It’s been a source of constant glee amongst Star Wars fans that, despite their status as the most fearsome warriors in the Galaxy, Stormtroopers would struggle to shoot fish in a barrel.  Suddenly we can see why. Their trademark E-11 blaster rifle is far more unwieldy than it looks, and frankly its piddly little scope is close to zero use in a close-range firefight.  Playing as a Stormtrooper will be familiar to anyone who’s played a Battlefront game, but what we had the chance to experience this week felt completely different.  Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire is a new virtual reality experience that’s setting up shop in London’s Westfield shopping centre for 12 weeks starting today.

The experience is a collaboration between LucasFilm, ILMxLAB and VR specialists The Void, and tells an original story set between Episode 3 and Rogue One.   But it almost feels as though calling it a VR experience sells it short, especially when the area has become so sullied over the years by mobile VR games and 360 videos masquerading as VR.  Secrets of the Empire, in contrast, pulls out all the stops in making you feel like an actual Stormtrooper.

For starters, each VR headset has a Leap Motion tracker built into the front of it, meaning that when you look at your hands and flex your fingers you can see their virtual counterparts doing the exact same thing in real time. This is coupled with the fact that you wear the computer powering the experience in a laser-quest like breastplate, which means you’re not tethered to a fixed point, allowing you to walk freely around The Void’s substantial physical play space, rather than using virtual locomotion.  Unlike most other VR games, it’s also a local multiplayer experience which you and up to three friends play through.

Combined with the head and hand tracking, this means you can look at your virtual companions and see them almost exactly as they are in real life. You can even hi-five each other physically, although the slight lag introduced by the Leap Motion means you’ll have to be careful with your aim.  At every turn there are more small details to discover, all of them subtly implemented in a way that betrays how expensive they must have been to include.

Your harness vibrates in specific locations if/when you get shot, the set blasts you with heat as you enter the experience’s lava-filled areas, and the whole location even vibrates as the virtual ship you’re running around starts to explode and fall apart.  LucasFilm’s Diana Williams is particularly fond of one moment where you’re encouraged to step on a patch of lava, and are rewarded with a satisfyingly squishy surface.  “That’s my favourite part,” she says, recalling how the team designed that segment of the attraction. “We had to have something squishy, so we went out and bought a bunch of stuff, and just started stepping on things to try to figure out what it felt like Read more from…

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