It’s silent out in space, I’m squeezed into the cockpit of a T-65 X-Wing Starfighter and my only company is a little red Astromech Droid who seems to feel the isolation as much as I do. Something has gone wrong, wherever we are, the fleet is somewhere else… Then in a sudden eruption of light and noise, rebel ships drop out of hyperspace around me. A Rebel Blockade Runner glides above, and I know I am back in the Star Wars Universe.
In reality I am playing the absurdly titled Star Wars Battlefront: Rogue One X-Wing VR Mission, a label that has obviously been passed through every marketing department at EA, Sony, LucasArts, and Disney, with each being allowed to shove another word in somewhere. Ostensibly a tie in to Rogue One, opening this month, we all know what the X-Wing VR Mission exists for. Sony needs to sell the VR headset and Star Wars is a bankable property these days. Throw in a dash of nostalgia and the promise that you’ll really feel like you’re flying an X-Wing, and the game sells itself. As a bonus, it’s free to anyone who already owned Star Wars Battlefront.
The mission itself is another short, guided experience that slots neatly between the more arcade style shooting of Call of Duty’s Jackal Mission, and the non-interactive, scripted experiences of Playstation VR Worlds. It’s narrative driven and totally focused on giving the player an authentic Star Wars adventure. While you have the freedom to roam around and check out classic ships from whatever angle you like, the mission progresses under a very tight set of circumstances that take you from navigating asteroids, to escorting a damaged ship, and finally to taking on a Star Destroyer. By the end you’ll enjoy a lot of authentic Star Wars moments along with a fully voiced and well written cast of peers, culminating in the familiar end music while you check your scores.
The ties to Rogue One are minimal, with one character from the film making his first appearance here, as well as a new ship, but for the most part this is about a rag-tag, anonymous flight of Rebel pilots doing what they do best. The story, such as it is, works well enough for the length of the mission, and creates a good sense of a wider conflict going on while the pilots themselves have good chemistry, with both voice actors representing the male and female player avatar doing an amazing job of capturing the player’s inner enthusiasm.
Gameplay is pretty strong too. This is just a first person equivalent of Battlefront’s third person dogfighting, but it works really well; gunning down Tie Fighters feels appropriately challenging but never impossible, and just flying around is a smooth and satisfying experience. During the asteroid sequence, weaving in and out of the belt is awe inspiring, as giant rocks threaten to crush your ship at any moment. Battlefront’s flight controls wouldn’t seem up to the challenge, but you always feel in control of the craft, even if your manoeuvrability options are limited. Everything is kept simple so you can focus on watching your squadmates duck and weave while sharing Rebel banter. It’s a nice atmosphere throughout.
Attention to detail seals the deal though, with every button in the X-Wing’s cockpit accurate and interactive, every ship you fly past looking practically film perfect. It draws you in so perfectly, even in places you don’t expect. The mission opens with an X-Wing sat in a VR hanger room surrounded by white space, should you speak during these scenes, the VR headset mic will take your voice and add an echo to the room’s ambient noise. Just one of the little ways the developers have tried to move your further into the game’s world, and utterly stunning the first time you hear it. So much of making VR work is about this little illusions that blur the line between your game and the real world, so every time you experience a new one, it’s a real pleasure.
If there are problems with the X-Wing VR Mission (besides the title) it’s more about the climate it has launched into. As much as I enjoyed the mission on its own merits, there’s still a feeling that this is too little to really sell anyone on a unit. It’s certainly fun, but it still requires a PS4, VR, Camera, and copy of Star Wars Battlefront to get through the door. It’s asking an awful lot for 20 minutes of gameplay. Worse still, if you own the VR, this is probably the third free (ish) cockpit shooting demo you’ve played in the last few months. With EVE Valkyrie’s demo and the Call of Duty Jackal Mission filling the same niché. X-Wing is the best of the lot, but it’s still an experience we’ve had a lot of right now, with only EVE Valkyrie offering a full length (though very pricey) title if you want it. What the X-Wing VR mission did the most was convince me we need a real VR Rogue Squadron game. This really feels like a mission straight out of Rogue Leader, with its jump in controls, and focus on set pieces and authentic feel, but as soon as you begin, it ends. If it had launched standalone alongside the headset, this would be the standout VR launch title, as it is, it feels like just one more all-t00-brief proof of concept, with nowhere to go once you’re sold on the idea.
At the end of the day though, the content is so good while it lasts that it just shines through those concerns. So far it’s the only piece of VR software that I’ve found myself returning to over and over again just to live in its world, and unlike some VR launch titles, it screams effort from the moment you put the headset on. Short lived or not, this is the kind of game VR was made for.