There’s a lot wrong with The Martian VR Experience [official site], and it’s almost scandalous that they’re charging for it at all, let alone asking sixteen quid, but the bit where you get to drive a rover across an Unreal 4-rendered Mars with I Will Survive blaring is very hard to argue with. The bit where you cack-handedly chuck some potatoes in a bin, less so.
This is, lest it were not obvious, a tie-in to Ridley Scott’s enormously successful silver screen adaptation of Andy Weir’s scientific fiction novel The Martian. This means Maaaatt Daaaaamunnn clips aplenty, semi-interactive vignettes based on key sequences in the movie, and most of all a clearly very expensive VR rendition of the red planet.
(Note: the game does not feature any Hendrix)
It looks great, in the main. I’ll say that first. Like Apollo 11 VR, it’s got a good understanding and sense of scale, and that coupled with sections where there’s horrific dust storms or protagonist Mark Watney is stuck inside a claustrophobic spacesuit really amp up the atmosphere. In this regard, The Martian joins the legions of VR treats I’ll show my dad whenever he comes to visit.
Structurally, it’s all over the place, though. It simply jumps between parts of the movie, which fall into two categories 1) short, fixed-position, hand-waving physics puzzles using the Vive wands or Oculus Touchus 2) low-quality film clips.
That is to say, you will spend approximately half your time in the Martian VR not actually doing anything, and more than likely in fact watching something you have seen on a cinema or television in far higher quality. Given that the whole affair lasts 40 minutes if you’re lucky, you can see why I was rather liberal with the superlatives in the first sentence of this piece.
Sixteen quid! Twenty Trumpbucks! It’s absurd. You will only play this once, again with the possible exception of astounding your dad with it some time.
I’m getting cross, so let me just restate that it does manage to be spectacular during its few short sections of interactive life of Mars, and it’s a good hint of what VR can do when someone with an awful lot of money (in this case 20th Century Fox) gets behind it. But: twenty minutes of play for £16. Nuh-uh.
Doesn’t help that I’m not altogether sure it’s settled on particularly entertaining forms of play. It’s got ‘experience’ in the title, which is increasingly a get-out-of-jail-free card for VR titles that just involve occasionally pushing a button when you’re told to, so expectations do have to be checked.
Even so, clumsily throwing potatoes in a bin (big ones on the right, little ones on the left, don’t get it wrong or.. never mind, it’s just moved onto the next sequence anyway) and awkwardly operating a small crane do not a seat-of-the-pants Mars survival adventure make.
Yes, these are legitimate scenes from the Martian, but so too are repeated near-death experiences, and, with one climatic exception, those are absent here. There is no sense of peril to The Martian VR: you just do what you told, and the thing will even wait patiently for you if you don’t.
In one hilariously misjudged sequence, we get to control Watney as SPOILERS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM OR READ THE BOOK AND LABOUR UNDER THE DELUSION THAT HE NEVER TRIES TO GET OFF THE PLANET he prepares a lander for take-off. In the source material, this involves knowing about and understanding a hideously complicated control panel and manually re-engineering the craft.
In the VR game, you just press the big, throbbing green button. Not the big, throbbing red button next to it! Oh no, that would be a terrible mistake. Smoke and sirens and oh no they’ve stopped, just try again, but press the big, throbbing green button now, OK? Can’t miss it. It’s big, throbbing and green.
What I’m saying is that I’d have found this situation more credible if it starred Mr Tumble rather than Matt Damon.
Really not helping matters is that, though there are Damon blurbs aplenty, clearly they couldn’t get clearance for Chiwetel Ejiofor or Kristen Wiig or Donald Glover or Jeff Daniels or That One Who Isn’t Bryce Dallas Howard. So, for the near-constant expository and advisory chatter from an unspecified NASA onlooker, it all falls into the bizarrely chill lap of someone who sounds somewhat like but I do not believe actually is Michael Peña. (The credits don’t list any actors at all, for what it’s worth).
Whoever it is, whether they’re telling you that you’re about to die, offering potato facts or warning you to definitely press the big, throbbing green button and definitely not the big, throbbing red button, they sound as though they’re doing so as they kick back to watch the game and sink a couple of Bud Lites.
Yeah, The Martian has an oft-comic tone in between its tense off-world survival sequences, but this accidentally plays like a sitcom at times. Genuinely ridiculous.
The great redeeming feature is Watney’s brief, rover-based journey across the surface of Mars, to the lander, with Gloria Gaynor telling the whole universe that she’s awesome over the stereo. For the first and only time, the game gives you movement – using a virtual joystick you wiggle with a wand/Touchus – and though the journey is pitifully short and canyon walls prevent you from going for off course, it’s a glorious three minutes. The final escape sequence is also pretty neat, at least in terms of spectacle – though again any real sense of peril is missing, even when it’s most needed.
Really, what this is is The Martian compressed into a fraction of its length, with minor interactivity in a few key scenes. It feels like it should be a promotional freebie for the movie, not a $20, 40-minute game that actually costs more than the bloody Blu-Ray does. Yeah, a couple sections helped prop up my waning faith that I could still fee awe in VR after so many experiences in so many other games, but it’s so short-lived and so surrounded by unintended silliness that it just can’t get away with it.
Sure, if you see this for a fiver in a sale, maybe have a punt for a brief visit to lovely landscapes and I Will Survive, but otherwise, this is exactly what the VR industry needs to not be doing right now.