I had the opportunity to try out the new location-based VR experience Alien: Descent today (Fox has been promoting April 26th as “Alien Day” for the past couple of years – 4/26 relates to the moon LV-426 where Ripley’s confrontation with the Xenomorphs begins).
It’s Not Perfect, But The Best LBE VR I’ve Tried
The experience and was conceptualized, funded, and created entirely by LA-based Pure Imagination Studios, with FoxNext partnering to provide the intellectual property and make sure the final experience would represent the Alien universe to Fox’s satisfaction. Alien: Descent makes “pragmatic” use of off-the-shelf equipment to provide an unencumbered free-roaming experience. This means that the Unreal Engine-powered experience runs off a Gear VR augmented with Optitrack trackers. Custom made trackers provide hand and foot tracking, and as you play an ill-fated space marine, you are equipped with a Striker VR rifle, which is also tracked.
It’s impossible not to compare Alien: Descent with The Void’s Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire (read my review here). The latter is far more polished, offering more characters with better character animation, a smoother onboarding experience, and higher graphical fidelity (with a longer development timeline and a bigger budget, that is hardly surprising). However, there is no doubt the Alien experience punches above its weight, and I think it ended up the superior of the two overall.
There are a few reasons for this: one is the decision to use Gear VR means that players are not encumbered with a heavy backpack, which makes the whole experience more comfortable, and also exposes more of your body to the environmental effects, which makes you feel more vulnerable and more immersed. Reliable foot tracking makes walking around much easier, because you can see your feet and they are where you expect them to be, so I felt a lot more comfortable moving from platform to platform. You also get a lot more freedom of movement than you do in the Void, which shuffles you from one small room to another broken up by a short catwalk. Here you get a fairly wide and large metal catwalk which you run back and forth along between two banks of “elevators”. There is also a horizontally moving platform at one point, so you cover a lot of ground in both axes during the 10 minutes of play time. The catwalk has railings which are physically there in real life so you can reach out and grab them to steady yourself.
Alien: Descent and Secrets of the Empire both support up to four players, but Alien: Descent segregates players into two pairs, and you don’t have the option to speak to the opposite pair. According to Pure Imagination, the decision was driven by the fact that their research indicates most customers will arrive as pairs to begin with. It would be nice if future iterations allowed the option for all four players to talk in case a larger group is going through the experience together.
Both experiences use Striker VR hardware for the weaponry. I stand by my previous complaint that the trigger feels squishy on the device. The difference is that Secrets of the Empire only allows use of the trigger, while Alien: Descent adds a grenade launcher and toggleable laser sight which offers more interactivity and choice. Unfortunately, Alien: Descent lacks the environmental controls that Secrets of the Empire offers. The weapon in Alien: Descent is also much heavier than in Secrets of the Empire which makes it feel more substantial and realistic.
One reason that Alien: Descent is more exciting than Secrets of the Empire is that the enemies get much closer to you. In the Star Wars experience, you mostly shoot at storm troopers way off in the distance, on another catwalk separated by a literal void of some sort, or in another room behind cover. The Xenomorphs and facehuggers lack ranged weapons of their own so they get up close and personal. There’s much more a sense of physical threat, and a lot more satisfaction in taking them down.
Using Gear VR as the platform will probably prove a controversial decision. Pure Imagination has wrung every ounce of power out of the recent Samsung phone’s Snapdragon processor, with an impressively detailed environment and an overwhelming number of Xenomorphs bearing down on you at one point. Unfortunately my device couldn’t keep up, mostly settling in at 30 fps and occasionally dropping below that mark. According to Pure Imagination’s Robert Taylor, in testing the experience ran consistently at 60 fps except in a few cases where too many Xenomorphs are on screen, so it likely came down to the phone throttling due to heat issues. Hopefully these issues will get wrung out as they get more experience running the installation post-launch.
Another problem with the Gear VR is that with the added weight of the tracking equipment, the straps were not adequate to keep the HMD in the sweet spot while I was moving around, so I had to adjust it a couple times and it took a long time to adjust the straps during setup. Having been thoroughly spoiled by the Vive Pro’s headband, I think they need to look into that aspect ASAP. The Void uses a custom helmet with a ratchet similar to the Vive Pro, which in turn is similar to a bicycle or safety helmet.
Position tracking is provided by OptiTrack, which it seems all of the major location based projects are using. As with The Void, the tracking is “swimmy”. It’s acceptable for a short experience, but not up to the latency standards of home-based VR. It probably doesn’t help that in the Gear VR’s case, tracking information has to be delivered wirelessly, adding network latency. None of the projects we’ve seen so far were started after Steam VR 2.0 tracking became available, and OptiTrack is still improving their product, having only recently started focusing on tracking for VR installations, so it’ll be interesting to see how tracking shakes out between the two systems when the next wave of experiences comes online. Wireless video solutions and off-the-shelf inside-out tracking are likely to significantly improve the situation.
Sound & Haptics Are Key
Alien: Descent offers some truly impressive positional audio effects aided by good noise-canceling headphones, as well as haptic feedback via the floor. When stepping onto a lift, you can feel the platform wobble. When platforms move, you feel them rumble, and most impressive of all, when a Xenomorph slams its claws into the platform you feel the impact. There are also wind and temperature effects.
The overall effect is one of overstimulation, and it drowns out a lot of the imperfections in the tracking and graphical fidelity. While I felt a little wobbly exiting the experience, I did not experience lasting simulation sickness. I’m fairly well acclimated to VR at this point, so I’m not the best judge as to whether comfort will be an issue for guests.
Is It Terrifying?
It’s not too bad. The experience is clearly modeled on James Cameron’s Aliens, with a focus on action over horror. Most people should make it through OK, but I could see those particularly creeped out by Xenomorphs or afraid of heights having difficultly. Guests can tap out at any time, and apparently a healthy percentage of the test subjects did just that. Overall they reached a pretty good balance, but it would be nice to see future iterations where guests could subject themselves to more or less intense versions of the experience.
For $22, the experience offers a solid entertainment value and if you’re near a location I highly recommend checking it out. It could be a good date, as long as your partner knows what they’re in for (e.g. they have watched Aliens), and you’re confident you won’t freak out and abandon them when a facehugger comes after you, because that’s unlikely to bode well for your relationship.