Virtual Reality is often sold as the thrilling future of gaming, with everyone from Valve to Sony throwing their big wire-trailing hats into the ring. But we're past the concept stage now and know that, in practice, VR may deliver immersive audiovisual experiences but can still be a cumbersome and expensive experience.
Depending on which headset you choose, you’re facing the cost of the equipment, plus potentially upgrading your existing hardware, plus having a suitable space to play in. And once you do all of that there’s still the lack of things to actually play, which ends in many VR headsets being consigned to the dusty top shelf of doom.
Which is why I was so excited to hear about Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, a so-called ‘hyper reality’ experience co-developed by Lucasfilm, Industrial Light & Magic and The Void, which is at London’s Westfield shopping centre until 7 March. The technology and experience are all there waiting for you – just buy a ticket and you’re good to go.
Not only that, but Secrets of the Empire promises next-level VR technology. Forget pointing your controller at a spot to teleport awkwardly to it, this is a real space you can move around in using your actual feet, interacting with physical objects as you do.
It may be set a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away, but perhaps there's a glimpse of VR's future in Shepherd’s Bush.
The single biggest draw of Secret of the Empire, of course, isn’t the promise of the technology. It can be best summed up in the two words: Star Wars. Who doesn’t love lightsabers and furry aliens?
As a setting, it’s a perfect fit for the tech. Cramped industrial corridors are Star Wars’ stock-in-trade, which suits the limited real-world space you have to move around in. A mix of stormtroopers and droids eliminate the need for human faces, which in VR risk falling into the uncanny valley. And given you’re going undercover in the shining-white armour of the Empire’s foot soldiers, putting on the real-world bulky headset and suit just becomes part of the fantasy.
Over the years many games have tried to tap into that Star Wars magic, and Secrets of the Empire is uniquely good at making you feel like you’re in the world that Lucas built. Stormtroopers gather in doorways, firing ineffectually in your direction and tumbling over ledges with a Wilhelm scream when you catch them with a laser blast. When Darth Vader advances towards you, heavy breathing filling the headphones, it’s legitimately scary.
The one thing that’s notable by its absence is music. It may have felt obtrusive – after all, it’s not like rebels have got headphones built into those weird pointy helmets of theirs, blasting John Williams – but it underlines just how much that iconic score contributes to the sense of childlike wonder that many of us associate with the films.
As a Star Wars-flavoured experience, then, Secrets of the Empire is chock full of midi-chlorians. But what about if you approach it as an experience and, more to our purposes, as a game?
The main way you interact with the world in Secrets of the Empire is by shooting at it. There’s a bit of lever pulling and Simon Says button pressing but they are ultimately, to paraphrase the young and handsome Harrison Ford, no match for a good blaster at your side.
The moment you walk over to a rack of rifles and realise you can pick one up, the IRL blaster prop in your hands reflected perfectly in the virtual world, is genuinely a bit magical. It’s certainly more exciting than waving a wand at your opponents, and watching Stormtroopers topple over as you score a direct hit will never not be satisfying.
That said, although you’re holding an actual weapon in your sweaty palms, Secrets of the Empire’s gunplay never feels as weighty as a 'flatscreen' game like, say, Destiny. Fair enough, but more surprising is that it's not quite as slick as existing VR shooters like Space Pirate Trainer. The closest comparison is probably arcade light-gun classic Time Crisis. Despite the fact you can move around freely, the fights are locked to a single location, so the fancy footwork is limited to ducking behind cover.
In this context, and especially given that this experience is targeting a mainstream audience rather than gaming nuts, this style of gunplay both makes sense and, for all its simplicity, feels fantastic. Peeping around the side of a crate waiting for your moment, or putting a hand up to steady yourself as you hide in a doorway, hearing the laser fire around you, feels like what VR was created for.
The problem is that, in Secrets of the Empire, there’s no real reason to take cover. It took me a while to realise I could actually get shot – which at least makes sense, given Stormtroopers’ track record with blasters – but taking a hit doesn’t really mean anything. There’s no fail state, so the only consequence is the buzz of haptic feedback in your suit.
There’s no alternative solution – after all, it’s not as if you can be killed and respawned in the previous room – but it highlights the fact that, ultimately, this isn’t a shooting game. You’re fundamentally a passive observer in events. If you fail to eliminate a threat, it will be taken out for you, because that’s what the story demands.
In spite of all the hot blaster-on-blaster action, perhaps the closest relative to Secrets of the Empire on the gaming family tree is the so-called ‘walking simulator’. Games like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Gone Home and What Remains of Edith Finch may not be obvious comparison points but, in terms of how the story is delivered in ambient and piecemeal chunks, there are some shared techniques here.
This is possibly because such games and VR experiences have another shared ancestor: the theme park ride. This is no coincidence, because Secrets of the Empire is ultimately set to become a attraction at Disney World. Many of its best moments – feeling the heat of a lava planet on your skin, the shudder of vertigo as you look over a completely imaginary ledge, even lifting the visor at the end of your adventure to realise you’re back in the room where you began – are perfect theme-park novelties.
These kinds of VR experiences might well be the future of Disney parks, but ultimately they’re probably not a feasible path for video games. People complain about the price-to-length ratio of short narrative games, but they’ve got nothing on Secrets of the Empire. Its 15 minutes of stormtrooper blasting will cost you just over £30.
For anything more long-form and permanent, which doesn’t have the benefit of having the Star Wars name plastered on it, that pricing model is simply not going to work. And unless you’re willing to add another wing to your house, the technology on show here isn’t going to translate to the home.
The current iterations of VR are struggling to have much commercial impact, and it's unclear where the 'killer app' is going to come from – whether that means wireless headsets like the HTC Vive or an experience that no-one's thought of yet. Shadows of the Empire is a great ride that couldn't exist without VR, but it feels like more of a high-end niche than any harbinger of the technology's potential. In the words of a wise and wrinkly Jedi master: “Always in motion, is the future.”