mixed reality when the big blue guy (the Watcher) shows up and brings in Master Wong, the Sorcerer Supreme. Wong is your reluctant teacher who takes you through training and goes on your adventures with you.

Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

You're first ported to a training planet, where Master Wong explains the use of the Infinity Stones and shows you some basic actions.

Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

When it's time for you to do some magic, glowing hands show you how to perform the actions.

Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

Once you master the basics, you're brought to the first adventure, which takes place on Titan and stars Thanos.

Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

I'm not going to tell you the story, because I don't want to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say, you get to do some magic simply by waving your hands.

Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

Upon completion of that level, we were back in my living room. Master Wong and I were then sent on to the next mini-game. It took place in a lab where, instead of Captain America, there was Captain Russia. Here, I got to use my powers to move objects.

Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

The next mini-game brought us to The Collector's secret planet/ship/asteroid/skull-thing. It was here where I got to shoot things.

Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

The shooting was fun. You basically punch out, and zappy plasma stuff shoots from your fist. My big complaint about that was that it didn't hit anywhere near where it should have from my perspective. But moving the target of the shot closer to the destination did work. I also had some trouble getting to enemies that were at the edge of the field. The Vision Pro had difficulty recognizing low or wide hand motions.

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This level was also interesting because it introduced a moral choice. During the battle, the giant spacedog was fatally injured. I was given the choice of using the green Infinity Stone to roll back time, but Master Wong said that doing so would cause severe cosmic repercussions.

Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

I think you know me well enough by now to know that given the choice of terrible consequences for the entire Multiverse or saving a dog, I'm gonna save the dog. And, of course, there were repercussions, which brought us to the last mini-game.

Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

I'm not going to spoil this for you, but I will say that if you get to this point in the game, there's an incongruity which may be a continuity error in the storytelling. The above screenshot provides a clue. Don't mention anything in the comments. Just look for it.

And then, the game was over, save for a completely bizarre ending scene, which takes place in mixed reality. I'll tell you about that in a minute.

Overall impressions

The entire experience took about an hour and was quite fun. There were points where the magic flinging using just my hands was pretty engaging.

Some of the gameplay felt like old on-rails games. I couldn't fire or do magic until the glowing hands appeared to guide the effects. I found that they sometimes seemed to lag the motion of my hands.

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The use of hand gestures that mimic those of Doctor Strange is quite immersive, except for the note above. I think it's the hand gestures that make Vision Pro the primary target for this product -- and it's a decision I agree with.

I've played a ton of games with controllers, and even old Kinect and Wii games. But there was a point where I was motioning in a circle to create portals and punching to fire plasma bolts that I was, if you'll pardon the expression, having a blast.

This is a must-download app if you have the Vision Pro, and if you want to show off the device, this might be a controlled environment that will give guests a feel for both mixed and virtual reality.

With all that said, I feel compelled to end with two complaints. This first is a real problem and I encourage the dev team to issue a patch as soon as possible. It was not possible to use the Digital Crown to dial down the immersion.

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Controlling the immersion level in full VR environments is a hallmark of the Vision Pro. You should be able to turn the crown and let the real world back in. This did not work at all in What…If? I felt that this was dangerous because in action sequences it was impossible to see what obstacles were in the room. Given that some virtual attacks came from behind and the sides, some real physical space damage could be done.

My second complaint was the completely bizarre ending scene, which was some sort of poor-taste promotion for the upcoming Deadpool & Wolverine movie, releasing in late July.

Once I was done with the battle, I was returned back to the real world. At that point, a desk and file cabinet with an anthropomorphized clock is dropped into my living room.

Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

At this point, the graphic in the hanging screen at the top of the room was replaced with a clip of Deadpool leaning over and talking about his posterior. I've kind of blocked it out in my mind, but he seemed quite taken with the junk in his trunk.

Look, I understand the need to justify producing a great, free game and if that meant it needed to include an ad for an upcoming movie, so be it. But the entire property was really well done and ending with the weird desk display and the even weirder fanny foible felt like it lowered the value of the whole production.

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But don't let some poor-taste butt joke ruin what is otherwise a joyful gift from the creative geniuses at Disney. Should you shell out $3,500 to buy a Vision Pro so you can play this game? Don't be ridiculous, but that's my value judgment. I guess it depends on how dedicated a Marvel fan you really are. If you have an Apple Vision Pro, download it and enjoy it. I think we may be seeing a small mini-preview of the future of interactive entertainment.

What do you think? Do you have an Apple Vision Pro? Are you a Marvel fan? Have you tried it? Let us know in the comments below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to subscribe to my weekly update newsletter, and follow me on Twitter/X at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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