I’m standing in a shadow cast by the Millennium Falcon, which just parked up next to me. I can’t hop on board but when a ramp unfolds to let an R2 unit trundle onto the small patch of Tatooine that is my home for the duration of this brief demo, I can hear Chewbacca roaring supportively somewhere inside. Han Solo is there as well, providing directions as I patch together the ship’s junky systems from the outside.
As I finished my playtime with Valve’s The Lab, Lucasfilm and Star Wars provided the outro sting. It’s a superb fanfare.
The Trials on Tatooine demo was a surprise as part of Valve’s Vive demo. It’s important to be clear that this isn’t a demo in the sense that it’s one part of a larger game – while Valve and every other company with a horse in the VR race would no doubt like to play host to the first full-fat VR Jedi Knight game, Trials on Tatooine is a standalone entity. For now. It’s a demonstration of how Lucasfilm’s world can work in a virtual space and it’s a demonstration of how extremely perfect holding a lightsaber feels with the Vive on-head and in-hand.
More on that later though because the first part of the Trials doesn’t contain a single lightsaber. Not one. It’s an interactive cinematic sequence, little more than a cutscene really, that slid into my eyes and ears unexpectedly, effectively shouting, “LOOK, LISTEN, NOW YOU ARE IN STAR WARS.”
I’ll admit to being very excited as soon as the opening title scrawl started to stretch away in front of me, hanging in space. The initial moments, as the Falcon arrives and a passable Harrison Ford-alike informs you that Luke Skywalker has asked him to deliver a package to you (a young padawan in training), are carried by the momentum of the score and the familiarity of it all. Standing on this planet so far far away and so long ago feels special, but it’s an appeal to shared (pop) cultural memories rather than an elegant design in and of itself.
The initial excitement was just starting to fade, replaced by a nagging concern that there wasn’t very much to do in the little square of space designated for my use. I’d pushed a couple of buttons – and, yes, those buttons were attached to the Millennium Falcon – but that seemed to be the sum total of my purpose. I didn’t feel like a Jedi-in-training; I felt like Gordon Freeman, using my Theoretical Physics PhD to push buttons whenever the boss asked me to push buttons. Sure, my boss was Han Solo for the time being but still…
And then I got to hold a lightsaber and there were stormtroopers rushing toward me and I deflected blaster shots. At that point, I couldn’t have given a hoot if the design was elegant or smart because I was so desperately trying not to go full American and let out a whoop or a holler.
I knew it was coming, that lightsaber bit, mainly because if everyone who had already seen the demo before me had been teased with Star Wars and hadn’t got to hold a lightsaber in VR, the Valve booth would have been a smoking ruin. As soon as I picked up the hilt and the beam/blade extended right out of my hand – MY ACTUAL HAND – the Vive seemed a far more essential a purchase than it had two minutes earlier.
It is perhaps a happy accident that one of the most powerfully evocative items in pop culture is a perfect fit for the Vive’s motion controls. The lightsaber feels just right, not requiring the weight of a sword and encouraging carefully angled positioning to deflect shots back toward stormtroopers. There’s no saber duel in the demo and that would present its own problems, but as a demonstration of how good it might feel to be a VR Jedi, Trials on Tatooine is a brief but convincing experience.
If I had a Vive with that demo installed in my home right now, I’d be inviting everyone I know how has the slightest interest in games and/or Star Wars to come and play. It’s a small thing and I don’t think it’d comfortably support a full game in its current state – I can’t imagine it’d be anything other than a lightgun shooter with occasional brief puzzles and saber sections – but if I hadn’t enjoyed The Force Awakens so much, it would have made me smile far more than piece of Star Wars media since I watched the original trilogy as a kid.
I’ll cautiously admit that I didn’t manage to hit a single stormtrooper with the blaster shots I deflected. It’s certainly possible to direct the shots, either swiping at them like a furious baseball player or simply holding the saber in place as they approach while striking a nifty pose befitting a warrior monk at peace in battle.
Once they hit the saber, the shots tend to return toward sender, as long as the positioning and angle of the blade is accurate. I never actually saw one return directly to sender though. They’d hit objects in the environment on occasion and it was pleasing to see a box topple from the force of the blow, but the stormtroopers remained unscathed.
Maybe I’m just a terrible Jedi. It’s entirely possible that some people played the demo and took out every single stormtrooper – it isn’t necessary though. The Falcon resets its weapon systems after a couple of minutes and eradicates everything in sight.
With the troopers dead, Han prepares to depart, which left me at a loose end for the final thirty seconds of the demo. I was tempted to slice R2 into pieces but I wasn’t sure I’d be allowed to and felt like an absolute bastard for even considering it at any rate. Instead, I decided to mess about with the saber, plunging it into the ground. I was pleased to find it left a mark and even more please to realise I could write letters in the sand.
And that’s what I did. I carved my initials, with a smiley face next to them. Some people probably drew willies. We’re not even five minutes into this VR revolution and there are already Jedis drawing penises on the surface of Tatooine.
Welcome to the future.
For more details of what the HTC Vive is like to use, visit our massive guide. If you’d like to try the Vive for yourself, pop along to EGX Rezzed next month.