Editor’s Note: The attraction just opened today, January 5th, 2018, at Downtown Disney in Anaheim, CA. This hands-on is based on the London location.
For someone who counts holding a lightsaber and fixing droids among their favorite VR moments, Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire holds a lot to love. Standing over the lava pits of the fiery planet of Mustafar with three companions outfitted as Stormtroopers and feeling the heat of the surface climb up your neck is an incredible experience, though there are aspects of The Void’s latest location-based installation that also makes it difficult to forget where you really are.
Like The Void’s past work — which we’ve been hugely impressed with — Secrets of the Empire is a multi-person adventure that uses wireless VR technology to transport you to other realities. You slip on a large helmet with a headset embedded inside and a Leap motion hand-tracking sensor on the front, strap on a haptic feedback vest and march into a small room with up to three friends. There you’ll jump into VR to see your teammates transform into Stormtroopers. The virtual world around you is perfectly mapped to your real-world surroundings; seats are really there for you to rest on, doors can be walked through and eventually you’ll find blasters that can be picked up and fired.
Even for someone well-accustomed to home-based VR, Secrets of the Empire’s level of immersion is difficult to believe at first. Starting in a virtual loading room of sorts, you can’t help but gasp at the sight of your friends in iconic outfits, each of whom will be busy marveling at their hands moving inside VR with the help of the hand-tracking. It takes a certain degree of courage to step through open doors, but when you do you can’t help but be amazed that there’s another room waiting for you on the other side. The clunky VR kit weighing you down, meanwhile, actually helps convince you that you’re really wearing Stormtrooper armor.
The actual content is incredibly well made and sure to delight Star Wars fans of all levels. It draws from the Rouge One era — which is a little jarring after just walking out of The Last Jedi — but channels a lot of classic moments, like Han and Luke’s clumsy trek through the Death Star in their own Stormtrooper armor. Shooutouts over walkways and canyons keep a gleefully large smile on your face, especially when you get hit with blaster fire that is accurately represented on your vest (though, obviously, not painful in the slightest).
Experiencing all of this with others is just the icing on the cake. At one point the four of us are screaming to each other as we try and figure out what various buttons on a control panel are doing and then later calling out enemy positions as we desperately trade blaster fire. At times it can feel a little cramped; I was always concerned about walking into my teammates or tripping up over the restrained confines of the room you’re in, but with care, you can avoid any major catastrophes. It would also be nice to see some sort of scoring system based on your accuracy and health that might encourage repeat visits, but the experience is so much fun you’ll likely be tempted to go again anyway if you have the money (more on that in a bit).
That said, the deeper into the experience’s ~10 minute running time I got, the more cracks I started to notice. Leap’s hand tracking, for example, is far from perfect, especially when you grab a blaster and the system has difficulty telling if your free hand is holding the end of the weapon or actually being held out in front of you. I can’t help but wonder if using tracked gloves like ManusVR might be a more reliable (if less hygienic) alternative, especially seeing as your virtual avatars are wearing gloves you can’t feel in real life.
Far more damning, though, is how comfort holds up throughout the journey. With seemingly increasing regularity my VR headset froze for a split second, sometimes more than once over the course of five seconds, as I moved between positions. I couldn’t tell if this was an issue with tracking or system performance though I’ve spoken to others that encountered the same issue and others that haven’t and some of the former group said it left them feeling sick.
It was never enough to ruin the experience for me and I would forget about it just as soon as it happened, but at a hefty $29.95/£32.50 a ticket I frankly expected a smoother experience. At these prices I’d have a hard time convincing a lot of my friends to take a trip to experience Secrets of the Empire and the friction between experience and reality combined with the short running time might leave some feeling like they didn’t get their money’s worth. Given that I know a lot of people that would love to try it, that’s a real shame.
For die-hard Star Wars fans and VR enthusiasts, though, there’s absolutely a lot to love here. Secrets of the Empire is a tantalizing trip to a galaxy far, far away unlike any you’ve ever taken before, offering a glimpse of the kind of experience we might one day get to have in our homes whenever we please. For the less enthusiastic, though, it might be worth waiting until that future arrives.
Secrets of the Empire is showing near Disney parks in Orlando and Anaheim as well as the Westfield shopping center in Shepherd’s Bush, London (which seems like the only place that isn’t fully booked until the New Year). You can book tickets for a visit here. A Las Vegas location is also opening soon.