Oculus Quest is a VR headset with appealing features such as accurate wireless tracking that allows for total freedom of movement, Touch controllers, and the comfort and safety provided by the Guardian system. But, for hardware to sell properly it needs attractive software, and since Oculus has chosen to launch this mainly as a gaming headset, this product calls for titles that catch our attention and manage to stand out.
Since its release on May 21, there are now over 50 games and experiences to buy from the online shop, several of which are exclusive. Even so, there's one that stands head and shoulders above the rest, and that's Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series: Episode 1.
Lucasfilm's interactive experience-focused studio, ILMxLAB, along with Oculus Studios and Ninja Theory, has come up with an original story which is actually regarded as canon. What's more, the script is written by David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight, Man of Steel), which you'll agree is certainly not to be sniffed at. So far we've completed the first episode (out of three) in around an hour.
Branded as an 'interactive experience', this is a first-person narrative adventure in which you're more of a listener and observer than a participant, yet that's not because of lack of options; there are puzzles, tests of skill, and lightsaber combat. The director and the scriptwriter may have put an emphasis on the passive aspects of the experience, but the designers have included all the ingredients that a typical first-person VR game requires, and had the pace been different, we would be talking about a different genre.
Nameless and without a face nor a background, the main character is simply you. We're not required to create an avatar or name our character, either. From the first scene, on board an interstellar spaceship, Vader Immortal wants to make you feel like you're living yet another Star Wars story. This first setting serves as a tutorial on the ship together with our service droid, ZOE3, the character who's chiefly responsible for keeping the conversation going given our character's permanent silence. She's quite the talkative type, either to let you know what's going on story-wise or to guide your next steps when you take control. She's such a chatterbox, much like C3P0 was, but nowhere near as naive, hence she isn't likely to engage in those kinds of silly gags that the Skywalkers and friends had to endure.
This decision about in-game communication is the studio's boldest, and it affects the whole experience significantly since no matter how immersive the lack of voice acting for your character may seem, lengthy stages filled with a robot's monologues can be rather annoying. To solve that, ILMxLAB has included other characters that immediately remind us of this universe; an Imperial officer, an inmate of a faraway species, a runaway queen...
All of their tales are interwoven to form this story, whose core features Darth Vader and his obsession about gaining power by wantonly depriving other civilisations of theirs, even if that means their extermination.
By the end of the first episode of Star Wars: Vader Immortal we still had plenty of questions about our character concerning his choices, his motives and his own existence. The script is closed, not allowing us to choose from different options at any time, which makes perfect sense since it's a canonical chunk of the saga. Not that we feel it's necessary, to be honest - you have your role to play, and play it you must.
Though it's not the main approach here, the game keeps you busy. There are short, focused tasks, such as using levers and switches, hacking into devices with a few tweaks and turns of the wrist, and walking up stairs and pipes. It's quite enjoyable given the smooth response from the Touch controllers, though we haven't found the same polished experience as we have with other games for Oculus Quest. Also, the game sometimes goes against its own setup by switching from restricted locomotion to freedom of movement; you can't go beyond areas where the action is taking place (you're led by ZOE3, remember), nor can you get into non-playable areas, which causes the screen to get darker. You do have the option of taking a few steps so that, for instance, you can eavesdrop on a conversation through a vent, or place yourself in the best position before a fight. We spotted a couple of bugs by doing that, one of which even forced us to reload the game.
As for the gameplay, we'd like to highlight the use of the lightsaber, which responded quite well to our hand gestures. Once you obtain it, you'll go through a combat tutorial where you'll learn about melee combat and how to deflect enemy shots. It's vital to get to grips with this, since you'll have to use it on a couple of occasions. These sections are easy to get through and not likely to cause repeated deaths, but you may struggle unless you do it right. The first of these moments pays a fitting homage to the many action-packed escapes that this universe has witnessed, while the second stems directly from video game history. There's also a game mode that lets you practise challenges that get harder as you advance.
With its slow pace and its take on dialogue, Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series: Episode 1 imitates the classic films set in A Galaxy Far, Far Away. The steady traversal mechanics prevented us from feeling dizzy (it's better to move by teleporting than going step-by-step), and it also allowed us to enjoy the environments. From those moments when your ship jumps to the speed of light through to the walks around deep underground pits, the design is also canon, although the display is mostly blurry, and the game usually resorts to flat images to deal with technical limitations. As for the visuals, we really enjoyed the convincing animations, the level of detail, and the quality of textures in the four or five main characters, particularly Vader.
Led by their desire to excel, ILMxLAB has tried to merge gaming and film for hardware that has its own strengths and weaknesses. Vader Immortal undoubtedly makes Star Wars VR, and you feel part of this galaxy, however, its design is not flawless and there are a few technical issues. Slow-paced, steady and utterly mysterious, we're done with Episode 1 and now look forward to the other two, which we can't wait to play.