The hydraulic purr of the crossed S-foils. The scream of a Tie-Fighter inches from your cockpit. The dazzling blue of a jump to hyperspace.
There have been few moments in cinematic history to have simultaneously been both so out of reach and to have inspired so many dreams as the prospect of piloting your own X-Wing fighter. But now, thanks to the PlayStation VR headset and EA’s Star Wars Battlefront game, that dream, almost 40 years in the making, has become as close to reality as it’s ever likely to be.
Star Wars Battlefront: Rouge One - X-Wing VR Mission is not only the best virtual reality experience I’ve had, but one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever experienced - and I got married last weekend.
As a Star Wars super-fan, it’s only fair that I temper expectations a little at this point. After all, to sit “inside” a fully-realised X-Wing cockpit is to satisfy a decades-old wish for some Star Wars fanatics. But the experience built by the teams at EA and developer Criterion is more than just fan-service - it’s a great VR showcase in its own right.
The X-Wing VR Mission is, remarkably, a free-add on component for the hit first person shooter Star Wars Battlefront, exclusive to the PlayStation VR. At only 20 or so minutes long and covering just a single mission, you can understand why it’s being offered up free of charge - but the quality is so high that it could easily have justified a small price tag, and is a sure sign of things to come.
Red Five standing by...
The mission sees you become a member of the famed Rogue Squadron, the elite X-Wing fighter pilot fleet. Starting off in a serene Rebel convoy on the edge of a nebula, you’ll eventually make the jump to hyperspace to rescue the stars of the forthcoming Rogue One film from an asteroid belt - and an inevitable Empire attack.
Though it’s brief, the mission is jam-packed with memorable moments, felt all the more keenly thanks to your “presence” in the cockpit. Whether it’s an R2 unit fixing a frazzled hyperdrive or firing a proton torpedo into the bridge of a Star Destroyer, you’ll be joyously laughing like a giddy kid throughout.
There are Easter eggs littered liberally across the mission too. Though the controls more-or-less match Battlefront’s standard in-flight controls, VR tracking allows you to inspect the cockpit’s dashboard with a turn of the head. If a button lights up, you can push it with the X-button. See if you can find the one that controls the targeting module…
Developed primarily by Criterion, the team behind the Burnout racing series, the X-Wing handles like a dream in VR. Compared to the sim-like Eve VR games, Battlefront’s take on space combat is far more arcadey - and is all the more fun for it. Taking away roll controls may seem like sacrilege to a flight-sim veteran, but it allows you to soak up the Force-fuelled atmosphere without losing your head - or your lunch.
Between the X-Wing design itself and Criterion’s own VR knowledge, the experience is very clever in the way it presents the virtual world. The X-Wing itself helps in this respect -- with its elongated nose cone, you’ve always a fixed point through the windscreen with which to orientate yourself against the expanse of space. This, along with the carefully handled controls, prevents too many nauseous moments.
Not that it takes away the sense of death-defying speed. With free movement of your head separate from your ships bow, you can follow the speedy movement of an X-Wing as it zooms over your canopy, highlighting the fictional danger of the scene and also helping you to track the fast-moving target. That’s something that’s notoriously problematic in flight sims.
Along with the frenetic pace of the ships, it’s the sense of scale that’s most breathtaking - you get a real feel for the fragility of the X-Wing and Tie Fighters, as you sit cramped in the cockpit, and the immense power of the Empire as a view-filling Star Destroyer barrages into the fray.
Great shot kid...
As the mission draws to a close and John Williams iconic score swells, you’ll immediately want to jump straight back in for another round, with a degree of replayability afforded by the multiple challenges offered.
Short but oh-so-sweet, the VR X-Wing experience is obviously a set up for bigger virtual reality things to come from EA and Criterion. While it’s likely that it’ll be a VR segment of the already-announced Battlefront 2, due out next year, I’m hoping that it’ll in fact prove to be the revival of the long dormant standalone Star Wars space sim.
For while we’ve had countless third person games, strategy titles, platformers and even a bloody motion-sensing dance game, there hasn’t been a full Star Wars flight sim since 2003’s Star Wars: Rogue Squadron III - Rebel Assault.
This is despite the series being so perfectly suited to the genre, with its iconic ships and varied flight locations, as well as being home to some of the most well-loved flight sim games ever. 1994’s X-Wing: Tie Fighter in particular stands out as being particularly well realised and full of depth, letting you pilot a Dark Side fighter, while the original vector based Star Wars arcade machine was one of the most influential of its day.
It was a fine tradition that saw the heady heights of the Rogue Squadron games from the N64 through to the Nintendo Gamecube, until developer Factor 5 fell foul of an exclusivity deal with PlayStation and went bust.
But with renewed interest in the Star Wars universe fuelled by the latest movies (as if it ever really died down) and the VR technology finally able to realise the dream, the time is right for a Rogue Squadron revival.
The Force is strong with this one, and to have just a taste of a full game with multiple missions and craft like this is as tantalising as it is cruel. Do or do not, EA, there is no try.