Back in the days of STALKER and its two sequels, I felt like I was the only games hack who didn't get sent on a tour of Chernobyl and Pripyat. Those who did visit came back with reports of rain and health worries and mystery meats, then shared photographs of them smiling in front of a decaying Ferris wheel or looking sombre in a Marie Celeste classroom. Perhaps it is best that I never went myself. What a strange thing to be a tourist to. Is any possible response appropriate?
The Chernobyl VR Project, essentially finished but for the time being only available for Oculus Rift, with a more refined version due for both that and Vive a little later, gives me my chance to be a tourist, without the background anxiety about background radiation.
This is a sort of interactive, semi-sandbox documentary which mixes video, photography and realtime 3D rendering to recreate key parts of the post-meltdown Pripyat landscape. Some scenes allow you to move around as you like, others merely to move your head, and various forms of narration play regularly - as does a haunting, strange soundtrack. There is no story and no action - this is a chance to learn about the Chernobyl disaster, both before and after, and the socio-political climate of the USSR at the time.
The tone is muted and hysteria-free, whether mentioning the Soviet education system of the time or acknowledging conspiracy theories, though so much so that it veers between appropriate gravitas and the nagging sense that you're listening to a tour guide who has recited the same facts 20 times a day for the last decade. A gravelly voice-over as you explore an Unreal-powered, meticulous recreation of the abandoned school works very well and makes the reality of Chernobyl as engrossing as the science-fiction often hung around it, but being locked in place while a seemingly low-resolution video of a dour man tells you some facts about the amusement park feels more like watching grainy VHS tapes in history class than a virtual reality experience.
The tour guide segments aren't helped by the fact that he speaks quite loudly in Russian, while an English translator speaks over him, but more softly - and there's often that weird, ambient but spiking music playing too. It becomes hard to focus, and disorientating. Appropriate in a way to the ugly-beautiful ghost town environment, but I don't think deliberately so.
This speaks to the key wobble in what it is a hugely well-intentioned and often extremely impressive project, which is its inconsistent veering between different forms of presentation. Clearly, there is much to be said for seeing the real Chernobyl and Pripyat, as opposed to a 3D-accelerated rendering thereof, but the 360 video used for many of the segments looks so much worse than the Unreal-powered sections.
I used the phrase "seemingly low-resolution video" a couple of paragraphs above, and that is indeed what the sensation of watching it is like, but the truth is it would probably look perfectly decent on a monitor or TV. Blown up as large as it is by being pushed right against the eyes, it's sadly like watching phone footage from 2009, which rather undermines the 360 degree aspect of it. Higher-res VR video is possible and would have made a huge difference, but I accept entirely that the equipment costs to do that on a project of this scale would quickly become astronomical.
The entire endeavour would be much more effective were it entirely rendered in a game engine: the parts that are striking and highly-detailed, not the boxy shapes and plain surfaces of many VR Games, and as such would make an excellent showcase for your headset. It's a crushing disappointment that the iconic amusement park, with that Ferris wheel, is fixed-location video and photo-only, as compared to the magnificently haunting, freely-explorable rendering of the school, for instance, or the staggering view from atop the mysterious, almost alien edifice that is the Moscow Eye.
When it wants to be, it is one of the most technically-impressive VR titles I've yet tried, which makes the other side of it all the more disappointing. But again, I can well imagine that carefully recreating everything this way would be an unthinkably costly and time-consuming endeavour for a title which can only ever have niche appeal.
The result, sadly, is a deeply uneven experience, pinging wildly between hugely effective new-generation interactivity and something that isn't even the equal of watching a TV documentary about Chernobyl. I learned so much about an environment (and the politics thereof) I have visited several times in games and treated as a visually-remarkable playground for action and horror rather than as the scene of sadness and disaster, and it is without question a worthwhile experience. It's just that I'm so much more receptive to information when I'm simultaneously free to explore a crisp, believable 3D recreation of the place being discussed than I am when I'm rooted to the spot in a blurry wraparound video.
All that said, I do feel as though I know Pripyat a little more now - a place I have long known from STALKER and Call of Duty 4, but now seen without creeping menace or men with guns. It is remarkable how familiar much of it seems, because STALKER particularly did such a good job of building so much of it, but this is a chance to see it as it really is, not as a place with a monster around every corner.
It is not a place where something terrible is about to happen - it is instead a place near-abandoned after something terrible happened. A ghost town which stands as oddly timeless evidence of what that era of Soviet society sought to be and sought to portray itself as. History preserved in amber.
I'm sure that to visit Chernobyl in person would now involve trying to blot out the other packs of tourists and the bored looks in the eyes of the guides who have to usher more camera-wielding Westerners around the scene of national shame, and this certainly spares me that.
The Chernobyl VR Project is meaty and ambitious, and definitely sets a precedent for this sort of thing: armchair tourism taken to a whole new level, and especially valuable when it works hard, as this does, to educate as well as stimulate. The technical compromises are so great as to make its sad magic splutter frequently, although it might yet to be the case that the finished and also Vive-compatible version can amp things up a little. Even if it doesn't, the £10.99 price is very much right for what this is, and despite the stuttering presentation this is a hugely worthwhile experience.
The Early Access version of Chernobyl VR Project is out now on the Oculus Store, with a Vive version to follow in August.