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Apollo 11 Sim Makes A Strong Case For Longform VR

To the moon and back with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin

One of the many lingering questions around the first wave of consumer virtual reality is whether we can realistically expect experiences which involve more than a handful minutes spent staring slack-jawed at some rendered paradise or briefly experimenting with a motion-controlled, cartoonish physics gimmick. I’m still combing through the 60-odd titles released on the HTC Vive’s not-a-launch day, and the bulk is solidly within the either the Brief Visual Experience or Didn’t We Basically Do This On Eyetoy In 2006 boxes. That’s OK: it’s early days and everyone’s still figuring this stuff out. But in terms of what I should actually use my Vive for day-to-day in the meantime, I’m coming up a bit short. Video is the main driver for now, but clearly I’d like to be gaming too.

Apollo 11 is more in the ‘experience’ box than the ‘game’ box, but what it does offer is something to spend an evening with, rather than just a slice of an evening. It’s a signpost to a VR future which simulates fantastic voyages, not simply hands-off lollygagging at something for a heartbeat. It’s also, like almost everything else I’ve tried, an all-too-able demonstration of current VR’s limitations, but I guess I’m starting to take that for granted now.

Note: I haven't yet played ADR1FT, which aims for a similarly long-term but rather more interactive take on VR spacefaring. Thus far it only supports Oculus Rift, and I don't own one, but a Vive version is due further down the line.

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Apollo 11 is intended to be a start-to-finish simulation of the first moon landing, mixing historical audio of Armstrong & Aldrin with both meticulously detailed recreations of the craft and devices they used and impossibly dramatic camera angles. It can be played in two different forms – in one, you’re just along for the ride, and though we’re talking hands-off lollygagging again, we’re talking a good couple of hours of it.

It’s a trip, not a mere sight. In the other, you get to perform basic and somewhat awkward interactions, such as lining up sights for lander coupling or shifting your astronaut across the surface of the moon to perform various diagnostic tests.

Honestly, the game stuff is just a bit irritating. It’s hampered not so much by VR but by the unsuitability of the Vive’s motion controllers to what we might call traditional games. Specifically, the large circular touchpad is used as something of a D-pad for movement, which feels squiffy both from a tactile point of view (pressing a shallow button or swiping a surface as opposed to pulling or pushing an analogue stick) and an in-game one.

I talked in my write-up of Valve’s The Lab about the discombobulation of moving forwards square-by-square as opposed to naturally in a reality you genuinely feel as though you’re inhabiting, and that’s no different on the moon, it turns out.

I like the Vive motion controllers a lot in terms of how they represent my hands in VR-land, but as a device for full-body movements I think some other form of controller is going to be necessary. A hybrid of the Vive controller’s motion wizardry and the hard’n’fast precision of an Xbox or PlayStation pad would be the ideal, I think.

In other words, this is not so much walking on the moon as jerkily stutter-shuffling across the moon. It’s not Apollo 11’s fault by any means, and indeed it does support other controllers including keyboard and mouse, but in terms of the Vive itself being an all-in-one answer to our every virtual reality prayer, I think the controller specifically is coming up short. Again though, the sheer precision of its gesture-based stuff is damned-near magical.

Back to the moon, anyway. Apollo 11 is broken into what one might call levels on a generous day, but more realistically are scenes. Beginning from the rocket preparing to lift-off, moving to experiencing that lift-off from the cockpit, as the Earth grows smaller behind you, into a dramatic third-person view of Apollo 11 as it crosses the great gulf of space, then landing on and exploring the moon itself.

The moon sections are the least impressive, which may partly be because there’s only so much modern technology can realistically do to make an infinite expanse of grey-brown sand appear interesting but more because it’s one area in which the graphics simply seem too rudimentary. Intricately-detailed rocketship dashboards yes, celestial bodies in the far distance yes, a landscape right beneath your feet not so much.

Honestly, the most spectacular moment was not getting boots on the ol’ grey egg, nor even was it the Gravity-esque third-person orbit around a vast and beautiful Earth, although that is a moment I recommend anyone who has a VR headset to try. It was simply standing in the cockpit of Apollo 11 as we departed the planet, stood next to glassy-eyed but life-size and convincingly present Buzz and Neil as they solemnly tinkered and monitored.

Consummate professionals, those guys, though clearly I can’t say for certain that they weren’t screaming ‘OH MY GOD WE’RE IN SPACE SPACE SPAAAAAAAAAAAAACE’ during the real thing. Point is, this was not some far-fetched melodrama but a glimpse at the extreme care and science involved in making human beings from the 1960s depart from the planet.

There are so many dials and levers and buttons. My main though was ‘how did they possibly remember which one’s which?’ My second thought was “I want to randomly press and flick all of them and see what happens.”

Perhaps mercifully, but certainly disappointingly, Apollo 11 does not allow this. I do look forwards to a future VR space mission simulation which invites disaster rather than recreation, though: plunging back towards Earth in a flaming tincan at 3000 miles per house seems like an entirely obvious use of the tech to me.

I really, really want to flick those dozens of switches though. I think I’d go for a VR game which was just about flicking switches and making lights turn on or ominous metallic sounds strike up.

And yes, I had the moments of awe, those quintessential VR beats where the enormity of what you’re seeing overwhelms the knowledge that you’re a flappy-handed goon with a black plastic shoebox on your face. It was less about the aforementioned external, great-scope-and-scale of space scenes though, and more about the simple act of looking out the window. I was in that little cabin, with all its tempting switches, with Neil and Buzz, and for the longest time there wasn’t much else to see. But suddenly I was aware of a light through the tiny window to my left.

So I leaned over to it, craned my head right up to it, and there was Earth. Somehow, Earth looked better when only fractionally glimpsed through a tiny window than it did when I could see all of it from a distant orbit. I realised VR had just nailed the feeling I got on my first few plane flights, watching through those tiny, shivering windows as we took off and landed, seeing the world transform from normality to vast-yet-tiny splendour and back again.

It is most pleasant to do that both at a galactic scale and without having to spend four hours at Bristol Airport first. I remain entirely on board with the concept of VR as tourism to places I could not otherwise visit. At one point I decided to step through the wall of the cockpit and stand in space, and it's fair to say my brain, already deeply confused by several weeks of VR, couldn't deal with it. I quietly stepped back into the cockpit. When VR works well, you absolutely behave as if real-world laws of physics apply.

As a ‘game’, well, I guess Apollo 11 isn’t answering any questions. As an often mesmerising and thrilling way to pass an evening, I’d point you at this long before I did the Vive’s headline acts such as The Lab and Job Simulator. That said, I am yet to try Fantastic Contraption, which is apparently the clear highlight in terms of Actually Doing Stuff.

Apollo 11 is out now on Steam.

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